When game's on the line, Orioles call on a stopper

IT'S OLSON TIME

February 28, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was not the best time or place to be questioning your existence, but Gregg Olson couldn't help himself. He remembers standing on the mound at Fenway Park in the ninth inning of a one-run game last year and wondering -- if only for an instant -- if he had made a poor career choice.

The Red Sox were trying to help him reach that conclusion. There were runners all over the place, and the count was full. The sellout crowd was screaming for blood as power-hitting out

fielder Tom Brunansky stepped back into the box. It was the kind of situation that is made for a reliever like Olson, but it was at that moment that he wondered if he was made for that kind of situation.

"It was like 3-2 on Brunansky," Olson recalls. "I was one pitch away from walking in the tying run. I was catching a breather, and I look over into the dugout and I see [Mike] Mussina, and he's just sitting there. There are 35,000 people chanting 'Bru-no, Bru-no,' and he's sitting there like nothing's happening. I'm thinking to myself that there has got to be an easier way to make a living."

It was more of a split-second observation than a serious career crisis. Olson had no real desire to trade places with Mussina, but that visual snapshot provided another illustration of just how specialized -- and pressurized -- the late-relief role had become.

Consider the starting pitcher: Mussina went 18-5 last year. He was the winning pitcher in barely 56 percent of the games he started, but his first full season in the major leagues was considered an unqualified success.

Consider the short reliever: Olson went 36-8 in save opportunities last year (82 percent), and the talk show types were wondering what was wrong with him.

"I go out there, and the fans expect me to do a good job," Mussina said, "but they don't expect me to win every time. He goes out there to close, and they want him to close. It makes it tougher. Maybe that's why his hair is falling out."

It is simply a matter of different expectations.

The starter is judged by a numerical standard. If he wins close to 20 games, he is a success by anyone's measure.

The reliever may be judged on the bulk of his work once the season is over, but the individual failures are much more traumatic -- perhaps because they usually involve turning a potential victory into a painful defeat.

Olson did close out that game in Boston, by the way. He retired Brunansky on a long fly ball to record his 25th save and went on to put up respectable season statistics. The Orioles never have had reason to regret the career path he took after he became the club's first-round draft choice in 1988, but his teammates and coaches still wonder how he does it.

"I don't know why anybody in their right mind would want to be a bullpen stopper," manager Johnny Oates said.

"That's like being the guy on the SWAT team that defuses bombs. Why would anyone want to do that. If you defuse the bomb, it's no big deal, but if you don't . . .

"You can't win as a short reliever. You never enjoy your work. There is nothing but pressure. I wouldn't want that job. There isn't another job I would like less."

But there isn't another pitcher he values more. The importance ++ of the bullpen -- and particularly the stopper -- has grown tremendously during the past 20 years. The late-relief role gained particular prominence in the 1970s, when Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky were among the most recognizable figures in the game. The stopper role has been refined to the point of near perfection by Oakland Athletics right-hander Dennis Eckersley.

It is every other stopper's misfortune to be a contemporary of Eckersley, who has been almost automatic the past five years, but Olson seems to enjoy the challenge.

"He's got a great attitude about it," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "He handles it well. He relishes the role. It takes a unique kind of guy to be as resilient as he is. He has a good tolerance

for pain. He's a gamer."

Olson has ranked among the league save leaders in each of his four major-league seasons. He might have the best curveball in the league. He is recognized as one of the most overpowering relievers in the game. What's not to like?

"I still think that I could handle the downside of this game a little better," he said.

"I've gotten better at not taking a bad game home with me and bringing it back to the ballpark the next day, but I think I can do better this year."

There have been a couple of well-publicized blowups during the past couple of years, but they were noteworthy because of Olson's otherwise mild-mannered personality. He is anything but menacing off the field, yet there is enough of an inner rage to keep opposing hitters from getting too comfortable at the plate.

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