A gentleman and a slugger

Toronto first baseman John Olerud is a sweet-natured 22-year-old who talks softly but carries a big stick
April 14, 1991

A Toronto spring training game has ended in Dunedin, Fla., and Blue Jay first baseman John Olerud is working the home crowd along the third base line. Or, more accurately, the home crowd is working him. Signing, smiling, shaking and shrugging, he is wafted unsteadily toward the clubhouse on a sun-splashed wave of appreciation. Stretched out on a bullpen bench nearby, Toronto president Paul Beeston marvels at Olerud down the barrel of his unlit cigar. "John's so modest," Beeston says, "if he hit a home run, he'd apologize for losing the ball. You know, I shouldn't say this, because I don't want to put any pressure on him, but you look at him and wonder if that's what Lou Gehrig was like."

There's a thought. Imagine the strong, silent Gehrig, played by Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, making a quantum leap into the mewling, mercenary major leagues of today. Young Lou would find the idea of an agent as foreign as the feel of double knits; he would be seen reading hardback novels in the clubhouse; he would look up to his peers and his parents, and down on no one. He would sign autographs for hours and for free and make self-effacing comments like "You can't really tell, but I lift weights now" and "I do go to the racetrack, but I usually end up feeding the dogs."

O.K. so far. Now fiddle a bit with some particulars. Make him 6'5" and 215 pounds of arms and legs, with sparse whiskers, wide blue eyes and a voice full of twangy earnestness. Give him a left arm blessed with astounding accuracy and a lefthanded stroke so fundamentally sound that the Yanks' modern-day Iron Horse, Don Mattingly, studied the swing to help pull himself out of a batting slump last season. Ask him as a 22-year-old entering his second full big league season to replace a first baseman who averaged 35 homers for Toronto over the last three years, and hear him say, "Geez, I'm just glad to be alive to have this opportunity." There it is. John Garrett Olerud.

Olerud is a refreshing anachronism with remarkable skills. Like Columbia Lou, he learned his trade in college. As a sophomore at Washington State in 1988 he was named College Player of the Year by Baseball America after he batted .464 with 23 homers and 81 RBIs—and went 15-0 with a 2.49 ERA as a starting pitcher. Olerud's junior season was delayed by a life-threatening operation to repair an aneurysm at the base of his brain—no big deal, right?—after which he played 27 games for the Cougars before signing with Toronto as a third-round pick for an unheard of $1 million. He joined the Blue Jays in September 1989 and went 3 for 8 in the heat of a pennant race. That fall he toiled in the Instructional League, where he pitched as well as hit. The Jays ultimately decided to keep Olerud off the mound. Rotisserie League commissioners collectively sighed in relief.

Last season, as Toronto's part-time designated hitter and occasional first baseman, Olerud batted .265 (.342 against lefties) with 14 homers and 48 RBIs in only 358 at bats. When he was hitting .298 on June 26, he was considered a Rookie of the Year candidate by everyone but himself. "Oh, no, I'm not a player," he said. "Just a DH."

To give him a full-time job at first base, Toronto sent slugger Fred McGriff to the San Diego Padres along with shortstop Tony Fernandez for outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar. The move leaves Olerud as the Jays' lone every-day lefthanded stick. "If we were going with a guy a little bit hyper or a little bit volatile emotionally, you might worry you'd gotten yourself into a spot," says Toronto vice-president Pat Gillick. "But that isn't the case."

Indeed, at a spring physical, one nurse measured his resting heartbeat and screamed it out to another in disbelief. It was 44. A longtime family friend back in Bellevue, Wash., describes Olerud as "just north of comatose." He's like some fantastic creature from one of the sci-fi page-turners he's fond of reading: The Ballplayer Embarrassed by Attention. "For a kid of John's age, he has a tremendous amount of polish," says veteran Toronto infielder Rance Mulliniks. "He's humble and he's gracious and he listens to advice. The sad truth is, if most young people had the same success John has, you couldn't stand to be around them."

The laconic Gary Cooper might actually have had to tone down his act to do Olerud. "He's an exception, all right," says Carter. "Guys will tell you things about Oly, but I make it a point to talk to him every time I see him and try to get more than one or two words out of him. The other day, I got two whole sentences. It's not that he won't talk to you; he's just not going to be the one to start."

Olerud's Lou-ish left-handed stroke seems almost an extension of his character: easy, even and seamless. He also has preternatural patience and discipline. Recalls Toronto manager Cito Gaston, "The first day he took batting practice, right out of college, every middle to outside pitch he took to left, every inside pitch he pulled, and everything he hit was a line drive. Guys who have played 10 years can't do that."

Olerud, of course, offers a different evaluation. "Sometimes I get looking too much for one particular pitch," he says, "and I don't react to what's thrown. If I fault in one direction, it's usually being too tentative."

The role model for Olerud's makeup and manner is his father. John Everett Olerud was raised on Norwegian dishes like lefser and lutefisk in Lisbon, N.Dak., as well as a steady diet of baseball; his uncle Ilef Olerud is a fabled North Dakota amateur ballplayer and a member of the state's amateur baseball hall of fame. After making All-America as a catcher at Washington State, John Sr. played several minor league seasons at the Triple A level in the '60s. But he never made the majors because he couldn't put enough Norwegian wood on the ball.

The elder Oly persevered in other venues. In his off-seasons he went to the University of Washington medical school, graduated while he was still in baseball, and became a dermatologist after he gave up the game. "After all he's accomplished," says his son, "I don't see how you could respect a guy more."

But John has gifts his dad didn't: a natural swing and a knack for making maximum contact with a baseball bat. In one of his first practices as a freshman at Washington State, John powered a pitch deep over the centerfield fence. Suspecting him of some unseen, Schwarzeneggerian strength, the coaches waited for him to dazzle them with pull-ups after practice. John couldn't even do two.

