Olson gets firmer hold on his career

Ken Rosenthal

January 16, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken is an elite athlete who reached new heights by rededicating himself to his craft. Reliever Gregg Olson is following the same path, and don't be surprised if he enjoys a similar revival in 1992.

Like Ripken, Olson recognized a disturbing trend, then addressed it. His decline was not as prolonged as Ripken's. His resurgence won't be as dramatic. Still, the parallels are unmistakable.

Both Ripken and Olson are quality performers even in off years, but for the great ones that's never enough. Olson is not yet great -- this is only his fourth season -- but he's already very good, and now seems capable of rising to the next level.

Why the January hype? One, because Olson is correcting his major flaw, holding runners on base. Two, because he's adopting a more realistic approach to his role as the Orioles' closer -- learning to stay within himself, Ripken might say.

Olson is only 25, but in three seasons he endured a wide range of emotions -- the rush of a pennant race in 1989, the uncertainty of arm trouble in '90, the malaise of losing in '91. The game never gets easier. But experience always helps.

Thus, it's astonishing Olson already has 95 career saves. This season he should become the youngest pitcher in major-league history ever to reach 100. Indeed, only Dennis Eckersley, Bobby Thigpen, Lee Smith and Bryan Harvey have more saves since the start of '89.

Yet for all that, Olson was disappointed last season when he finished 4-6 with a 3.18 ERA and 31 saves in 39 opportunities -- the lowest percentage (.795) of his major-league career.

Relievers' statistics often are misleading, but Olson was disturbed by his inconsistency. It would have helped if the

Orioles provided regular save opportunities. But speaking yesterday after a workout at Memorial Stadium, Olson blamed only himself.

"It was a snowball effect," he said. "I was putting pressure on myself to do the job because there weren't very many chances. Then, when I didn't do it, I'd say, 'Well, I can't blow any more saves.' That's damn near impossible. But I kept doing that to myself."

To fully appreciate how Olson drove himself crazy, just examine the bizarre disparity in his statistics from day and night games. In day games he was 0-5 with five blown saves in 12 chances and a 7.08 ERA. In night games he was 4-1 with two blown saves in 26 chances and a 1.69 ERA.

If anything, Olson probably should have had better statistics in the daytime, when the bright sun and occasional shadows would make his 90-mph fastball and devastating curve more difficult to hit. But don't try to apply logic or assign explanations. The problem was in Olson's head.

"I would say, 'I hate day games, I hate day games,' " Olson said. "By the end of the year, on a Sunday day game, I'd be hiding in the back of the bullpen. I did all this to myself. I'd say, 'One bad outing in a day game, now I hate day games. One bad outing in a dome, now I hate domes.'

"It got ridiculous. I was superstitious about everything by the end of the year. I couldn't pitch in the daytime, couldn't pitch in a dome, couldn't pitch on a travel day. That pretty much covered everything but night games at home. By the end of the year, I was a mess."

Sound familiar? Ripken never described his mental anguish in such vivid terms, but his frustration in 1990 ran so deep, he thought his career might reach a premature end. He, too, wrestled with the burden of trying to excel on a losing team.

Ripken sought batting instruction from former manager Frank Robinson as the first step in his recovery process. Olson is far less confused overall, but last October he went to the Florida Instructional League, knowing he must finally improve at holding runners on base.

It sounds like a small thing, but Olson estimates the problem has cost him at least five to six saves the past three years -- including one in Toronto the final weekend of the '89 season, the game that culminated with his famous wild pitch and haunts him to this day.

He spent one week in Florida with new pitching coach Dick Bosman, trying to reduce his leg kick and quicken his motion. He also developed better pickoff moves, and is especially pleased with his pivot to second. "My mouth dropped open when I saw it," manager John Oates said.

Olson said his tighter delivery out of the stretch should result in better control with no loss of velocity. The trick now is for him to become comfortable with the motion, but Bosman said with additional work in spring training, "I'm very confident there will be no problem."

That's reassuring, for Olson's opponents last year stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, and frequently took big leads to get the jump on an extra base. What took him so long to correct the problem? It's not something he could address at midseason. And for one reason or another, he was always distracted in spring training.

So, one year removed from the All-Star Game, he went to the Instructional League. He then began playing catch and lifting weights in mid-November, increasing his time on the Stairmaster from 20 to 45 minutes. The baby fat from his rookie year is long gone.

Sounds like Ripken.

Sounds like a great one.

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