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The role model for Olerud's makeup and manner is his father. John Everett Olerud was raised on Norwegian dishes like lefser and lutefisk in Lisbon, N.Dak., as well as a steady diet of baseball; his uncle Ilef Olerud is a fabled North Dakota amateur ballplayer and a member of the state's amateur baseball hall of fame. After making All-America as a catcher at Washington State, John Sr. played several minor league seasons at the Triple A level in the '60s. But he never made the majors because he couldn't put enough Norwegian wood on the ball.
The elder Oly persevered in other venues. In his off-seasons he went to the University of Washington medical school, graduated while he was still in baseball, and became a dermatologist after he gave up the game. "After all he's accomplished," says his son, "I don't see how you could respect a guy more."
But John has gifts his dad didn't: a natural swing and a knack for making maximum contact with a baseball bat. In one of his first practices as a freshman at Washington State, John powered a pitch deep over the centerfield fence. Suspecting him of some unseen, Schwarzeneggerian strength, the coaches waited for him to dazzle them with pull-ups after practice. John couldn't even do two.
"Little Oly looks kind of pale sitting on the bench, but then he'll jump up when it's his turn and hit one out of the park like it was nothing," says Washington State coach Bobo Brayton. "He's got great coordination. My god! He just barely swings and the ball jumps. But he also has great command of the game and of himself. When he pitched, I'd go out to the mound if he was in trouble and say, it's not your slider or fastball that's going to do the job. The best thing you've got going for you is John Olerud.' "
Like Gehrig, Olerud faced the prospect of a prime cut cruelly short. In the winter before his junior season he began to suffer brief, 15-second episodes of severe pain in his head. Then while jogging to get ready for the team's timed mile run, he blacked out. At first, tests ruled out tumors, viruses and infection, and X-rays didn't show an aneurysm—a blood-filled sac that forms on a swollen blood vessel. But a colleague of Dr. Olerud's at the University of Washington Medical Center suggested John be X-rayed at other angles. John, ready to start the season in Pullman, reluctantly flew to Seattle for further observation.
"The guy brings out the X-ray, and I go, 'There it is,' " recalls John. "You didn't have to be a brain surgeon to pick it out."
Had the aneurysm not been detected, there was a 50% chance it would have ruptured and killed him. On Feb. 27, 1989, John Sr. and his wife, Lynda, drove to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with their son, who prepared for brain surgery by flipping through the sports pages. While his dad had given him the ultimate in parental reassurance by telling him he was in the hands of H. Richard Winn, "the Ozzie Smith of neurosurgeons," the operation was not without peril. Doctors would be working not only near the optic nerve but also around the brain's frontal lobe, which influences personality.
The surgery took six hours. "When I got out and could see well with both eyes and move my arms and legs, I thought I'd be O.K.," says John. His folks stayed on the lookout for changes in John's demeanor. He passed an early test when he agreed to pose for two pictures with his dad gripping the sutured left side of his skull like a pitcher, one with the seams, the other across them. "It was still the same John," Lynda says. "Everything's on an even keel with him."
The experience, however, deepened his perspective. Says John, "You go through something like that, and then something goes wrong, something stupid you'd normally get upset about, and you can say, 'This is an inconvenience, but I'm lucky to be here to experience this inconvenience.' " The area around his left temple has a baseball-sized dent, and to protect his head from further damage he wears a batting helmet in the field as well as at the plate.
Seven weeks after the operation Olerud was back in the Cougar lineup. Though 20 pounds lighter and wobble-legged, he wound up his junior season with a 3-2 record and a .359 average. He finished the regular season with a flourish against Gonzaga, tossing a five-hitter and mashing two homers in a doubleheader.