| Its St. Patricks Day. The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford, is making its annual television appearance. Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne, is a man whose behavior is gentlemanly, composed, collected, unruffled, and given to tranquility. Inside, however, beats the heart of a champion, a competitor, a warrior.
In some ways, its the John Olerud story. Those who know him describe him with words like quiet, soft-spoken, silent, unassuming, even bashful. A Toronto Blue Jays promotional commercial in the 90s was predicated on Bringing John out of his shell. Talk to him, and be prepared for conversation that is thoughtful, considered, and deliberate, with a split-second delay in his responses, as he weighs his words and chooses his reaction.
Oh, but then put a bat in his hands. He brings the same analytical approach to the plate, working the count in his favor, and then he strikes, the elegant left-handed swing swooshing across the plate, the ball rattling off the wall in right, kicking lime off the foul line in left, skipping through the hole at short, dancing up the middle.
For a man who seems to be the model of consistency, his career, and in some ways his life, has had its share of twists and turns.
Gifted as both a pitcher and a hitter, Olerud was drafted out of high school by the New York Mets. But he wasnt ready. I just wasnt that interested he says. I needed to do some growing up and going to college was a good way to do that. And, I figured if I couldnt make it in college, I couldnt make it in the pros.
He more than made it in college.
At Washington State University, John was Baseball Americas 1988 NCAA player of the year. His statistics were staggering, both as a pitcher and as a hitter. As a pitcher, he was 15-0 with a 2.49 ERA. At the plate, he hit .464 with 23 homeruns and over 80 RBI. He set WSU records for average, hits, home runs, total bases, slugging percentage, consecutive game hitting streak, victories, consecutive victories, innings pitched and strikeouts.
Not since Dave Winfield had a collegiate baseball player been so outstanding as both a hitter and a pitcher. Regarded as a slightly better hitter than pitcher, there were still scouts who thought he was a first-round pick based on his pitching alone.
John sat on top of the baseball world, poised for nothing but success.
But success was not to come without an obstacle.
It happened on January 11, 1989. John had collapsed while working out and was hospitalized. The diagnosis was a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a leaking of a blood vessel leading into the brain. It leaked just enough for the doctors to know something was wrong says John.
The surgery to remove the aneurysm was in February, and a couple months later, John was back on the ball field. I cant tell you how many people have told me about someone they know who had an aneurysm, and they had to learn to walk and talk all over again. I was right back doing what I excelled at. The only thing I had to do was rest and get my strength up.
Being back on the field so soon after such delicate surgery impacted Johns statistics. His junior year (1989) was not the equal of the prior year, when he had been named NCAA Player of the Year. I didnt have as good year he says. My hitting was good. My pitching was alright, but I wasnt 100%. I tried to steer teams away from drafting me.
Despite Johns health and diminished statistics, and his stated reluctance to be drafted, the Toronto Blue Jays made him their 3rd round pick. John told the Blue Jays they would have to make an offer he couldnt refuse. They did.
Not only did they meet Johns financial request, they also promised they would bring him up to the majors in September, to be part of the pennant race. They told me the next year I would spend half the year at AAA, and the other half in the bigs. There were just a lot of things in the offer that made it hard to turn down.
John played in the Alaska league during the summer of 1989, signed his contract with the Blue Jays, and was with the major league club during its pennant run that September.
He recalls his first hit with vivid detail. It was against Minnesota. We were getting killed, which is the only way I was going to get into the game. If the game would have been in question, during a pennant race, Im not going to get in.
I was up against German Gonzales. It was a 2-0 fastball in. I pulled a ground ball and Wally Backman dove for it, and it trickled off his glove.
Going up there I was scared to death. You feel numb. You have no feeling in your knees. The whole thing is a blur. Youre so charged, so excited you dont know if youre going to be able to execute.
To get that hit was such a thrill.
There would be so many more. Over 2000 more, with no end in sight.
The years with the Blue Jays were wonderful and distressing.
They began so well.
As one of only 16 players to reach the Major Leagues without ever playing in the minors, Johns first three years were tantalizing. Demonstrating enormous potential, he drew comparisons to other great left-handed batters Wally Joyner and Wade Boggs. His numbers were solid, if not spectacular
And then came 1993.
John was on fire.
Hitting .400 over the course of a season is an epic feat, and has not been accomplished since Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, did so in 1941, hitting .406.
Rod Carew, with the Minnesota Twins and George Brett, with the Kansas City Royals had flirted with the vaunted number a decade earlier.
It was May, and John Oleruds average was over .400. Then June, and still his average was above the hallowed line. Then July. In fact, as late as August 2nd of that 93 season, Johns average was a shade above .400
John finished that year hitting .363, with 24 homeruns and 107 RBI He also had 200 hits and over 100 walks, one of the few men in the modern era to accomplish both milestones in the same year.
All the potential had become realized. John was on top of the world. He had won a batting title, and the Blue Jays were the World Champion. He signed a big contract.
Then began the slide.
The next three years were mediocre, at least by Johns 1993 standards. By any other standards, they were good years. In 94, he hit .297 and in 95, 291. I started fast in 94, then slowly struggled. And in 95, I got off to a terrible start. I was hitting .247 at the All-Star break and rallied to get back to .291.
I had a bad start in 96, and then I was being platooned. It made for a miserable year.
Nobody likes to struggle. When I was hitting .400, people would ask me about the pressure could I keep it up?
Are you kidding? When youre hitting .400 everythings easy. Its fun to come to the ballpark. Its fun to hit the ball. Its easy. Everything is working.
The pressure comes when people expect you to hit .363, and youre hitting .200 in June and you dont see any light at the end of the tunnel.
You feel like youre letting people down. You feel like youre letting your teammates down. You want to do well. You want the respect of your peers. Thats pressure.
At the end of that year, John was traded to the New York Mets for Robert Person, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher whose best year came in 2001, winning 15 games for the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was a good trade at the time says John. The Blue Jays had Carlos Delgado coming up, and I wasnt hitting for average or power. It looked like I was on my way out of the game.
(Coming next Johns career is revitalized with the New York Mets, and he then faces a difficult decision)