Olerud has a sweet young swing for a ripe old mark Toronto first baseman courts a .400 season

June 30, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Steve Hirdt, Elias Sports Bureau.Staff Writer

Joe Carter would have predicted months ago that Toronto teammate John Olerud would be making a charge at a .400 batting average this late in the season, if anyone had bothered to ask.

Sure, the glorified theories about weight distribution, positioning the hands on the bat or pitch selection might all apply to Olerud, the Blue Jays' first baseman. But so might Carter's thesis.

"He got married last winter. That's it. I'm serious," Carter said with a loud laugh the other night.

But when Olerud, a .269 career hitter going into this season, sits down and thinks about what has propelled him to one of the most serious challenges to the hallowed .400 mark in 10 years, he agrees with Carter.

"The only thing that is real different is that I got married this winter," said Olerud, 24. "If this is what married life does to you, I should have gotten married three years ago. That's what Joe keeps telling me."

OK, there is a little more to Olerud's .405 batting average than just a walk down the aisle.

But to hear him tell it, there's no magical formula behind his torrid run at history other than that he is swinging at pitches earlier in the count, rather than taking them and falling behind.

"There's nothing really major," said Olerud, whose average has dipped below .400 only once this month. "In spring training, I made a few minor adjustments. I moved off the plate and moved my hands closer to my body. Just a few little things. I've been around the league a few years. I know what pitchers are trying to do to me a little better."

While the minor adjustments might help explain his recent 26-game hitting streak -- the longest this season in the majors -- there is a larger reason for Olerud's success.

Those around him every day say his unwavering, simple approach to the game keeps him centered and focused.

And while nobody will say for certain that Olerud will be the first player to finish at .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, several Blue Jays will say that his down-to-earth nature makes what he has done to this point seem entirely plausible.

"He's a super kid," Toronto manager Cito Gaston said. "You would hope, getting away from the ballplayer side of it, that your son would grow up to be just like this young man."

Carter said: "In this game, you could go up the first day and hit four home runs, go out the next day and strike out four times and go from hero to goat. If you talk to him today, you can't tell whether he had three or four hits and drove in four runs or if he struck out four times. He's the same. That's very rare in a young guy."

Olerud is a rarity, a player who went straight to the majors from college without spending a day in the minors.

Baseball observers say Olerud has a "sweet swing," like Williams had. Paul Molitor, who joined the Blue Jays this year after 15 years with Milwaukee, is one of the game's most observant players. He has watched Olerud closely.

"There's a reason it's a sweet swing," Molitor said.

"First off, from the fan's perspective, it's a sweet swing because it looks so effortless. It's not forced. Basically, it's not an over-swing. It has fluidity to it. It's just very graceful, and it's amazing how a ball jumps off a guy's bat who doesn't swing very hard.

"For me, it's a sweet swing because he does technical things," Molitor added. "He keeps his head behind the ball, he keeps his hands inside the ball and his balance is tremendous. He never panics. With his experience now of three years in the big leagues, combined with the ability he's been given and the mechanics we talk about, bingo, you've got a miracle season going on."

Which, of course, raises the question of whether Olerud -- or Colorado's Andres Galarraga, who was batting .411 after last night's 6-4 loss to Atlanta -- can sustain a .400 average for the remainder of the season. To do so, either of them must collect at least two hits for every five at-bats, a feat that has proven to be easier said than done.

Ask George Brett. The Royals legend took the .400 challenge in 1980 and appeared to be on target to join Williams, but faltered down the stretch to end up with a .390 average.

Through a Royals publicist, Brett said yesterday that Olerud has two advantages working for him that might help him reach .400: his lefty swing and playing at SkyDome, a hitter's park.

But as Brett and California's Rod Carew -- who was hitting .413 in late June 1983 -- discovered, .400 is more often a mirage than a reality.

Olerud going to hit .400?," Orioles manager Johnny Oates asked. "If I were a betting man, I'd bet against it. Everybody's going to be trying to beat him. They [the Blue Jays] are the big boys right now. If [shortstop Tony] Fernandez stays hot, that will help him. But I'll tell you what: hitting fifth in that lineup, you'd never let him beat you, or at least you'd try not to anyway."

If specialized relief pitching, coast-to-coast travel, and the vagaries of the season were the only factors involved in keeping Olerud from .400, he might have a chance.

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