Swing Kid : Toronto's John Olerud Has Always Had Great Form, but Now He's Chasing One of the Greatest--Ted Williams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A natural? Well, there has always been a touch of Roy Hobbs to the John Olerud swing.

He first attracted attention as a 3-year-old, wielding a plastic bat at a plastic ball.

His father, a Seattle dermatologist and former Washington State All-American who spent seven seasons as a minor league catcher before realizing there were more profitable ways to support a growing family, recalled how people would stop and watch those early batting practices on the beach.

"John never tired of swinging the bat," Dr. John Olerud said. "He would spend hours hitting balls of all sizes. Even at 3 he could draw a crowd."

He still is, attracting enough votes as the American League's most prolific hitter of the first half to become the first base starter in Tuesday's All-Star game here.

"I always believed he had a chance to win a batting title, but this year has been beyond belief," the elder Olerud said. "It's been a real vicarious thrill to see him hitting .400 with his name at the top of the batting leaders. Every time I walk by a newsstand I want to buy another paper."

Olerud has arrived at the All-Star break with a major league leading .395 average, having awakened memories of other .400 pursuits in the 52 years since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941.

Melding a new aggressiveness with his remarkable patience in the middle of a powerful Toronto Blue Jay lineup, Olerud also leads the league in doubles, hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and extra-base hits. He is tied with Molitor for most multiple-hit games, fourth in runs batted in with 69 and fourth in walks. He has a respectable 14 home runs.

"With his swing, his eye and the way he uses the whole field, I've never had any doubt about his ability to put up big numbers," said Paul Molitor, a Toronto teammate. "I said to him in the spring, 'When are you going to stop goofing around and win that first batting title?' I didn't say anything about the triple crown, but I guess I should have."

From plastic to aluminum to wood. It has never really mattered what Olerud was swinging.

The toddler on the beach was hitting it so hard by the time he was 12 that his father spent $200 for the protection of a pitching screen. He would eventually become the college player of the year as a sophomore at Washington State, setting 12 school records and becoming the first college player to hit 20 home runs and pitch 15 victories.

A year later, he overcame a life-threatening brain aneurysm as a junior to jump directly into a Blue Jay uniform, and now, four years later, never having spent a day in the minors--"I've told John that I paid those dues for the entire family," his father said--he has lifted his .269 career average to a level that has elicited comparisons to Williams and every other hitter who has flirted with .400.

Said Molitor: "I've been around a lot of great hitters, but John has been the most impressive I've ever seen."

Nine times during the first half Olerud fell below .400 but came back to move above it. Only 16 times in 89 games did he fail to collect at least one hit. Pressure? Nonsense. He is that 3-year-old swinging a plastic bat.

"I think it's fun to be this confident and feel this comfortable," said Olerud, 25. "I think it's fun to look forward like I do to coming to the park. Everybody talks about pressure, but I had pressure right from the start, trying to prove that the Blue Jays didn't make a mistake in bringing me right to the majors. The real pressure develops when you're not doing well and you start to doubt yourself. I'm not experiencing that, but I know how quickly the game can turn around and humble you."

And how life itself can do that.

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Olerud collapsed on Jan. 11, 1989, after a morning workout in the Washington State fieldhouse, preparing for a junior season that was expected to confirm his status as the nation's top player and top candidate to be the No. 1 draft choice.

Initial tests were inconclusive, but Olerud's father was persistent in seeking an explanation.

"I didn't want anything to be missed," he said. "You don't just lose consciousness."

On Feb. 27, a hemorrhaging aneurysm was removed from the base of his son's brain in a six-hour operation.

"It was scary, and I probably had more anxiety about it than a person who isn't involved in medicine, because I knew what might happen if it bled again," the elder Olerud said. "The mortality rate is about 70% if you survive the first bleed, but they often re-bleed during the first two weeks (after the surgery). He was probably the best college player in the country, but I remember sitting by his bed and praying only that we could keep him and that he could lead a normal life. Anything else at that point would have been too much to hope for. I mean, baseball was the last thing we were thinking about."

