Olson Singing Sweet Song Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He used to be known as "the Singing Catcher." Early in a minor league career that began eight years ago, Greg Olson was usually the only player on either team who would sing along with the national anthem.

"For 144 games one year, I sang that anthem," said Olson, now with the Atlanta Braves. "The umpires would always kid me about it, but I didn't care what anybody said. Made me feel good."

Shortly before baseball's 61st All-Star game tonight at Wrigley Field, Olson will take his place along the third base line with the other National League All-Stars. When the national anthem begins, he will bow his head.

But he will not sing.

"For two minutes," he said, "I will pray."

The singing catcher has become the thankful catcher, caught in the realization of a dream so unbelievable, he has been rendered nearly speechless.

After the anthem, he said he will raise his head, run back to the dugout and attempt to act professionally. But it will be difficult.

"Especially since I feel like Peter Pan," he said. "Or Tinkerbell."

Olson has been chosen to represent baseball's best after beginning the season as a backup catcher in what he assumed would be his ninth consecutive minor league season.

"Greg's presence here should send a message to everyone in the minor leagues everywhere," said National League Manager Roger Craig of the San Francisco Giants. "Never give up. Never."

Even if your name was not on the All-Star ballot. Even if there is only one current baseball card in circulation with your picture, and on that card you are wearing a Minnesota Twins' uniform. Even if you have never even been a minor league all-star.

Olson is the only player here whose name is misspelled on his All-Star bats. He is the only player who, when asked by clubhouse officials whether he liked his new All-Star shoes, said, "Shoes? What shoes? They give us shoes?"

Olson is the only player who acknowledged that when informed he was selected to play in tonight's game, he felt like crying.

"For me," he said, "this is a real tear-jerker."

He is also the only player who commented on his selection by saying, "That's great. I'm looking forward to going to New York."

Olson has a better sense of history than geography. This spring, at 29 and after eight years in professional baseball, he had spent 15 days in the major leagues.

He began the season in the International League, with the Richmond Braves, playing for his third organization in three years, after being released by the New York Met and Minnesota organizations.

He had a .248 career minor league average with 17 home runs and he was right where everyone in baseball figured he should be--on the Richmond bench, backing up a kid named Jimmy Kremers.

"But I have this philosophy," he said, smiling. "I figure, you hang around long enough, you are going to catch a break. All you need is one break.

"Then all of a sudden, in a span of about two months, I caught five or six breaks."

What happened, he said, was "something that even my mother didn't think was possible. And she thinks everything is possible."

Consider this sequence of events:

--The Braves' third catcher, Phil Lombardi, suddenly retires. Olson is brought up to the major leagues.

--The Braves' first baseman, Nick Esasky, suffers a sprained shoulder. The No. 2 catcher, Jody Davis, is moved to first base, and Olson is given a chance to replace him.

--Davis is released, and Olson becomes a platoon starter with Ernie Whitt.

--Whitt suffers a dislocated thumb, and Olson becomes the full-time starter.

--San Diego catcher Benito Santiago, the leading vote-getter at the position for the National League All-Star team, suffers a broken arm. Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia becomes the favorite to be picked as the starter, and a backup spot opens.

Olson, batting .289 with six homers and 25 runs batted in, was again at the right place.

"And so here I am," Olson said Monday while staring at the somewhat more established players as they filled the tiny Wrigley Field clubhouse. "I've got stars down to my left, and stars down to my right, and then there's me.

"This is my wildest dream. No, this exceeds my wildest dreams."

Across the clubhouse, San Diego outfielder Tony Gwynn smiled.

"He is the impossible story," he said.

That wasn't the reason Olson was picked by Craig. After all those seasons in the minor leagues, the former University of Minnesota star has become an accomplished defensive catcher and game-caller.

Atlanta pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, who has thrown to Johnny Bench and Bob Boone in his career, said he is most comfortable with Olson. Pete Smith, another Brave pitcher, marvels at Olson's ability to contort his body while blocking pitches.

"You have a better chance of getting a fastball down the middle past him than you do of getting a (bouncing) fastball past him," Smith said.

For once, he has added offense to his defensive skills, for no other reason than he is finally getting a chance.

"In this game you get labeled, and I got labeled," Olson said. "Nothing I could do about it but hope."

His new label, "All-Star catcher," will take some getting used to.

Olson arrived at Wrigley Field three hours before Monday's workout. He wanted to get adjusted to his surroundings. He didn't want to appear in awe when he took the field with the rest of the stars. The plan failed.

"I thought it had hit me, until I finally walked out of the dugout and saw all the people in the stands and all the great players . . . and I go numb," he said. "I can't believe what I am doing. I see all these sportswriters--I didn't know there was this many sportswriters in the entire United States! I get loose, break a sweat, take a few swings . . . and still I can't believe it."

Shortly before batting practice, he broke from an interview to check on batting practice.

"I have to see when I'm batting," he said sternly, before laughing, "I mean, I have to see if I'm batting. I don't know what is going on."

After he batted Monday, there was one thing Greg William Olson wanted to do before leaving the field. He wanted to meet Baltimore Oriole pitcher Gregg William Olson. The two are not related.

He hopes that tonight he has a chance to participate in the ultimate matchup--batter Greg Olson vs. pitcher Gregg Olson.

"The only thing is, he has the 90-m.p.h. fastball and great curve, and I don't," the catcher said. "I bet it will be more fun for him."

And if they don't face each other?

"I know this may be my only All-Star game, I understand that my chances of coming back are slim, but what does it matter?" Olson asked. "I'm here now, aren't I?"

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