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Traveling Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ed Olivares hasn’t completed his vacation plans but sometime this baseball season, as he does every baseball season, he will travel from Puerto Rico to watch his son, Omar, pitch.

It’s a great way to see the United States--St. Louis, Denver, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle and, now, Anaheim. Omar Olivares has made a journeyman’s journey. His father, who decided that Olivares should be a pitcher, has dropped in at nearly every stop.

His flight to Orange County, though, is being delayed.

“We are waiting a little longer, to see if we get a good lead,” Omar said. “If we get close to the end, it’s almost better for him to come see the playoffs . . . if we make it to the playoffs . . . we’re going to make it.”

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Pardon Olivares if such thoughts don’t roll cleanly off his tongue. In other seasons, he spent the playoffs wondering what area code he would live in the following year. But this season, Ed Olivares, who spent all of 24 games in the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals, may get the deluxe travel package.

Certainly the Angels’ chances have improved with Omar’s sinker dipping and darting at batters every fifth game. He has not pitched better in his seven-plus seasons in the major leagues. Olivares is 5-3 with a 2.95 earned-run average and has pitched into the seventh inning in each of his last nine starts. For the Angels, the timing is right.

With three starting pitchers on the disabled list, they have a patchwork rotation that includes a 23-year old rookie, Jarrod Washburn; a knuckleballer coming off elbow surgery, Steve Sparks, and Olivares. That trio is 11-3 as starters and the Angels lead the American League West Division by 2 1/2 games.

Olivares is the only one of the three who started the season in Anaheim. The Angels signed him to be a starter, but shipped him to the bullpen because Jack McDowell was available and, apparently, fit. Olivares took it well and used the time to work on his delivery with pitching coach Marcel Lachemann and bullpen coach Joe Coleman.

“I blocked out everything around me that wasn’t about pitching,” Olivares said “I went up to the bullpen with a good head. I kept thinking I was going to pitch good and just let things happen.”

What happened, though, was that McDowell’s surgically repaired right elbow came up sore. Olivares started on May 1 and has has been the Angels’ most consistent starter for more than a month.

How long will it last? Who knows? This is uncharted territory.

“I always felt that Omar was going to have a very good career,” said Coleman, who was Olivares’ pitching coach in St. Louis. “He was probably disappointed, and I was a little disappointed, that we couldn’t put our heads together and get things going in the right direction.”

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Olivares, who will turn 31 next week, has been on this road a long time. Baseball is a passion in Puerto Rico. It was mandatory around the Olivares’ house.

Ed Olivares was an infielder and outfielder with the Cardinals, albeit briefly, during the 1960 and ’61 seasons. He retired in 1967, when Omar was born. So Olivares’ only reference to his father’s career came from scrapbooks. It was enough motivation.

Omar Olivares was an outfielder and infielder growing up and his batting skills have not diminished much. In 1995, he had the first pinch-home run by a Philadelphia pitcher since Schoolboy Rowe in 1943. Last season with Seattle, Olivares hit a triple off Montreal’s Pedro Martinez--the first triple by an American League pitcher in 24 seasons. The Angels even used him as a pinch-runner Sunday.

Pitching, though, was his future. Ed Olivares could see that, and saw to it.

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“My dad had leg problems and was hurt a lot whenever he came to the big leagues,” Olivares said. “I think he was kind of afraid that something would happen to me. He knew I had a good arm and was flexible. When I was 16, he told me I was going to be a pitcher.”

Ed Olivares’ involvement continued. It’s no coincidence Abraham Martinez was the scout who recommended the San Diego Padres sign Olivares. Ed Olivares is the godfather of Martinez’s son.

“My dad was his best friend and always told him, ‘I’m going to get Omar ready and when he’s ready, you’re going to sign him,’ ” said Olivares who wasn’t drafted at Miami Dade Community College. “When Dad thought I was ready, he called him.”

A father’s love can only do so much, though.

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The Angels signed Olivares as a No. 5 starter, and if ever there was a No. 5 starter, it was Olivares, who was 43-49 lifetime before this season.

“Mechanically, there were things I wanted to do with him but it was difficult,” Coleman said. “Every once in a while he would throw a gem. You’d sit back and say, ‘Gee, I got to leave him alone.’ When he would struggle, you would say, ‘Now is the time to correct that,’ then he would throw another good one.”

The Cardinals, who acquired Olivares from the Padres in 1990, grew weary of those yo-yo performances and didn’t re-sign him after the 1994 season. He was released by both Colorado and Philadelphia in 1995, then landed in Detroit in 1996 and was the Tigers’ ace. Not a major accomplishment, as Detroit flirted with the highest ERA in recent baseball history. Still, Olivares went 7-11 that season and was 5-6 a year ago when Seattle picked him up for the stretch drive.

It was not a good match. Olivares lives on his sinker, but ground balls in the Kingdome can skip quickly to the outfield fence. Then there was Mariner Manager Lou Piniella, whose treatment of pitchers is like sandpaper on balsa wood.

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Olivares was in and out of the rotation and finished 1-4 in 13 games. He was left off the Mariner playoff roster.

The Angels, though, remembered the four-hit shutout he threw against them last July. They gave him a one-year, $1.35-million contract.

“Obviously, we liked Omar’s ability,” General Manager Bill Bavasi said. “I don’t think any of us expected him to be doing as well as he has been.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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The Replacements

Player Career 1998

Omar Olivares 43-49, 4.46 5-3, 2.95

Steve Sparks 13-18, 5.23 3-0, 3.60

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Jarrod Washburn 4-0, 3.38 4-0, 3.38

The Regulars

Player Career 1998

Ken Hill 99-83, 3.76 8-5, 5.15

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Jack McDowell 122-80, 3.76 1-2, 4.76

Allen Watson 39-45, 4.91 3-5, 7.69


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