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High School store

Olerud tries to become a two-way player

By Jim Callis
November 25, 1989

Gene Tenace walks from the practice diamond toward field No. 2 at the Cecil P. Englebert Recreational Complex, shaking his head.

"Pitcher. First baseman. DH," he says, addressing the lanky lefthander warming up in the bullpen along his route. "I don't know how you do it."

A few minutes later, John Olerud has finished his warmup tosses. He, too, journeys to field No. 2, waiting to pitch batting practice. He passes time by juggling two baseballs in one hand.

Soon he takes the mound to throw to outfielder Mark "Hard-Hittin' " Whiten. He coordinates his entire 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame in a beautiful motion, as smooth as butter, tossing strike after strike. He works rapidly, delivering as many pitches as he can.

One darts inside, moving Whiten off the plate. "Sorry, Whit," Olerud quickly apologizes.

"Don't be sorry," says Mel Queen, the de facto coordinator of Toronto's instructional league camp while Bobby Mattick attends the World Series, from behind the batting cage. "He's got to learn to jump back from that pitch."

Olerud continues until Whiten's allotted 10 minute elapse. He sits in the shade of the first-base dugout, escaping the punishing sun. After the next hitter finishes, he puts on a batting helmet and steps into the batter's box.

Aaron Small struggles to find his control, so Olerud struggles to find consistency. Tenace, a batting coach, offers some advice, and when the ball comes within reach, Olerud goes to work.

The crack of his bat sounds like a loud cap gun as he smokes a double to center field. He turns on the next offering, unleashing a powerful swing from the left side, as compact as his pitching motion: double to right-center. If Small puts the ball over the plate, Olerud cracks a line drive.

For now, the Blue Jays can wait. They have the luxury of time, at least until next spring, before having to decide whether Olerud will best serve them as a hitter, pitcher or both.

To John Olerud, this matters little. Six months ago, hitting and pitching weren't a concern.

Life and death were.

Like father, like son

Olerud has played baseball for as long as anyone can remember. The California Angels drafted his father John in the fourth round in 1965, and little John, born three years later, grew up in minor league cities like El Paso and Tulsa.

"Every kid wants to be like his dad or her mom," Olerud says. "My dad played baseball, and I wanted to be a ballplayer, too. I liked it. When I was a little kid, all you had to do to entertain me was give me a ball to throw around and bounce off things."

At age 3, he already had learned to hit Wiffle balls. Everywhere father and son went, so did a bat and ball. In spring training, crowds would gather to see this little guy with the good stick.

His father voluntarily retired after spending the 1971 season at Triple-A Winnipeg as a backup catcher. Having recently completed medical school, he decided to make medicine his career.

He kept involved in baseball by coaching his son every step of the way, from Little League until he entered Interlake High in Bellevue, Wash., and thereafter in American Legion ball.

"It was a mutual love," says Dr. Olerud, now an associate professor of medicine (dermatology) at the University of Washington, "something we both liked doing a lot. It was a good way to spend time with my son. Even if it didn't work out, it was still time well spent."

From experience, Dr. Olerud gained a good working knowledge of baseball fundamentals, but won't take credit for his son's picture-perfect mechanics. He would correct obvious flaws, though he says, "John always had very nice actions."

"On my swings, he gave me things to think about, like rocking my hands back and throwing the bat through the ball," John says. "Pitching, he just gave me basics and let me do the rest. If something was wrong, we'd correct that. He's one of the reasons I'm the player I am today."

Dr. Olerud stressed the mental aspects of the game, and would discuss situational baseball with John. He didn't want his son to ruin his arm by throwing curveballs at a young age, so he taught John a changeup as early as Little League. Initially, John doubted it would work, but once he fooled his first batter, he fell in love with the changeup.

Today, he says it's his best pitch.

Grew up at WSU

The New York Mets drafted Olerud in the 27th round after he graduated from Interlake in 1986, but he had no desire to sign. He figured he needed to go to college and do some growing up.

He narrowed his choices to three schools: Stanford, Washington, and Washington State. He and his father listed the things important to him, and graded each school. Washington State, his parents' alma mater, won.

