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A Toronto spring training game has ended in Dunedin, Fla., and Blue Jay first baseman John Olerud is working the home crowd along the third base line. Or, more accurately, the home crowd is working him. Signing, smiling, shaking and shrugging, he is wafted unsteadily toward the clubhouse on a sun-splashed wave of appreciation. Stretched out on a bullpen bench nearby, Toronto president Paul Beeston marvels at Olerud down the barrel of his unlit cigar. "John's so modest," Beeston says, "if he hit a home run, he'd apologize for losing the ball. You know, I shouldn't say this, because I don't want to put any pressure on him, but you look at him and wonder if that's what Lou Gehrig was like."
There's a thought. Imagine the strong, silent Gehrig, played by Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, making a quantum leap into the mewling, mercenary major leagues of today. Young Lou would find the idea of an agent as foreign as the feel of double knits; he would be seen reading hardback novels in the clubhouse; he would look up to his peers and his parents, and down on no one. He would sign autographs for hours and for free and make self-effacing comments like "You can't really tell, but I lift weights now" and "I do go to the racetrack, but I usually end up feeding the dogs."
O.K. so far. Now fiddle a bit with some particulars. Make him 6'5" and 215 pounds of arms and legs, with sparse whiskers, wide blue eyes and a voice full of twangy earnestness. Give him a left arm blessed with astounding accuracy and a lefthanded stroke so fundamentally sound that the Yanks' modern-day Iron Horse, Don Mattingly, studied the swing to help pull himself out of a batting slump last season. Ask him as a 22-year-old entering his second full big league season to replace a first baseman who averaged 35 homers for Toronto over the last three years, and hear him say, "Geez, I'm just glad to be alive to have this opportunity." There it is. John Garrett Olerud.
Olerud is a refreshing anachronism with remarkable skills. Like Columbia Lou, he learned his trade in college. As a sophomore at Washington State in 1988 he was named College Player of the Year by Baseball America after he batted .464 with 23 homers and 81 RBIs—and went 15-0 with a 2.49 ERA as a starting pitcher. Olerud's junior season was delayed by a life-threatening operation to repair an aneurysm at the base of his brain—no big deal, right?—after which he played 27 games for the Cougars before signing with Toronto as a third-round pick for an unheard of $1 million. He joined the Blue Jays in September 1989 and went 3 for 8 in the heat of a pennant race. That fall he toiled in the Instructional League, where he pitched as well as hit. The Jays ultimately decided to keep Olerud off the mound. Rotisserie League commissioners collectively sighed in relief.
Last season, as Toronto's part-time designated hitter and occasional first baseman, Olerud batted .265 (.342 against lefties) with 14 homers and 48 RBIs in only 358 at bats. When he was hitting .298 on June 26, he was considered a Rookie of the Year candidate by everyone but himself. "Oh, no, I'm not a player," he said. "Just a DH."
To give him a full-time job at first base, Toronto sent slugger Fred McGriff to the San Diego Padres along with shortstop Tony Fernandez for outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar. The move leaves Olerud as the Jays' lone every-day lefthanded stick. "If we were going with a guy a little bit hyper or a little bit volatile emotionally, you might worry you'd gotten yourself into a spot," says Toronto vice-president Pat Gillick. "But that isn't the case."
Indeed, at a spring physical, one nurse measured his resting heartbeat and screamed it out to another in disbelief. It was 44. A longtime family friend back in Bellevue, Wash., describes Olerud as "just north of comatose." He's like some fantastic creature from one of the sci-fi page-turners he's fond of reading: The Ballplayer Embarrassed by Attention. "For a kid of John's age, he has a tremendous amount of polish," says veteran Toronto infielder Rance Mulliniks. "He's humble and he's gracious and he listens to advice. The sad truth is, if most young people had the same success John has, you couldn't stand to be around them."
The laconic Gary Cooper might actually have had to tone down his act to do Olerud. "He's an exception, all right," says Carter. "Guys will tell you things about Oly, but I make it a point to talk to him every time I see him and try to get more than one or two words out of him. The other day, I got two whole sentences. It's not that he won't talk to you; he's just not going to be the one to start."
Olerud's Lou-ish left-handed stroke seems almost an extension of his character: easy, even and seamless. He also has preternatural patience and discipline. Recalls Toronto manager Cito Gaston, "The first day he took batting practice, right out of college, every middle to outside pitch he took to left, every inside pitch he pulled, and everything he hit was a line drive. Guys who have played 10 years can't do that."
Olerud, of course, offers a different evaluation. "Sometimes I get looking too much for one particular pitch," he says, "and I don't react to what's thrown. If I fault in one direction, it's usually being too tentative."