By Jeff Freier on January 28th, 2010 10:06 AM
We all know about the great athletes in New York sports history – Babe Ruth, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Walt Frazier – and even the busts – Ed Whitson, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Stephon Marbury, Scott Gomez. But what about the slightly-to-highly-above-average athlete? The kind-of-great but not all-timer? They may not have been Hall-of-Famers, but they were All-Stars, fan favorites, cogs on a championship team or maybe even just pretty darn good. They’re the little brother that didn’t hog all the attention. But they’re certainly worth talking about and remembering. So when do they get their due? Well, now they will. Here is a series of the not-quite-legendary in New York sports history.
On December 20th, 1996, John Olerud was traded to the Mets for Robert Person. It was one of the greatest trades in franchise history (New York’s, not Toronto’s). The big first baseman was cool and calm, had a sweet, graceful swing and rode the 7 train to Shea (and refrained from disparaging his fellow melting-pot riders along the way, as another less-than-classy player did around that time). Olerud only played three seasons for the Amazin’s, but they were three solid to great years, and he was a solid to great guy. And, of course, he was mostly known for wearing a batting helmet while fielding his position at first, following in the footsteps of a few past All-Star first basemen who also sported a hard hat on the field – Dick Allen and George Scott (though they wore those due to fans throwing objects at them; Olerud started the practice after suffering a brain aneurysm while in college).
After starring at Washington State as a pitcher and first baseman (he was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007), Olerud jumped right into the major leagues with the Blue Jays. He led the American League in batting (.363) and on-base percentage (.473) in 1993, but had a few declining years thereafter due to Toronto manager Cito Gaston’s attempt to get him to hit for more power. He was ultimately shipped off to New York, where the Mets gladly encouraged him to revert back to his natural hitting style, of spraying the ball to all fields. In his first season at Shea, he didn’t disappoint, batting .294, with a .400 OBP, scoring 90 runs, hitting 22 homers and driving in 102 runs. And that was just the warmup. The following season, Olerud set two Met single-season records. His .354 batting average topped Cleon Jones’ .340 mark from 1969, and his .447 OBP also set a club record (and he belted 22 homers with 93 RBI’s and 91 runs scored). He set two more franchise records in his last season with the Mets: 125 walks and 309 total times reaching base (along with a .298 batting average, .427 OBP, 107 runs scored, 19 home runs and 96 RBI’s).
In 1999, Sports Illustrated declared Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez and Robin Ventura the “Greatest Infield Ever” (of course they were talking defensively). That same year, Olerud starred in the playoffs for the Mets. Against Arizona in the Division Series, he batted .438 (7 for 16), had a .526 OBP, hit a homer and drove in six runs in four games. In the LCS vs. Atlanta, he posted a .298 average, .345 OBP, banged out two homers and drove in six. In game four, with the Mets down three games to none, Olerud hit a dinger off of John Smoltz in the sixth inning to break a scoreless tie. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Mets losing 2-1 and two outs in the inning, Roger Cedeno (.500 in the series, with six hits) and Melvin Mora (.429, also with six hits) pulled off a successful double steal. And that set up the ultimate good vs. evil matchup: Olerud vs. John Rocker. The Mets first baseman came through for the good of mankind, singling up the middle and driving in the eventual winning runs. He also swatted a two-run homer in the first inning of game five, which was, of course, the Robin Ventura grand single game.
Olerud’s short stint with the Mets ended when he signed with his hometown team, the Mariners, but he made his mark in his time in New York. He was a two-time All-Star, two-time World Series Champion and three-time Gold Glover – but none of those successes came with the Mets. What he did bring to the Mets was class and a quiet consistency that was respected by everyone.
(Click here to read the first bio in the series.)