Olerud faces life’s curve balls

Nordmenn of baseball

John Olerud

Photo: Ben VanHouten / Seattle Mariners
John Olerud, as a Seattle Mariner in April 2004, shows off the sweet stroke that made him one of baseball’s best hitters.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

John Olerud was the most successful of the Norwegian-American baseball players. In a 17-year career from 1989 to 2005, the left-handed first baseman played for the Toronto Blue Jays (1989-’96), New York Mets (1997-’99), Seattle Mariners (2000-’04), New York Yankees (2004), and Boston Red Sox (2005), amassed a career batting average of .295, 2,239 hits, 500 doubles (62nd all-time), 255 home runs, 1,230 RBIs, 1,275 walks (49th), a phenomenal .995 fielding percentage (20th), 16,165 putouts (33rd), 1,418 assists (12th), was a two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, two-time World Series champion, and one-time batting champion,

During the 1993 season, when Olerud put together one of the best offensive displays ever, Sports Illustrated wrote that “(his) swing is so sweet it should be poured on pancakes… Olerud seems so effortless at the plate that the Jays have taken to calling him Hobbsy, as in Roy Hobbs, the hero of The Natural.”

Yet, it almost didn’t come to be. In January 1989, his junior year at Washington State, life threw him a curve ball when he collapsed, while running indoors, from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, resulting in bleeding into the spinal column. Though he returned to campus by the end of the month, additional examinations revealed a brain aneurysm, and Olerud underwent surgery in late February.

That didn’t deter him from being back on the diamond by mid-April, hitting .359, being named Pac-10 North all-league designated hitter, and getting drafted in the third round by Toronto. He made it clear a large signing bonus and not playing in the minors would persuade him from returning to WSU. The Blue Jays complied. For the rest of his career, he wore a batting helmet while playing defense.

Olerud was born Aug. 5, 1968, to Lynda and Dr. John E. Olerud, Sr., who had grown up in Lisbon, N.D. The elder John was a catcher and captain at Washington State and spent seven years in the Angels minor-league system. The junior Olerud starred as a first baseman-pitcher at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., leading the team to a state championship in 1986.

He was an All-American as a freshman at WSU after an 8-2 record, 3.00 ERA, while hitting .414. As a sophomore, he was Baseball America’s College Player of the Year and an All-American as a pitcher and first baseman. At the plate, he hit .464 with 23 HRs and 81 RBIs. From the mound, Olerud was 15–0 with 113 strikeouts and a 2.49 ERA.

His first major league game was on Sept. 3, 1989, when he had a pinch-hit single and scored a run against Minnesota. He had respectable seasons in 1990 and 1991. For the 1992 World Series champions, Olerud hit .284, with 28 doubles, 16 homers, and 66 RBIs. He batted .348 in the American League Championship Series and .308 in the World Series.

Then came 1993. As late as Aug. 24, he was hitting above .400. He won the batting title with a .363 average, also leading the AL with 54 doubles, and .473 on-base percentage, while establishing career highs with 24 home runs and 107 RBIs. He also had a .992 fielding percentage. He made the All-Star team. The Jays repeated as World Series champs.

Over the next three seasons, he didn’t hit higher than .297, or more than 18 home runs or 67 RBIs. Olerud was traded to the Mets on Dec. 20, 1996.

He was rejuvenated in New York, hitting .294. In 1998, Olerud came close to repeating his 1993 season, when he hit .354 and had a .996 fielding percentage (only five errors). The following season, he played in all 162 games, batted .298, and helped the Mets to the post-season. In the National League Division Series, Olerud hit .438 as the Mets eliminated Arizona. In the NL Championship Series, he batted .296 with two homers and six RBIs, but the Mets lost to Atlanta.

Olerud signed a three-year $20 million contract with the Mariners.

He delighted his hometown fans over the next few years. In 2000, he batted .285, with 45 doubles, 14 dingers, 103 RBIs, and won his first Gold Glove with a .996 fielding percentage and five errors. The Mariners reached the ALCS, losing to the Yankees, though Olerud hit .350 in the ALCS. In 2001, the Mariners won a major-league record 116 games, with Olerud batting .302, with 32 doubles, 21 homers, 95 RBIs, and making the All-Star team. The Mariners again lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.

In 2004, with Seattle in last place in the AL West and Olerud batting .245, he was released on July 27. A week later, the Yankees signed him. Two weeks after that, the Yankees came to Seattle. Before an Olerud at bat, Mariners catcher Dan Wilson called time to confer with pitcher Jamie Moyer. The break allowed Seattle fans to give Olerud a one-minute standing ovation. He hit .280 in 49 games. He was released. The Red Sox signed him to a minor-league contract as he was recovering from torn ligaments in his left foot. Olerud hit .289 in 87 games in 2005 and retired on Dec. 6.

Life had thrown him another curve ball. He didn’t back off the plate but took it on swinging. One of his three children, Jordan, was born in 2000 with a rare chromosome abnormality, the only person in the world known to have the affliction, which resulted in numerous birth defects, affecting almost all her bodily functions, and requiring 24-hour attention from Olerud and his wife, Kelly.

“She’s not walking, but she’s really close to walking,” Olerud told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2009. “She’s non-verbal and eats through a tube. She’s got a fair amount of physical difficulties. When she was able to sit up on her own for the first time, and then being able to stand up on her own and keep her balance, those were big things. I think Jordan’s here for a reason and it’s so we can start the Jordan Fund and help out other people. I think that’s why she’s a part of our life.”

The fund was created in 2003 by the Oleruds to support children with special needs, their families, and organizations offering services, by providing grants.

The man with the sweet swing that sprayed line drives all over the field now spreads his sweetness off the diamond.

This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.