Olerud quietly brings .400 chase into baseball's stretch run

August 03, 1993|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

There is nothing distinctive about the batter's stance. He doesn't crouch low or hold his hands exceedingly high as he stands at the plate awaiting the pitch. John Olerud doesn't wave the bat with special vigor or aim it in menacing fashion at the pitcher.

Indeed, the man expends so little energy at the moment of truth for a hitter he has been accused of being comatose. The perception lasts as long as it takes the pitch to arrive in the strike zone. Olerud's bat invariably is there to meet it and send it to distant parts of the ballpark.

For only the second time in 52 years, a major-league season entered the month of August with a .400 hitter in the ranks.

Olerud, the first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, has a .400 average after going 1-for-4 in last night's 4-0 Blue Jays victory in the first game of a critical four-game series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

"Everything's been going my way so far," he said in typically understated fashion.

Not since 1941 has a major-league hitter finished at .400 or better and, in the succeeding years, Ted Williams has been canonized for the feat. Olerud never has met Williams but they have a mutual friend in Bobby Doerr, Williams' former Boston Red Sox teammate and the man who scouted Olerud for the Blue Jays while he was playing for Washington State University. They talked at the All-Star Game in Baltimore last month.

"He said he had visited with Ted," Olerud recalled, "and he said he [Williams] liked the way I swung the bat. I've heard stories about Williams playing a doubleheader on the last day with .400 on the line. I haven't done any research on it or anything. Maybe in the off-season I'll look into it more."

For the record, Williams had six hits in eight at-bats in the final day of the 1941 season at Philadelphia, raising his average to .406. The upstart didn't have to think twice when a reporter asked if Olerud would ask to play on the final day if the division race were decided and he was at .400. "Oh, definitely," he said.

In the 52 years since Williams enjoyed his signature season, only 10 players (including Williams himself in 1948) have hit .400 or better after June 15. And only George Brett surpassed the mark in August. Brett, in fact, batted .400 as late as Sept. 19, 1980, before finishing at .390.

No one in contemporary times has flirted with .400 as often as Rod Carew. The man of a thousand stances hit .400 or better through June 15 in four different seasons. Larry Hisle, the Blue Jays' batting coach, was a teammate of Carew at Minnesota in the first three of those campaigns: 1974, 1975 and 1977.

"Rod was the master at getting base hits," Hisle recalled before last night's game. "But when you compare the extra-base hits, the home runs, the runs batted in, Carew wasn't able to match the numbers for this long."

Nor does Hisle connect Olerud's performance to Brett's 1980 season.

"I always felt until now that the best year I ever saw a hitter have was Joe Torre's 1969 season," the coach said. "That was my rookie year [with the Phillies]. He hit the ball so hard with such consistency."

Torre batted .363 en route to winning the National League MVP award that year, and did so without the benefit of a single leg hit. Olerud isn't as slow as Torre but he's no swifty, either.

"For someone to hit .400," Olerud said, "I think you'd have to beat out infield hits. I'm not going to beat out many infield hits."

In the place of scratch singles, Olerud has substituted booming doubles in the gap. His extra-base total may be every bit as amazing as his average for the first four months of the season. The left-handed hitter, who will celebrate his 25th birthday Thursday, already has exceeded his career high in homers with 20 and his 42 doubles put him on a pace to exceed 60 doubles, a figure unattained by any major-leaguer since Charlie Gehringer in 1936.

At the start of last night's play, Olerud led all hitters in total bases (249) and on-base percentage (.502). He also was first in the AL in slugging percentage (.690) and intentional walks (27).

"And yet I've never read nor heard him pat himself on the back," Hisle said. "Most players with those numbers would expect a ticker-tape parade, a candy bar named after them and the keys to the city. All John wants is his name in the lineup every day."

Olerud is a quiet young man who has to be prodded to talk about himself. Until this season, he was noted mostly for the batting helmet he wears even in the field, a precaution he has taken ever since suffering a brain aneurysm in January, 1989, while working out with his college team. He also is only one of 16 players since the institution of the amateur draft in 1965 to jump directly to the majors.

In three previous seasons with the Jays, Olerud failed to hit above .284. He also displayed only average power for a man listed at 6-5, 210 pounds.

"As recently as last year," Hisle said, "pitchers were concentrating on the inside part of the plate. They got him out almost at will. It was probably because he was such an excellent opposite-field hitter. He would take those pitches inside.

"I asked him to do me one favor. I said, 'I'd like you to consciously pull five, six balls in batting practice every day.' It was a natural evolution. Now it's gotten to the point where I hope they pitch him inside."

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