"The main thing Washington State gave me was the opportunity to pitch and hit and play first base," he says. "They have a great baseball tradition, and Coach Brayton is a great coach. It was far enough away so I was close to home but wouldn't be going home every weekend."

So Bobo Brayton landed a 6-foot-4, 190-pound teenager who could do one pull-up and two bar dips, and a cheering section of relatives that Brayton would nickname the O-Zone.

Gangly or not, Olerud could pitch. He finished 8-2, 3.00 to earn Freshman All-America honors. Brayton taught him how to handle the inside pitch, and he hit .414-5-20 in 58 at-bats.

Brayton, who's coached for 28 years, knows talent when he sees it, so he handed Olerud the first-base job in 1988. Good move. He put together perhaps the best two-way season in NCAA history, becoming the first college player in win 15 games and hit 20 home runs in the same season.

He broke or tied 12 Cougar records, including batting average (.464), home runs (23), RBIs (81), hits (108), total bases (204) and slugging percentage (.876) as a hitter, and wins (15) and strikeouts (113) as a pitcher. On the mound, he went 15-0, 2.49, including two wins in the West I Regional. Baseball America named him College Player of the Year. Twenty-three years after his father made All-America teams for Washington State, Olerud did the same.

Brayton says there's no question Olerud is the best player in the history of college baseball in the Northwest. But what struck him even more was how well Olerud meshed with his teammates.

"Oly's got a great personality," he says. "The greatest thing he's got going for him is John Olerud."

Ask anyone about Olerud, and they'll tell you he's a great player in the first sentence and a great guy in the next. He makes nice look nasty. When someone calls him an All-American kid, you feel good about being an American.

"It was hard for me when I was coaching not to refer to John Olerud with other kids," Brayton says. "But there was never any jealousy here. Everyone was pulling for Oly regardless of all the press and stuff. With his personality, everyone pulls for him.

"As one of my pitchers said, 'Oly's just better than us.' "

A sudden collapse

Olerud wasn't extended an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic team because it had a glut of first basemen, a fact he accepted. He played summer ball in Alaska, and last fall began preparing for a junior season that could make him the first choice in the June 1989 draft.

In December, during a workout, he had an intense headache for about 30 seconds. The next week, the same thing happened, but he shook it off and didn't mention it to anyone. On the morning of Jan. 11, the headache returned while Olerud jogged around Hollingberry Fieldhouse.

When Dr. Olerud received a phone call from Steve Cox, a college teammate now working at the WSU student health center, he wasn't alarmed. He figured Cox wanted to discuss a case, or ask about a cold John had.

Instead, Cox told him John had collapsed, and hadn't regained full consciousness after an hour. Dr. Olerud quickly scheduled a flight and arrived at Washington State three hours later.

"It was quite a shock," he says. "You have three hours to think of a lot of things that would cause a 20-year-old to have a grand mal seizure, and they're not too good. You think of brain tumors."

John remembers nothing of that day except waking up and participating in early-morning workouts. Doctors diagnosed a subarachnoid hemorrhage, bleeding into the spinal column from a vessel leading to the brain.

John spent two weeks at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, lying flat on his back in a darkened room. He lost 20 pounds. Doctors feared any stimulation would cause another hemorrhage.

"The likeliness of a rebleed in two weeks is 50 percent," Dr. Olerud says, "and if you have a rebleed, you die 70 percent of the time. His chance of dying was one in three. Those aren't the kind of odds you like to have."

Serious surgery

Doctors ran several tests on Olerud, turning up nothing to dispute the original diagnosis. After two more weeks of rest, he returned to school in early February and hoped to play again by mid-March.

While John resumed workouts, his father kept looking for answers. When your son's life is concerned, you don't cut corners. As a precaution, he had Dr. Richard Winn, the head of neurosurgery at the University of Washington, check out John's records.

Winn decided to examine John himself, and took special brain X-rays at different angles from the originals. On Feb. 24, he discovered an aneurysm, a swelling of a weakened wall of artery, at the base of John's brain. The aneurysm, about the size of a raisin, had caused the collapse.