Olerud needed only three weeks to return to school, six to begin playing again. He has a metal clip in his head to guard against a re-bleed and wears a batting helmet in the field only as an insurance policy, his dad said, but "he is more at risk driving a car than playing ball."

Said the younger Olerud: "I never thought about dying, but it did make me more cognizant of my own mortality and put things in perspective for me. I tend to be more aware and appreciative of everything around me now. I take things in stride. I want to do well and make the most of the talent I've been given because this is what I've always dreamed of doing, but I realize it's not the end of the world no matter how I do."

Talk about taking things in stride. When hasn't he? When hasn't his style been anything but slow and deliberate? He and wife Kelly dated for two years and were engaged for a third year before marrying last November, a timetable insisted on by Olerud, whose friends have accused him of being almost comatose at times, an opinion virtually verified by tests that have shown his resting heartbeat to be 44 beats per minute. Teammates and competitors say Olerud's temperament and composure are almost as big a key to his success, his ability to withstand any media pressure if the assault on .400 continues, as his swing.

"You can never tell if John has had four hits or gone hitless," Toronto outfielder Joe Carter said. "It wasn't until recently that he ever said more than a sentence or two at a time. I think the marriage has loosened him up some, so to speak. I told him that if he was going to hit like this he should have gotten married three or four years ago. He probably would have hit .400 already."

The groom concedes that the gregarious Kelly, by being a person he can relax with, has put him more at ease with people in general, but he also said that his personality may be a bit deceiving.

"I came right out of college to join a team of players I had often watched on television," he said. "Many of them were almost like idols to me. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to them or have fun with them. I just didn't think they were interested in talking to me. I figured they probably wondered what a college kid could talk about over lunch."

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Olerud was the 16th player to go directly from the draft to the major leagues. He is only the fifth to have survived without later requiring time in the minors. The surgery of '89, which resulted in the already angular Olerud--who is 6 feet 5 and 210 pounds--losing almost 25 pounds and half his junior year baseball schedule, left the Oleruds convinced he would probably have to return for his senior year, regenerating interest among the pros. "He was still weak and wobbly," the elder Olerud said. "We had no intention of letting him sign, and that wasn't just a bargaining position."

The Blue Jays, however, were satisfied with the medical reports and felt they wouldn't get another shot at Olerud if they waited a year.

They selected him on the third round of the '89 draft and eventually offered a then-record signing package reported to be worth more than $800,000, including the opportunity to break in with the varsity.

"From a negotiating standpoint, we felt it was something that would appeal to him," Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick said. "But we wouldn't have done it if we didn't think his ability and temperament would permit him to handle the major leagues.

"You send a kid out most of the time because he needs to learn how to play or needs to learn the strike zone or needs to learn how to throw the ball over the plate. John knew how to play and knew the strike zone."

Gillick added that Toronto's initial impression of Olerud's makeup has been confirmed.

"He's not a bat slammer or helmet thrower," Gillick said. "He doesn't make problems for himself. His temperament allows him to stay focused on what he has to do."

Reflecting on his signing, Olerud said that the opportunity to bypass the minors and join a pennant contender was a major consideration.

"I've already played in two playoffs and a World Series," he said. "That's something no one can take away and something a lot of players never experience."

Most players begin their apprenticeship in a rookie or class-A league. Olerud has had to make his adjustments against the best. He batted .265 with 14 homers and 48 RBI in 1990, .256 with 17 and 68 in 1991 and .284 with 16 and 66 last year, when he also hit .348 in the playoffs and .308 in the World Series.

If this has been a breakthrough season, a coming of age, Olerud's swing was already textbook stuff. Don Mattingly used tapes of it in 1990 to help snap a batting slump, and Chicago White Sox Manager Gene Lamont said last spring that Olerud's swing should be required viewing for all young left-handed hitters.

