While watching John Olerud during his 17-year playing career (mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, and Seattle Mariners), I always wondered why he had to wear a helmet in the field. I knew it was because he had a serious head injury that needed to be protected, but didn’t know exactly what.
Now, I know; on this date in 1989, the first baseman went under the knife for brain surgery, which removed an aneurysm. The problem first became evident a month and a half before on January 11th when he collapsed during an off-season workout. Talk about a scary experience for a 20-year-old (or for someone of any age). Thankfully, Olerud made a full recovery and enjoyed a wonderful MLB career.
After coming back at the end of the 1989 season for just 8 at-bats, he showed his worth to the Blue Jays by hitting .265/.364/.430 and coming in fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 1990. However, it took him until ’93 to truly break on the scene, when he earned his first All-Star game selection and was third in AL MVP voting. He won his first and only batting title, as he put together an impressive .363/.473/.599 line with 24 homers and 107 RBI. He not only led the league in batting average, but also in on-base percentage, and hit the most doubles (54).
With a young prospect coming through Toronto’s system by the name of Carlos Delgado, Olerud soon became expendable after not repeating his MVP-caliber season of 1993, and was dealt to the New York Mets. In his three years at Shea Stadium, he quickly proved to be one of the most dependable hitters and fielders in the NL East. He was part of the Sports Illustrated cover in 1999 that named him, Rey Ordonez, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Robin Ventura as the “Greatest Infield Ever.” He currently sits on top of the Mets’ all-time list for highest batting average with his .315 mark.
It wasn’t until he signed with the Seattle Mariners when he finally started getting recognized for his defense, as he won three Gold Glove awards in a four year span in the Pacific Northwest from 2000-2003. His career started to wind down in 2004, as he was dealt during the middle of the season to the New York Yankees, then spent 2005 with the Boston Red Sox. He struggled in the first half of ’04 with Seattle (hitting .245), but he ended his career still being able to hit, as he hit at a .285 clip between the two AL East powers.
I admired Olerud during his career, especially during his time with the Mets. It was amazing how consistent he was with both the bat and glove on a daily basis. Unlike plenty of players during that time (and today), he didn’t do any talking, and just let his play do all the talking.
It’s very rare to find someone without any Minor League stats, as it’s almost unheard of to make the jump from being drafted straight to the Major Leagues. That’s exactly what Olerud did, with his only Minor League stats coming in 2005 with Boston, adding up to a measily 12 plate appearances. Can you imagine someone getting brain surgery months after getting drafted, sitting out all season, and then making your MLB debut in September without swinging a bat in a professional baseball game? Yea, me neither.
That right there, shows you how good of a player John Olerud was.
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