Fu Manchu is no sub for Olson's razor curve


March 13, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It isn't that Gregg Olson can't scare hitters. I've seen his curveball when it should have been on the cover of a Stephen King novel.

But, sometimes the curveball doesn't work. You saw that happen on a semi- regular basis last season. You also saw Olson sporting a Clint-Eastwood-in-the- early-years stubble. It didn't help.

Successful relievers don't have to look intimidating -- Dan Quisenberry could have passed for a Sunday school teacher -- but Olson isn't taking that chance. If you look mean, you feel mean. If you feel mean, well, you know what I mean.

"The idea," Olson was saying from behind a beard, a mustache and some other special effects from the Mr. Hyde collection, "is to look nasty. Goose Gossage was real nasty looking. Of course, he could also throw it 98 miles an hour."

Olson can't decide whether to keep the beard, or maybe just part of the beard. He may go Fu Manchu. It's spring. It's time to experiment.

"My wife wants it all off," he said.

But if looking nasty brings back the Big Nasty, as the Olson curveball used to be known, Jill Olson probably won't mind. Actually, Olson insists the curveball is fine, and the fastball is fine, and his arm is fine, and that everything that went wrong last season was all in his head.

He can work on his game face because he's already finished with his head.

"I think I know what happened," Olson said. "I took too many things to heart. I got caught up in a lot of superstition that I turned into truth.

"Like there was the day-night thing. I had a bad day game, and suddenly it was like I couldn't pitch in day games. That's how I'd go out there thinking. It all snowballed. I convinced myself I couldn't pitch in domes. A Sunday day game in a dome was a nightmare."

In day games last season, he was 0-5 with seven saves in 12 chances and an ugly 7.08 ERA. At night, he was 4-1, with 24 saves in 27 tries and a 1.69 ERA. No wonder he was looking for horseshoes.

But during the off-season, Olson sat down with himself and discussed the situation. And he says he learned a lot.

"Last year, I kept looking for one thing that would switch things back to the way they were," Olson said. "I finally figured out it wasn't any one thing. There were a lot of things. There was some bad luck. I would get caught up in things. The game is just a game, and you go out there and you pitch."

Maybe it is that easy. Olson came to the Orioles as your basic phenom, showing a curveball that threatened to redefine the term "unhittable" and a fastball over 90. He has spent a career being the youngest reliever to hit virtually every save mark. His 95 saves are 20 more than anyone had reached before his 25th birthday.

So, what happened last season? He blew a career-high eight saves in 39 chances. It wasn't terrible, unless you were Gregg Olson or one of the other elite relievers. His percentage was ninth among league pitchers with 20 or more save opportunities, and Olson is unused to finishing ninth in anything.

People watching him weren't used to seeing him get hit, either. They'd seen him throw 41 consecutive shutout innings. And so, the whispering began. The curveball was short. He'd lost some quickness. Maybe he pitched too much too soon.

Try these theories out on Olson, and he gives you a look. It's not quite a scowl.

"My curveball is not short," he said. "My fastball is not short. I know that in the first two years I locked some guys on the curveball, but now people know to look for it. I've got two pitches, and you don't have to be that smart to figure out that you've got a 50-50 chance of seeing the curve. If I threw a 3-0 hook, I guarantee I would freeze some people."

Some remain unconvinced. He pitched here yesterday and looked a lot like the Olson of last season. Coming in with two on and two out in the eighth, he walked one batter before retiring the side. In the ninth, he walked two batters and seemed like he was 3-and-2 on everyone.

But he got the last out on a curveball strikeout, which had to make him happy. It was a day game, and nobody scored, which had to make him happy, too.

Not that any of it matters. Olson has never been a great spring pitcher. His manager says all he cares about is that Olson is healthy. The pitching coach, also unconcerned, is working with him on holding runners.

The truth is that a so-so Olson was still one of best things the Orioles had going last year. It was the starting staff that really frightened people, if unintentionally.

The big news in spring is that through seven games, the starters' ERA is 1.00. And the real hope is that the Orioles could put together a team where it might matter what kind of year Olson has.

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