Thursday, August 26, 2010
A tale of two first basemen
By Mark Simon
John Olerud misses baseball.
"I miss the challenge, the competition, the trying to get your swing right and get in a zone where whatever is thrown, you hit hard ... and the camaraderie," the 42-year-old former New York Mets and New York Yankees first baseman said during a phone conversation last week.
Olerud represents the last time the Mets had a first baseman who was both an offensive and defensive star. Since Olerud left for Seattle following the 1999 season, the Mets have tried 46 first basemen, and though Carlos Delgado brought star power, none has had the combination of skills that Olerud did.
Ike Davis' big league arrival this spring brought both offensive and defensive prowess back to first base in full force, as he won fans over with his towering frame, towering home runs and defensive excellence.
When Ike's dad, Ron, made the trip to Citi Field, he was asked which major leaguer he wanted his son to resemble. The former big league pitcher chose Olerud. A major league scout who saw Davis in the Arizona Fall League last season told Jayson Stark: "In a lot of ways, they're very comparable."
For now, Davis is in the midst of his first major league slump, one that has dropped his batting average, suppressed his power and hurt his rookie of the year candidacy. Olerud remembers what that was like.
"I don't miss the slumps," Olerud said. "That first slump, you look at the scoreboard, you see what you're hitting and you start wondering when they're gonna say, 'He needs more work' or 'We need someone else.' There's a lot of heat on you to be producing and put up good numbers.
"You start thinking, boy, it would be nice to be a veteran and have a three-year deal. As a young guy, it can be hard if you're not hitting. You want to tell people 'I'm better than this.'"
Olerud is someone who survived the slumps (and a brain aneurysm in college that left him wearing a helmet in the field) and showed he was better than most.
He was the everyday first baseman for the 1992 and 1993 World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays, winning a batting title in 1993. He was traded to the Mets (along with a then-record $5 million) prior to the 1997 season for pitcher Robert Person.
"When I was traded, I wasn't looking forward to it," said Olerud, who eventually took to his new home and became a regular subway commuter with his wife, Kelly. "I was scared of New York. But it greatly exceeded expectations. I was worried about how the fans would be, and the media would be, but coming to New York the way I did was the easier way to do it.
"I'd had some bad years. So the expectations were such that people were asking 'What did we get this guy for?' When you have that and you turn things around, it's a nice surprise. It can be hard when you're like a Mike Piazza and the expectations are so high. It can be hard not to overreach. I don't think there's the same kind of pressure."
Over the three-year period from 1997 to 1999 Olerud did turn things around, something he credits to working with then-hitting coach Tom Robson.
He set Mets records for career batting average and on-base percentage, hit over .300 with runners in scoring position each year, and was part of a group Sports Illustrated called the best defensive infield ever.
Two advanced stats offer historical perspective on Olerud's Mets tenure:
• Win probability added takes every plate appearance in a player's season and looks at how much he contributed to winning or losing. In each of Olerud's three years with the Mets, he was their most valuable hitter. Olerud's combined score from 1997 to 1999 rated fifth-best in all of baseball, trailing only Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Larry Walker and Jeff Bagwell.
• Wins above replacement (WAR) attempts to combine a player's hitting, baserunning, defense and position played into a single value. Olerud ranked ninth-best in baseball during his time as a Met, but his defense rated tops among those at the position. In fact, using those metrics, his defense at first base ranks second in Mets history to Keith Hernandez.
It is defense about which Olerud has the most to say.
"Of the teams I played on, I had the most fun playing defense with the Mets," Olerud said. "One of the things I really liked about [manager Bobby Valentine] was his approach to defense. You had to really have your head in the game because he had all sorts of defenses. We tried to make things happen on defense.
"You don't get to appreciate how good guys are until you play with them for a whole year. Robin Ventura made everything look easy. You'd see a ball hit in the hole and think, boy that's gonna be a tough play, or you'd see a fast guy bunt, but when Ventura was at third, not only would he get to the ball quick, he'd get it to you quick.
"Rey [Ordonez] was unbelievable, one of the best shortstops I played with. There would be times when I'd say, don't waste a throw on that, and he'd pop-up slide and get the guy by two steps. I was always so focused on getting to first base when the ball was hit, that I wouldn't see the play, but I'd hear the crowd yell 'Ohhhhh!' so I'd ask guys in the dugout afterwards about it.
"[Edgardo] Alfonzo was fantastic too. You have someone with such good range like that at second base, it totally takes the pressure off you. I just had to catch the ball."
Olerud could catch it, with his 6-foot-5 frame offering a big target, and he could hit it. The first similarity that this writer saw between Olerud and Davis was how well both hung in against left-handed pitching. Olerud's two biggest postseason hits as a Met -- a home run against Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the 1999 National League Division Series and an eighth-inning, go-ahead two-run single against Braves closer John Rocker in Game 4 of that year's National League Championship Series -- came against lefties.
"For me, the type of hitter I was, I was at my best when I tried to hit line drives over the shortstop's head," Olerud said. "If I did that, my timing was good. I didn't feel as comfortable at the plate against left-handed hitters as I did against righties, so that encouraged me to let the ball get deep, stay shorter with my swing, and be more compact."
That is one of the many skills that Mets fans have missed over the past decade. Olerud bolted to Seattle as a free agent after the 1999 season to live closer to home.
He enjoyed five more productive seasons for the Seattle Mariners, winning three Gold Glove Awards and playing on a 2001 team that won 116 games, then finished his career with brief stints with the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. He retired after the 2005 season with 2,239 hits and a .398 on-base percentage, and ranks 50th all-time with 500 doubles.
"I'd like to be remembered as someone who played the game hard and played it right," Olerud said. "When I say right, I mean unselfishly -- that you do the job asked of you. That you're a good teammate and a good player."
Olerud's uncle teases him about which cap he'll wear on his Hall of Fame plaque. For now, he's trying to be a Hall of Fame dad to his three children (a boy and two girls, ages 11, 9 and 5), coaching soccer and baseball, and raising money for two nonprofit organizations that help special-needs children -- The Jordan Fund and the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center. (Olerud's 9-year-old is a special-needs child.)
He watches baseball every so often and admitted to being familiar with Davis, though he had yet to see him play. He has more of a vested interest now that he knows how strong the comparison is between the two.
"If they're comparing him to me," Olerud said, "then I'm definitely rooting for him."
|Since Olerud flew the coop, the Mets have tried 46 first basemen.|
Mark Simon is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight" and a frequent contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @msimonespn or e-mail him at WebGemScoreboard@gmail.com.