A consistently high on-base percentage and fielding savvy made Olerud a highly respected and valuable teammate, though his quiet, stoic nature kept him out of the spotlight even during his three-year tenure in New York. Olerud burst onto the national scene chasing the .400-mark with the Blue Jays for much of the 1993 season, but his reticent personality, characterized by his ironic clubhouse nickname, Gabby, expedited his fade from mainstream baseball consciousness. However, his on-field worth could not be denied, as each team he played for advanced to the postseason at least once.
Olerud showed promise early on at Washington State, where he was named Baseball America’s NCAA Player of the Year in 1987 and ’88. His senior year, he recovered from a frightening brain aneurysm in January to hit .359 with 30 RBIs in 27 games that spring. The scare would always be with him though, and he began wearing a batting helmet on the field for safety.
Olerud was so promising in college (he set single-season Washington records with a .462 average and 23 homers, and even sported a 15-0 record as a pitcher) that once he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989, he became the 16th player since the amateur draft’s inception to skip the minors entirely and go straight to the big leagues. After notching three hits in eight at-bats in the end of that season, the first baseman showed promise with his sweet swing in his rookie year of ’90, when he batted a respectable first-year .265.
By the time the Blue Jays rolled into the World Series in 1992, Olerud had cemented a starting job in the lineup, either at designated hitter or first baseman. With a .284 average and his first of many years recording more walks than strikeouts, he was a consistent cog in the wheel of Toronto’s first championship.
But the following year would be Olerud’s chance to shine. Fresh off the World Series high, he came out swinging in 1993, and was still hitting .400 at the All-Star break (as he would until August 3rd). All of a sudden, the unassuming first baseman became the focus of national attention. Though he finished the year at “just” .363, he also became the 20th player to tally 200 hits as well as 100 walks in one season. The remarkable achievement led to an eye-popping .473 on-base percentage, while he established career highs in runs, doubles, homers, and RBIs, and finished third in the AL Most Valuable Player Award voting behind Frank Thomas and teammate Paul Molitor. In the postseason, he batted .300 over 40 at-bats, with a homer, two doubles, and five RBIs.
But as the Blue Jays began to tamper with his swing, asking him to be more of a pull hitter, Olerud’s average declined heavily the next year, and steadily the two after that. After batting .274 with Toronto in 1996, the Jays believed that the lanky first baseman was still heading downhill, and traded him to the New York Mets for pitcher Robert Person. Manager Cito Gaston even claimed that Olerud would fade so much in the face of the Big Apple’s ruthless media and fans that he may retire early.
As they say in New York, fuhgeddaboutit. Olerud improved all of his offensive stats (including knocking in over 100 runs) with the Mets in 1997, and began to come out of his introverted shell, displaying a dry, urbane wit in the clubhouse. Despite Gaston’s prediction, Olerud actually seemed to thrive in New York, getting an apartment on the tony Upper East Side, and regularly attending the opera and theater. And the next year, hitting at a .354 clip, Olerud broke Cleon Jones’ franchise record for batting average in a season, and came three hits and four walks shy of equaling his 200-100 season of 1993.
By 1999, the Mets had formed one of the strongest defensive infields in major league history. Along with the Gold Glove-winning Robin Ventura and Rey Ordonez, the steady Olerud and Edgardo Alfonzo contributed solid play as well: The four combined to make only 27 errors that season. Hitting .298 with 125 walks, the first baseman once again provided consistency at the plate, and helped lead the Mets into their first postseason in eleven years. Olerud also displayed some much-needed pop in October, hitting a homer against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series and then two against the archrival Atlanta Braves in the Championship Series. In the emotional Game Four of the NLCS, Olerud’s two-run single in the bottom of the eighth off Met-killer John Rocker clinched the team’s first win, though they went on to lose in six games.
When Olerud made the tough decision of leaving New York for the Seattle Mariners in December 1999, he cited family as the main criterion, and actually proved his claim. Olerud moved within 15 minutes of his parents in the city of Starbucks and Microsoft, and signed a three-year, $20 million deal with the M’s, where he was reunited with his teammate at Washington State, Aaron Sele. And once again, Olerud posted solid offensive numbers (.285 with 103 RBIs), while his defense finally garnered him his first Gold Glove, as the Mariners made their way to the ALCS.