This was the most recent exciting time in Mariner history but there have been many others.
Even though we Mariner fans have had only scarce moments of being involved in exciting pennant races, tight playoff games, and thrilling victories over the last 5,000 +games it has still been worth it. There have been many great scenes that I saw live either at the park or on television. One of my favorites was the standing ovation given for Northwest native, John Olerud. But first some background and reminders of just how good and sometimes great this quiet, stoic guy was during his career.
John played his college ball thirty miles north of me at Washington State University where he was a star hitter and noted pitcher. He ended up there after being drafted out of Interlake High School at Seattle by the New York Mets in 1986. He declined their offer and enrolled at WSU to play for legendary coach Bobo Bryant. Olerud, during his 1987-89 career, hit .434 with 37 doubles, 33 home runs, and 131 RBI. He was also a pitching wizard going 26-4 on the mound with a 3.17 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 39 career appearances.
In 1988 he had one of the greatest all-around seasons in college baseball history and was named the Baseball America NCAA Player of the Year. Hit .464, scored 83 runs, had 21 doubles, 3 triples, 23 home runs, 81 RBI and a .876 slugging percentage. On the bump he was 15-0 with a 2.49 ERA. I became interested and followed him closely especially after he collapsed from a seizure after an early 1989 January workout on campus.
Olerud underwent numerous tests, was diagnosed with suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage and was given a clean bill of health but his father, John, a doctor and faculty member at the University of Washington medical center demanded he get one more test which irritated Olerud as he thought it an unnecessary delay toward preparing for the season. This final test may have saved his life.
“I remember the doctor putting the slide up and I could point out the aneurysm. It turned out it wasn’t a bad decision at all,”said John.
He underwent surgery three days later. Remarkably, he was able to recover quickly and two months later was back playing for the WSU Cougars. But he had yet to completely regain his strength. He did hit .359 with 30 RBI’s in 27 games. He was prepared to getting himself ready for his senior season but Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick decided to take a chance, drafted him, and convinced him to sign.
John started the year with a seizure and ended it as a Toronto Blue Jay after becoming only the sixteenth player since the inception of the amateur draft to completely bypass the minors. He had three hits in eight at-bats in his audition with the Blue Jays. After his surgery, he began wearing a helmet in the field as a safety precaution something he became known for as major league first baseman.
He was a platoon player in 1990 with Toronto and put up decent numbers before claiming the first base job for the 1992 World Series Champion Blue Jays hitting .284 and starting his incredible streak of having more walks than strikeouts which he did twelve years in a row. (For his 17-year career he ended with 1,275 walks and 1,016 strikeouts.) In 1993 he went crazy with the bat, hitting .400 until August 3rd of that year and gathering national attention. He “slumped” to hitting “only” .363 with an OBP of .473, slugging .599, had an OPS of 1.022 and a WAR rating of 7.4. The Blue Jays repeated as World Champs that year. Then manager Cito Gaston started messing with him for some reason.
He was encouraged to pull the ball more and try to hit with more power which were not his strengths. He had solid years before slumping in 1996 to a .274 average which made Gaston believe his was in decline even though he was only 27 years old. He was traded to the New York Mets in 1997 which lead Gaston to suggest that he would likely melt under the lights of the big city media and fans and may end up retiring early because of the pressure. Gaston was very wrong.
Olerud had a solid year for the Mets in 1997 and then went wild again in 1998. He put up a .354 average, a .447 OBP, an OPS of .998 and a WAR rating of 7.3 an all-time fabulous year. He had a solid year in 1999 and then thrilled us all in Washington state by returning home by signing with the Mariners. (Thank you, Pat Gillick!). He was a key part of the 116-win team of 2001 and received the first of his three Gold Gloves. I loved watching him field and hit.
He had a sweet swing and an astonishing eye for the strike zone. He rarely was fooled or swung wildly. He would work the count, sprayed the ball to all fields, and hit over 500 doubles in his career. ( I love doubles.) Age finally slowed him and the Mariners decided to move in another direction, released him, and he was signed by the Yankees in mid-season to fill in for the injured Jason Giambi, a scene nearly repeated this year with the amazing Ichiro being traded to the same team.
He returned to Safeco with the hated Yankees and when he came to bat for the first time, catcher Dan Wilson called time and went out to have a “conference” with Jamie Moyer which allowed the Seattle crowd to give John a minute-long standing ovation. The scene was incredible and moving.
Only one team can win the World Series each year but that doesn’t prevent even we fans of consistently losing teams like the Mariners to have heart-stopping thrills like that ovation. It was especially entertaining for me to see a Northwest native shown such love for his being and performance. It is one reason that baseball will never be just a simple game to me for I have seen Ken Griffey stealing homers by leaping over the wall and smashing the ball nearly into orbit. I have heard Dave Niehaus screaming: “Get out the rye bread and mustard Grandma, it’s a grand salami!” after Edgar Martinez drilled one out to deep center in the classic 1995 playoff against the Yankees. I watched with horror as Omar Vizquel bare-handed a ball and nipped the runner to save a no-hitter for Chris Bosio. I cried when the great Ichiro bowed to us at Safeco after being traded remembering his record-breaking 262 hit, his laser throw his first season to nail Terrance Long, and getting yet another infield hit because of his speed.
Yep, we are in last place again this year but moments like Felix’s perfect game and memories like John Olerud’s standing ovation make it all worth it. The special, rare moments allow me to cope and not act on torture fantasies I sometimes have about certain players, the front office, and managers named Wedge.
This glance backward was brought to you as a pleasant distraction that I think needed after being swept by the Oakland A’s who somehow have become way better than the Mariners, much to my horror and amazement.