"Little Oly looks kind of pale sitting on the bench, but then he'll jump up when it's his turn and hit one out of the park like it was nothing," says Washington State coach Bobo Brayton. "He's got great coordination. My god! He just barely swings and the ball jumps. But he also has great command of the game and of himself. When he pitched, I'd go out to the mound if he was in trouble and say, it's not your slider or fastball that's going to do the job. The best thing you've got going for you is John Olerud.' "

Like Gehrig, Olerud faced the prospect of a prime cut cruelly short. In the winter before his junior season he began to suffer brief, 15-second episodes of severe pain in his head. Then while jogging to get ready for the team's timed mile run, he blacked out. At first, tests ruled out tumors, viruses and infection, and X-rays didn't show an aneurysm—a blood-filled sac that forms on a swollen blood vessel. But a colleague of Dr. Olerud's at the University of Washington Medical Center suggested John be X-rayed at other angles. John, ready to start the season in Pullman, reluctantly flew to Seattle for further observation.

"The guy brings out the X-ray, and I go, 'There it is,' " recalls John. "You didn't have to be a brain surgeon to pick it out."

Had the aneurysm not been detected, there was a 50% chance it would have ruptured and killed him. On Feb. 27, 1989, John Sr. and his wife, Lynda, drove to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with their son, who prepared for brain surgery by flipping through the sports pages. While his dad had given him the ultimate in parental reassurance by telling him he was in the hands of H. Richard Winn, "the Ozzie Smith of neurosurgeons," the operation was not without peril. Doctors would be working not only near the optic nerve but also around the brain's frontal lobe, which influences personality.

The surgery took six hours. "When I got out and could see well with both eyes and move my arms and legs, I thought I'd be O.K.," says John. His folks stayed on the lookout for changes in John's demeanor. He passed an early test when he agreed to pose for two pictures with his dad gripping the sutured left side of his skull like a pitcher, one with the seams, the other across them. "It was still the same John," Lynda says. "Everything's on an even keel with him."

The experience, however, deepened his perspective. Says John, "You go through something like that, and then something goes wrong, something stupid you'd normally get upset about, and you can say, 'This is an inconvenience, but I'm lucky to be here to experience this inconvenience.' " The area around his left temple has a baseball-sized dent, and to protect his head from further damage he wears a batting helmet in the field as well as at the plate.

Seven weeks after the operation Olerud was back in the Cougar lineup. Though 20 pounds lighter and wobble-legged, he wound up his junior season with a 3-2 record and a .359 average. He finished the regular season with a flourish against Gonzaga, tossing a five-hitter and mashing two homers in a doubleheader.

He reported to the Alaska League, where he went 8-1 and hit .405. The Jays, meanwhile, convinced by medical reports that Olerud's repaired aneurysm would not hinder his play, had scout Don Welke follow him over a 16-game stretch. It wasn't until the 10th game that Welke saw Olerud swing and miss.

With a senior season still to come, however, Oly was a dicey draft choice in June 1989, considering the Oleruds' longstanding tics to Washington State (Lynda is also an alum) and John's interest in graduating (he had a 3.2 average in a course load heavy with math and science). But Gillick, who once persuaded Danny Ainge (later of the NBA) and Jay Schroeder (later of the NFL) to join the organization, had smooth-talked the family like an agent—something John didn't have. Gillick made nine trips to the West Coast—once carrying flowers—and everyone from team CEO Peter Hardy to team doctor Ron Taylor, a former New York Met, put in cameo appearances.

"They're not the type of people you can make a hard sell on, because they have to trust you," says Gillick of the Oleruds. "I wanted it to be like going with a girl, where you don't have to ask her to get married. It's just the next thing that's supposed to happen."

On top of the lavish contract, which included a $300,000 signing bonus, Gillick tossed a shrewd $25,000 donation in John's name to the neurosurgery department at Harborview. Ultimately, though, the Jays were probably able to tie the knot because they could give Olerud something his dad never had: a major league uniform. Six days after signing, Little Oly was in the bigs. "It was practically a religious experience watching him in Toronto that first day of batting practice," recalls the senior Olerud. "The Skydome opened up right when he started hitting, with the light streaming down." Now showing: Lou Gehrig Meets The Natural.

Right off, the Jays projected Olerud as a hitter, but they gave him a chance to pitch as well. His control was impressive in his Instructional League stints, but his mid-80's fastball wasn't quite compelling enough for him to merit split duty. "They never really said what their plans were," says John. "I just came to spring training last year ready to do either. When they called the pitchers to a meeting, I stayed with the hitters. I figured if they wanted me to pitch, they'd call me over. When they didn't, that was sort of a hint."

But Gillick still refuses to rule out Olerud becoming Olerud and going both ways. "You never know," Gillick says. "Oly's got moxie."

Moxie—the sort of old-timey word you don't hear much anymore. Toronto is depending on Olerud to exhibit just that this season, when he will be freighted with the burdens of being an RBI man. Is Little Oly up to the pressure? "The pressure is that you have this great opportunity to do what you've always wanted," he says. "But then you think, What would happen if I totally bombed? I'd still be around. I could do something else I enjoy. It's not the end of the world."

That, in a genuine nutshell, is John Olerud. The pride of the Blue Jays.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONSINCE HIS BRAIN SURGERY, OLERUD TAKES CARE TO WEAR A HELMET EVEN WHEN HE'S NOT BATTING PHOTORICH FRISHMANJOHN SR. IS A CATCHER-TURNED-DOCTOR-TURNED-COACH PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONONCE A TWO-WAY TERROR, OLY HAS DITCHED THE PITCHING

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)