Only Olson doesn't know he'll never be the same

March 07, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He still sees himself as he was in 1989, throwing that knee-buckling curve, freezing another hitter, celebrating another save. Gregg Olson clings to that memory. It's the reason he's now with his fifth major-league team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

He isn't the same, he'll never be the same, a torn elbow ligament having sent him into a downward spiral. Yet, humbling as the past two years have been, Olson still can't let go. He keeps making poor career moves, so desperate is he to return to a closer's role.

You can't fault him -- without that drive, he never would have become Rookie of the Year in '89 or an All-Star in '90. But Olson turns 30 in October. He's smart enough to regret his career path. Now, he needs to take the next step, and grasp that he's not a closer anymore, hasn't been since '93.

"In hindsight, I'd do a lot of things different," Olson said Tuesday, conceding for the first time that he never should have left Baltimore. "Every once in a while I look at the overall picture and say, 'I ought to retire.' And then you go back and glance at the little things, take 'em one by one, and you just keep going."

It's the oldest, saddest story in sports -- athlete shines, athlete fades, athlete tries to relive the past. This one is even more painful because of Olson's special place in Orioles history. He was the first in a series of No. 1 picks that revived the franchise. Now, he's just another pitcher in search of a job.

And some luck.

Olson signed as a free agent with the Indians last season, figuring Jose Mesa would never last as their closer. "You've got to assume Mesa was going to screw up the first couple of weeks," he reasoned, knowing the track record of his former Orioles teammate.

Instead, Mesa led the majors with 46 saves.

"Cost me half a year," Olson said.

The Indians sold his contract to Kansas City, and Olson pitched well for the Royals, going 3-3 with a 3.26 ERA and three saves. He said manager Bob Boone wanted him back, but then the Royals re-signed Jeff Montgomery. No chance to be a closer. Olson became a free agent again.

St. Louis looked promising, so he turned down an offer from Cincinnati, where the closer was Jeff Brantley. Olson signed with the Cardinals Jan. 23, then got hit by a double whammy. The Cardinals acquired Dennis Eckersley on Feb. 13. And now Brantley is out for six to eight weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot.

For all his misfortune, Olson remains as grounded as ever, displaying the same self-deprecating wit, invoking gallows humor. Jeff Moorad, his agent and brother-in-law, marvels at his perspective. Still, Olson needs to recognize that he still can make a nice living in this game without being a closer.

"There's no reason Gregg couldn't make this club with Eckersley," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "The key for him is going to be his health. I saw him in Kansas City last year, and he threw the ball well. There's room for both of them. Eck is not available as often as he used to be."

Setting up for Eck. Playing for a contender. Earning $600,000 if he makes the club. Life could be worse, especially considering that Olson threw fairly well last season. "He wasn't quite like the first couple of years, with that popping fastball and curveball that disappeared," La Russa said. "But it was above-average stuff."

In retrospect, perhaps Olson should have undergone reconstructive elbow surgery and started over, but that is one decision he does not regret. He knows now that his biggest mistake was leaving the Orioles. "They knew me," he said. "They would have gotten my mechanics squared away."

His contract dispute arose over -- what else? -- the condition of his elbow. The Orioles declined to offer him salary arbitration, and Moorad turned down their proposal of a $1 million guarantee plus $800,000 in incentives for the first 30 games. Olson wound up accepting a lesser guarantee from Atlanta. "I told him, 'This is the best place for you,' " former assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "I said, 'When you come back, we won't put as much pressure on you. We'll have some other people here to take the pressure off.' "

Olson, however, balked at the suggestion of a reduced role, fearing he'd be in a less competitive position when he became a free agent. That should have been the least of his worries, but it was a turbulent, emotional time, and no one knew what the future held.

"I wish the Orioles' situation had never changed," Moorad said. "To this day, I miss him in Baltimore. I miss seeing him in an Orioles uniform. But you can't rewrite history."

The Orioles had another chance to sign him last spring, but feared he wasn't ready. They could have taken another crack at him in the summer, but showed minimal interest. Olson still lives in Reisterstown, still plays basketball at Cal Ripken's house. That is his only link to the Orioles now.

Oh, if only he could return to '89.

"I feel like I'm back to where I was," Olson said. "But then, listening to people talk in the off-season, trying to get someplace I could close, everyone was like, 'You didn't look like your breaking ball was as good. You're not throwing as hard.' "

He isn't the same. He'll never be the same.

Everyone knows it but Gregg Olson.

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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