He faced six hours of surgery near his optic nerve, and a mistake could cost him his eyesight. The artery with the aneurysm controlled most of the blood flow to the right side of his brain, and had to be held by a clip during the operation. If the artery went into spasms, John could suffer a massive stroke.

"He couldn't have been in better hands," Dr. Olerud says, "and the odds of risk because of that were very low. But until you know it’s OK, it's fixed, his eyes work, his hands and feet work, his mind functions, you worry. You think about all these things."

Returns in seven weeks

Dr. Winn emerged from the Harborview Medical Center operating room Feb. 27, and told a large contingent from the O-Zone that the surgery was successful. They gave him a standing ovation.

Olerud faced a long road back. Doctors cut a window in the side of his head to gain access to the aneurysm, and wired the bone back in, leaving a vulnerable area. He still wears a helmet on the field at all times.

As a precaution while dealing with an elite athlete, doctors ran tubes into his neck and ankles to lessen the possibility of damaging his left arm or hands, which would ruin his career. Olerud came through surgery fine, but it left him very weak.

He spent five days in Harborview, then went home and didn't return to school for three weeks. Four weeks after that, on April 15, he made his season debut at WSU's Bailey Field, going 0-for-4 without getting the ball out of the infield against Portland State.

Playing at what he considered 80 percent of his normal strength, Olerud hit .359-5-30 in 78 at-bats, and went 3-2, 6.68 on the mound. He clinched the Pacific-10 North title with a win over Gonzaga, and earned all-league honors as a DH.

"It was never really a concern of mine," he says of returning for the latter half of the season. "As long as I made it through the surgery, it was OK."

Despite his comeback, Olerud and his family decided he should drop out of the June draft and return to Washington State for his senior year. He might have been the second overall pick if he hadn't told teams not to take him.

"You can't imagine the number of clubs that called before the draft," Dr. Olerud says. "Everyone thought we were playing some kind of game when he said he wasn't going to sign, like it was a bargaining position. It was a very honest position. He wasn't going to sign."

Toronto gambled and spent its third-round pick on John, just in case he changed his mind. He had said it would take a ridiculous offer for him to sign, and the Blue Jays' tentative offer of more than $200,000 and a start in Double-A didn't qualify as ridiculous.

A historic bonus

Olerud spent the summer in the Alaska League, and did well enough for the Palouse Empire Cougars that he won Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year Award. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays played their cards right.

General manager Pat Gillick met with the Oleruds seven times, not to exert pressure to sign but to monitor John's progress. The family met several members of the organization, from president Paul Beeston to team doctor Ron Taylor. Scout Don Welke spent two weeks in Alaska, charting every pitch thrown by or to John.

Satisfied with his health and performance, Toronto made its first firm offer in early August. The proposal, about $400,000, would have been the highest bonus in baseball history if accepted. John declined, and the Blue Jays persisted. At one point, they asked him what it would take, and he responded that he really wanted to return to school.

On Aug. 19, Ben McDonald, the first pick in the draft, signed with Baltimore for an unprecedented $825,000, including a three-year, guaranteed major league contract, plus incentives. A week later, almost six months to the day after the aneurysm was removed, Olerud agreed to a similar pact with Toronto.

The Oleruds say the money didn't make the deal, though the lifetime security certainly didn't hurt. They placed more importance on signing with an organization they knew and trusted, and on the opportunity for John to play immediately in the big leagues.

"It was tough, it really was," John says. Thirty-two credits shy of a general-studies degree, he plans to return to WSU to complete it. "I had made the decision to go back. I was going to school, and looking forward to it. I have a lot of love and respect for coach Brayton."

Brayton took the departure hard, but says he wants what's best for John Olerud.

"It's like losing three All-Americans at once: an All-American at pitcher, an All-American at DH and an All-American at first base. You lose those guys, it really hurts . . . I'm glad he just didn't go for a road map and a tank of gas."

Quick initiation

Things happened so fast that Olerud says he hasn't had time to spend any of his bonus money. When major league rosters expanded Sept. 1, he joined the Blue Jays in the midst of their dogfight with the Orioles.