Nevertheless, it's a game of adjustments, and Olerud's biggest this season was of the mental variety.

"Oly has a discipline you don't find in young hitters, and that's to be admired," coach Gene Tenace said. "He also tended to be patient to a fault. He was too selective. He'd get behind in the count, and have to swing at the pitcher's pitch, which is often a freak pitch in a two-strike situation. We urged him to be more aggressive earlier in the count. He has also become more comfortable turning on an inside pitch. He has a better idea of how to pull now."

Olerud's walk total and on-base percentage illustrates that he's still a disciplined hitter, but his hit and extra-base totals--he should become only the sixth player since 1962 to collect 50 or more doubles and is on a pace to produce 230 hits--also illustrates that he's more aggressive.

"My first couple years especially, I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always entirely comfortable," Olerud said. "I have a better idea now of what to look for and feel I can afford to be more aggressive earlier in the count. I'm just trying to stay consistent, and I think that's easier to do when the focus is entirely on winning, as it is with a good team such as this one. I mean, with a bad team, the focus is on the individual. There would be a lot more attention on .400, or whatever.

"I also think that comparisons to Williams or anyone else are premature. I'm not comfortable with that. This is my first really good year. I have to put up a few more before I'll be comfortable hearing my name in the same breath with hitters of that caliber."

George Brett was the hitter he patterned himself after, but he didn't merely spend idle hours in front of the TV. He and his father never missed an opportunity to discuss strategy and mental approach. Olerud now earns almost everything he gets in more ways than one. His limited speed--some facetiously call him "Cheetah"--could be a handicap in a batting title quest, let alone a .400 bid. Nevertheless, his ability to wait out a pitcher and reach base via the walk--his pace projects to almost 120--compensates for the absence of speed. Williams drew 120 walks in the season he hit .400. Williams also totaled 33 doubles. Olerud already has 37.

Angel Manager Buck Rodgers, citing Olerud's refusal to swing at the pitcher's pitch, said he is virtually without holes, and can't be intimidated.

"You can knock him off the plate and he comes right back," Rodgers said. "I used to think we knew how to pitch him. Now I think the only way is low and behind him. I'm impressed with his discipline and his ability to keep this groove."

Said Rod Carew, the Angels' batting instructor who hit .388 in 1977 and was still hitting .400 in July of '83 before finishing at .339: "What I like is that he seems to have a plan every time he goes up there. He knows what he wants to do and doesn't care who's pitching. He also has what we call a quiet body. He doesn't lunge or jump at the ball. He lets his hands do the work. And you have to like his personality. He doesn't get too excited. He seems to be able to maintain his concentration no matter what the circumstances are."

Olerud batted .450 in April and produced a major league-high 26-game hitting streak that ended in mid-May. Teammate Devon White said Olerud was so hot for so long that "we felt like shaking the pitcher's hand whenever he made an out."

Said Gillick: "I used to think John would be a .280 to .300 hitter. I think he's better than that now."

Added Toronto batting instructor Larry Hisle: "John is so technically sound that I won't be surprised by whatever he accomplishes--.400 or otherwise."

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Some contend that Olerud and Andres Galarraga, his National League counterpart in the .400 quest of the first half, have benefited from expansion and the dilution of pitching, but why would two hitters with career averages below .300 benefit so dramatically? Why wouldn't others benefit as well?

In Olerud's case, the good swing, mental discipline, consistent composure and improved aggressiveness have undoubtedly been enhanced by the lineup of outstanding Toronto hitters that surrounds him. Then, too, there was the foundation. On the beach and in the back yard, Olerud spent those countless hours honing fundamentals under the tutelage of his father, whose own baseball career, which started in the Angel organization, was thwarted by his limitations with the bat.

"I didn't have the fluid mechanics John has," he said. Perhaps, but the dermatologist's knowledge seems to have been more than skin deep.

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