Now that Olerud has the required experience, he can concentrate on hitting .400

BASEBALL

June 27, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

Going into this season, John Olerud had a .269 career batting average, 47 home runs and 182 RBI in 394 major-league games. Those aren't numbers that suggest he would be flirting with the .400 mark near the halfway point of the season.

But anybody inclined to think the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman might be a fluke should examine another statistic -- perhaps the most significant of all. Olerud had only 1,278 at-bats in his professional career, all of them in the big leagues.

That is roughly the number of at-bats most baseball people feel is necessary before a hitter reaches the maturity stage. And those at-bats generally take place in the minor leagues.

Ex-Orioles manager Joe Altobelli was a believer in the theory.

"I don't think any hitter is completely ready [for the big leagues] until he's had about 1,500 at-bats," Altobelli said whenever he was asked to grade a young player.

"That's how long it usually takes just to get used to playing at the professional level."

Under those guidelines, Olerud should only now be arriving in the big leagues.

Instead he has three years of major-league experience, so he's way ahead of the game.

One person who's not surprised at Olerud's progress is Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who recognized early that Olerud had unique skills and wasn't afraid to write him into the lineup on a regular basis. And his rapid development is another tribute to general manager Pat Gillick and Toronto's astute player development department.

You might recall that Olerud was a third-round draft choice in 1989. That's the year the Orioles made Ben McDonald the first player picked in the draft. Under different circumstances, Olerud would have been a legitimate contender for that honor.

But during his junior year at Washington State, Olerud underwent rare brain surgery and was faced with the prospect of his career ending before it really started. Almost miraculously he returned in time to play most of that season, but the setback was such that he was deemed a medical risk at draft time.

His father, Dr. John Olerud, a noted surgeon and former minor-league player in the California Angels' system when Orioles general manager Roland Hemond was that club's farm director, informed every major-league club that his son would not consider offers until after he used his fourth year of college eligibility.

"Signability was the biggest reason he wasn't drafted early," said Baltimorean Joe Klein, who heads the Detroit Tigers' scouting department. "But there were also medical considerations."

Neither kept the Blue Jays from gambling a third-round pick on Olerud -- and they didn't pressure Olerud into signing until after the Orioles had reached a financial agreement with McDonald. At that point, Gillick stepped in and when his top offer was comparable with McDonald's, Olerud signed and reported directly to the Blue Jays.

He is one of a handful of players who has never played a day in the minor leagues -- and there has never been a day when he didn't look like he belonged in the big leagues. The odds against him hitting .400 are staggering -- in this or any other season -- but Olerud is a unique talent who is coming into his own. Those 1,278 at-bats provided him with his baseball education. Now his experience, as well as his ability, will come into play.

When Olerud's season-high 26-game hitting streak came to an end Wednesday, former teammate Jimmy Key got him out the first three times and Steve Howe got a game-ending #F double-play ball in the last at-bat.

"I'm not basking in any glory," Key said. "He's a friend of mine. I hope he hits .400 -- and they finish second."

Olerud, who is extremely low-keyed, conceded he was anxious in the game his streak ended. "I got a little greedy," he said, noting that he chased some pitches from Key that were out of the strike zone.

But he wasn't greedy enough to put a hit ahead of a sacrifice fly on his last at-bat, with the Blue Jays behind by a run and runners on first and third with one out.

"In that situation I'm trying to hit a fly ball -- it was more important to tie the game than get a hit," he said.

Instead he hit a grounder up the middle that looked like a single until shortstop Spike Owen made a leaping catch, came down with his foot on second base and threw to first, ending the game. "When he [Olerud] hit it, I thought, 'Uh, oh -- another hit up the middle,' " Howe said.

Wearing out his welcome

The trade of Gary Sheffield from the San Diego Padres to the Florida Marlins didn't surprise baseball people -- for two reasons. They know new general manager Randy Smith is continuing the fire sale started under orders of ownership by his predecessor, Joe McIlvaine.

But Sheffield's $3.11 million contract wasn't the only reason he was traded. Despite winning the National League batting title at the age of 24 last year, Sheffield already had worn out his welcome in San Diego, and there were surprisingly few bidders when he went on the auction block.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.