His first big league at-bat came two days later against Minnesota righthander German Gonzalez. Admittedly nervous, he grounded a 2-0 fastball past second baseman Wally Backman for a single.

"I wasn't putting any pressure on myself," says Olerud, who used a wood bat for the first time. "But it makes you feel like you passed a test. Everyone's watching you take batting practice, but no one knows what you can do.

"It wasn't real fancy, but it was a base hit. No one can say, 'Geez, what's this guy doing up here.' "

Olerud tried not to distract anyone from the American League East race. On Sept. 29, he got a chance to decide it.

In the 160th game of the season, a win over Baltimore would clinch a tie for the division title. Olerud entered as a defensive replacement in the ninth, and batted against relief ace Gregg Olson with runners on second and third in the 10th.

"That was a big boost in confidence to me, that they'd put me in a situation like that," he says. "I was surprised because I felt pretty confident going up there. I knew I'd get a fastball to hit with George Bell on deck. He wasn't going to screw around with me. I'm always confident if I get a good pitch to hit, I can put it in play."

He got a fastball and hit a fly ball, not deep enough to score a run. Toronto won 2-1 in 11 innings, after which manager Cito Gaston said: "I thought he could win the game for us. I have confidence in John."

When the Blue Jays won the division the next day, Olerud stopped worrying about staying out of everybody's way.

"I took advantage of the situation," he says, smiling sheepishly. "You always watch teams clinching the pennant and everything that goes on in the clubhouse. It's the first time I was there live, and I was able to participate. I loved it. You can't get away with pouring champagne on those guys in any other situation."

He started the season finale and went 2-for-4 to finish at 3-for-8, a .375 average. And while he realized a dream by reaching the major leagues, it may have meant more to his father.

"It was an incredible experience to see him in a major league uniform," Dr. Olerud says, "having him complete something I never did. It was a real thrill for me. It was almost a religious experience, sitting in the SkyDome with him taking batting practice."

Footsteps of the Babe

At the press conference announcing Olerud's signing, Gillick said, "Nothing's a cinch, but he's as close to a cinch as there is." He also predicted Olerud would stay with the Blue Jays next season.

Whether Olerud concentrates on hitting or pitching, or becomes the first player to do both on a regular basis since Babe Ruth in 1919, depends on what Toronto wants. Blue Jays instructors think he has the skills to play two ways.

Gene Tenace says Olerud the hitter reminds him a little of George Brett.

"Brett uses the whole field and has a lot of natural ability and great mechanics. You just don't see that in young hitters. (Olerud) has good poise, and he's very selective. That's what you teach young kids, and he's already got it."

Tenace says Olerud could hit in the major leagues today. As a pitcher, he's a little farther off.

"He might need to quicken his slider a little bit," Mel Queen says, "and get his fastball a little more sink. But he's thrown batting practice three times, like he's a 10-year pro in the big leagues. Nothing but strikes.

"He throws in the mid-80s, so he's not overpowering. He's a control-type pitcher. Everyone looks for the 90-mile-an-hour pitchers they like to have, but you look at major league staffs and most of those guys throw in the mid-80s. His fastball has enough velocity for him to pitch in the big leagues."

And, Dr. Olerud adds, John gained speed on his fastball every year until this one, when he never really got in shape. He thinks John still could develop into a power pitcher.

With hard work, John figures he can regain all his strength before spring training, and plans a heavy weight-lifting regimen for the offseason. He's regained the 20 pounds he lost in January, but says, "I'm more pouchy."

He says it's unrealistic to believe he can play two positions in professional baseball, let alone the major leagues. Remember, though, modesty is an Olerud strong suit.

"I think the Blue Jays think of me more as a hitter," he says. "They've let me throw down here in instructional league to see how things go. We're not ruling anything out just yet . . .

"If I had to pick, I'd say hitting. I really like to hit. It would be tough to watch batting practice and not get to hit."

Nine months ago, John Olerud faced the possibility of never hitting again. Now, anything seems possible.

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