Olson closes out game, but not boos BTC


April 20, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The ninth wasn't just an inning yesterday. It was a novel.

So it goes for Gregg Olson these days. His every pitch wrenches every heart in the room. Every time.

Yesterday, he came on in the ninth with the Orioles up a run on Detroit. The new ballpark was filled to the bricks again.

Olson used to arrive to cheers. Now there are boos, too. Now everyone says this: "Oh boy. Here we go."

He hears them boo. Senses their fear.

"I wish I could say I didn't," he said.

He gets booed now for the same reason he gets criticized on the talk shows.

Because he isn't perfect.

Because he slipped a little in 1991 after establishing himself as one of baseball's best closers before his 25th birthday.

He was still among the best last year, with 31 saves on a team that won only 67. But he blew eight save tries and four ties, and lost some valuable items.

Lost his confidence. Lost his authority on the mound.

"I'd give up a hit and go, 'Uh oh, here here we go again,' " he said.

You could see it. The hitters could see it. The fans could see it.

Now the fans are letting him have it. It's wrong. Ridiculous. He's among the best, even in a down year. But there it is.

"I used to listen to the talk shows, but I can't now," he said. "It used to be fun to see where they traded me. But now it's, 'OK, here's the Olson Talk Show.' I started to listen driving home [Saturday], but the first five calls were about me. I'm going, 'Wow, what did I do?' I turned it off. I wish I could say it didn't bother me."

The root of the problem is that Olson is a ragged closer. He rarely has a 1-2-3 ninth. He throws 20 pitches, not five. There often is tension. Sudden silence.

It was that way in 1989 and 1990, but he had the magic of escape. He lost a little of it last year, and when he lost it again in Toronto last week, a new current of fears and boos swept in.

"I don't think people understand the role," he said. "You have to be perfect or you fail. And no one is perfect. It's not a real fun job. And I'm 25. People forget that. I guess I'm supposed to be some veteran who has been doing this 15 years."

Last week in Boston he went out after a game and ran into the Red Sox's Jeff Reardon, second on the career saves list.

"It was nice to be able to ask someone, 'Is what I'm thinking normal?' " Olson said. "He told me he could save 10 straight, blow one and get booed for weeks. It was nice to know you're not alone."

He saved a game in Boston, but it didn't stop the palpable uneasiness from arriving with him yesterday. Cecil Fielder hit his third pitch for a single. He went 3-0 on Mickey Tettleton. Boos. More rustling.

You felt like covering your eyes. Not watching. Not listening. You knew Olson's heart was as wrenched as anyone's. You knew his stomach was roiling.

This thoughtful, friendly kid out there with all this baggage on his back . . .

A novel, not an inning.

"It'd be easier on my heart if Gregg went 1-2-3," manager Johnny Oates said. "But if his heart can take it, mine can."

All hearts were tested yesterday. Olson got Tettleton to ground out, then walked Tony Phillips. Up came Rob Deer, a power hitter. The big ballpark was as quiet as a spring rain on your lawn.

Olson started throwing sinkerballs. It is a new pitch for him, added because he had only a fastball and curve and Oates felt hitters had figured him out. Don't swing at the curve. Wait on the fastball.

He rained sinkers on Deer, went 2-2 in the count and got the strikeout.

Then, after two more sinkers to Travis Fryman, he came back with two enormous, bending curves. Old reliable.

Strike two. Strike three. Back to perfect, for a day at least. All cheers, no boos. The Great Unwrenching.

"The sinker got the save," he said.

He is still learning the pitch. "It needs to get better," Oates said. "But he needed something new. The league had adjusted to him. He needed to adjust back."

So, he is adjusting. To hitters. To talk shows. To living with boos. It's wrong. Ridiculous. But there it is.

"It's a new year and I feel good," he said. "I can't help what people say. But I know I'm throwing more consistently."

He was sitting with an ice pack on his elbow. Someone asked if he would listen to the talk shows on the way home.

He thought for a moment. "They're probably mad I walked a guy and gave up a hit," he said. "I know they were booing when I went 2-0 on Mickey."

He gave a short laugh. He knew this save would stop neither the boos nor the rustling. He knows that may never stop.

He knows his is a job for a loony tune. But there it is.

"I think I'll turn on the CD player instead," he said, "and just rock out all the way home."

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