Olson feels armed, ready to close out the doubts

February 25, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

WEST PALM, BEACH, FLA — WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Gregg Olson snapped off a couple of decent curveballs the other day. He has taken his first tentative steps into the everyday routine of spring training, hoping against hope that he can prove that the Orioles -- and even a few of the orthopedists -- were wrong to underestimate him.

The Atlanta Braves stand to benefit tremendously if Olson can get back up to speed. He would be the full-time closer they have been seeking for the past several years, and he would be a bargain at the $2.5 million or so that he would earn in salary and bonuses if he helps them get back to the World Series this season.

He might have been just as valuable to the Orioles, but they were not willing to take the risk.

Olson says he has no hard feelings. He tried to bow out of Baltimore gracefully when it became apparent he wasn't going to re-sign. He even left open the possibility of coming back, but it is apparent there is a little more hurt than he'd like to let on.

"I don't want to sound bitter, because I'm not," Olson said. "There were just a couple of things that happened that I didn't think were right. They tried to make it look like Rick [Sutcliffe] and I were walking away, and we weren't. We were the ones who were shunned. They didn't want us back."

In Olson's case, that remains a matter for debate. The club made a modest offer before deciding not to tender him a contract on Dec. 20, but did not make any serious attempt to re-sign him after that. Olson negotiated with several clubs before accepting the one-year deal with the Braves two weeks ago.

That was the second of three painful slights that Olson now is willing to acknowledge. He took it hard when he was temporarily removed from the closer role last April ("I was still burning about it in July") and was shocked when the club allowed him to become a free agent. The final blow was the Orioles signing saves leader Lee Smith.

There also were a few things said along the way that didn't sit well, particularly a newspaper quote from an unnamed Orioles official who questioned how forthright Olson might be about his physical condition with a $1 million bonus hanging in the balance.

But there was still hope until the Orioles found a replacement.

"Once they signed Lee Smith, it was over," Olson said. "I wasn't coming back. That would have been like putting two gunfighters in a saloon together. It wouldn't have worked."

Sharing the late innings with Smith wouldn't have been all bad, but Olson wasn't interested in the possible long-term benefits of reduced workload. He wanted to come back in the same role he had held since his Rookie of the Year season in 1989.

"I didn't want my role to be diminished," he said. "If we had ever gotten into in-depth negotiations, there would have had to have been [assurances] everything would be normal."

It was just business, but it was hard not to take it personally. Olson averaged 32 saves a year in his five full seasons with the Orioles. He had never had a cross word with the front office. He was active in the community. He was a good soldier.

Now he is a Brave, but he has kept his house in Baltimore just in case.

"I still have it, yeah," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen here. It's too soon to go moving."

Braves officials remain cautiously optimistic. Olson has thrown three times since the opening of early workouts at West Palm Beach Stadium with no apparent problems.

"He says it doesn't hurt -- that's the key," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "He has thrown three straight days and he feels pretty good. That's encouraging, but the true test is when a guy goes out and tries to get a hitter out."

Braves manager Bobby Cox appears satisfied with the early indicators. Olson pitched three straight days and stepped up his velocity for the third workout. He has not reported any pain or shown any inclination to limit his activities.

"He has fallen right into the rotation with the other pitchers," Cox said. "He spun some good curveballs yesterday, but it's early. We're hoping that he'll get through."

The career numbers say Olson is well worth the gamble. He has more saves than any pitcher has had at age 27. He had 29 and a 1.60 ERA last year despite the elbow injury that held him to one appearance over the final two months of the season.

"I've seen him pitch," said Cox, almost wistfully. "He's pretty good, but we've got some other guys who can close games, too."

The upside is way up there, but the Braves have set themselves up for a potentially difficult decision. They guaranteed Olson $500,000 to sign and agreed to give him a lump-sum payment of $1 million if he is on the 25-man roster at any time during the 1994 season.

Perhaps the right course will be obvious by the time Opening Day approaches, but that $1 million bonus could become a source of friction between Olson and his new club.

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