For Olson, identity crisis isn't in the cards

Ken Rosenthal

October 22, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Surely another career crisis awaits Atlanta Braves catcher Greg Olson, but for proof he's evolving into a household name, consider the mass confusion pervading the American sporting public.

Fans last year sent Olson baseball cards they wanted signed by his Baltimore namesake, Orioles reliever Gregg Olson. But this year each player received cards intended for the other. Some fans, taking no chances, enclosed both.

"They'll send two of mine and two of him, like we're the same person," the Orioles' Olson said from Baltimore yesterday. "It's kind of funny. I don't know what people are thinking. I haven't figured it out yet."

The mix-up can only be a good sign for the Single G Olson. He'll probably never be a star like Double G, but he shined in the NL West pennant race and continues to do so in the postseason. Pretty soon, he might even start getting the right mail.

As it stands, his outlook is improving, both on and off the field. "I got some of his cards this year, but not quite as many as last year," Single G said before Game 2 of the World Series. "I keep them. I've got quite a collection of Gregg 'Double G' Olson cars."

Double G, 25, said he usually signs his own cards and returns those reflecting mistaken identity. Naturally, he's a big fan of Single G, who is 31. The two met at last year's All-Star Game in Chicago, where they posed together for photographers.

"You've got to watch what he's doing," explained Double G, who recently returned from the Florida Instructional League after finishing the season 4-6 with 31 saves and a 3.28 ERA. "He comes on the TV and you hear your name. You just kind of perk up."

The amazing thing is, no one expected to hear Single G's name too often this season. The Braves signed new-look free agent Mike Heath to a two-year, $1.9 million contract last winter. All-Star or not, Single G was reduced to a $185,000 backup. Both he and Heath bat right.

Actually, it could have been worse, considering Single G entered 1990 with only two major-league at-bats in eight pro seasons. But after all those years in the minors, he's suddenly catching breaks: Heath went down for the season July 13 with bone chips in his right elbow.

Single G took over and played all but two innings in a 32-game stretch from Sept. 1-Oct. 5. He wound up hitting .241 with six homers and 44 RBIs, and was downright remarkable in the clutch, batting .373 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

Manager Bobby Cox finally rested him the last game of the season, the day after the Braves clinched the NL West. Olson then went 8-for-24 (.333) against Pittsburgh in the National League playoffs. His eighth-inning double earned the Braves their 1-0 victory in Game 6.

"When I took over, I heard we needed a catcher," said John Schuerholz, Atlanta's first-year general manager. "Olson made a believer out of me. When Heath got hurt he jumped in here and took the job over and got better. He took advantage of the situation."

With no bitterness, Olson said, "I would have thought I had a pretty good chance at being the No. 1 catcher. But I don't let things like that bother me. I just go out and do the best I can. I knew Mike would get a lot of playing time, but Bobby said I'd still get some. I didn't make waves."

He started the season 15-for-31, just happy to be there, just happy to fill a role. After all, he only made the Braves last season when Phil Lombardi retired and John Russell refused a minor-league assignment. He only started playing when veterans Jody Davis and Ernie Whitt faltered.

It was one thing making the All-Star Game as a 29-year-old rookie who signed as a minor-league free agent. But this World Series has been something else. Olson is from Edina, Minn., 12 miles northeast of the Metrodome. He spent the weekend at home, sleeping in his very own waterbed.

The Braves lost the first two games, but Olson was 2-for-7 with a double and walk. He attended every Twins home game in the '87 series as a spectator, and made his major-league debut with the hometown team in '89. But all that's behind him, now that he's a mini-celebrity.

Single G is keeping a diary for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and on Sunday a CBS camera crew followed him to his local church. Olson said, "After they left my pastor said, 'I know my message was powerful, but I was a little nervous with them here.' "

CBS obviously recognizes a great story, and so do the Braves. "He defies all odds," pitcher John Smoltz said. "He keeps on ticking. He survives." Single G better watch out, or fans will stop sending him Double G's cards. It's the logical next step, don't you think?

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