TOT - Greg Olson Gets His Walking Papers
Greg Olson was a unheralded member of the early 90's Braves
Transaction of Today...November 6, 1989 - The Atlanta Braves signed Greg Olson as a free agent.
Those who consider baseball to be a non-contact sport have never watched a catcher before. Even when you're not getting beat up by foul balls and breaking balls in the dirt, you're dealing with the physical exhaustion of catching nine innings of triple digit fastballs on a day where the temperature feels like triple digits.
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And then...there's potentially getting run over by a guy coming toward home plate with everything he has. While baseball has done a lot to try to limit the instances of this happening, even in a regulated environment, they can and do occur. Before baseball intervened with new rules, though, it was even more common.
These hits can change careers. Just ask Greg Olson who, on this day back in 1989, signed with the Atlanta Braves.
Born in Marshall, Minnesota on September 6, 1960, Olson was a 7th rounder out of the University of Minnesota by the Mets in 1982. While I was far too young to remember it - I was born that same year - I probably saw Olson play in 1983 as my father was an usher at Lynchburg City Stadium and Olson played 107 games for the Lynchburg Mets. Olson was strictly a glove-first player who wouldn't have an OPS higher than .659 in any of his first three-and-half seasons. But for the time period, that was not abnormal. Catchers were supposed to catch first, catch second, catch third, and if you occasionally pop a homer, well, that's just awesome.
Olson did find his footing in 1987 with a .770 OPS in 47 games in Triple-A. His follow-up in a return to Tidewater in 1988 wasn't quite as good, but he still hit .267/.349/.381 over 115 games. The Mets could have opted to add Olson to the 40-man, but felt good enough with Gary Carter, Mackey Sasser, and Barry Lyons to let Olson leave via minor league free agency.
Olson came home, signing with the Twins for the 1989 season. He hit just .235 with Portland, but in late June, Olson received the opportunity he had been fighting for. He was called up to the majors. Over the next week, he'd appear in three games - all as a defensive replacement - and went 1-for-2 with his first hit off Bryan Harvey of the Angels.
After the season, the Twins chose to let Olson hit free agency and that's where Olson would run into a pretty good situation.
In Atlanta, general manager Bobby Cox was desperate for some catching depth. The aging Bruce Benedict retired after the 1989 season. Jody Davis, acquired during '88, hit an abysmal .169 in 257 PA. The Braves had a lot of hope that Jimmy Kremers, taken in the second round in 1988, would be the guy, but he had played for Greenville the previous season and wasn't likely to be ready for the majors in 1990.
The Braves brought in 38-year-old Ernie Whitt, a fossil from Cox's years in Toronto. Davis returned as well and Cox brought in Phil Lombardi, 26-year-old catcher who had played for both teams in New York. But Lombardi quickly retired and John Russell, another holdover from the previous year, refused an assignment to Triple-A. Because of the lockout and an expanded 27-man roster, when Lombardi retired a few days into the season, Olson joined the big-league club.
Initially, Olson couldn't find any playing time and was likely due to be sent to the minors when the roster went back to 25. But fate's kind of funny. On April 22, Nick Esasky's season-long issues with what would be later diagnosed as vertigo finally pushed him to the bench. On that Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, Davis moved to first base and Olson got into his first game as a Brave. The biggest highlight of the game was a three-run dinger by Dale Murphy off Tom Browning in the first. But the biggest revelation was related to the battery.
Pitching that day was Tom Glavine. Just 24, Glavine gave up nine runs in his first two starts of the year in just 11.2 innings. Whitt caught both games. But with Olson behind the plate, Glavine found himself. Over 7.2 innings, he allowed just one run on seven hits. He struck out five and picked up his first victory of the year as the Braves rolled to a 3-1 win. It was the Reds' first loss in ten games and just Atlanta's second win in as just as many games. Later, Glavine approached Braves manager, Russ Nixon, and said, "I like throwing to that guy."
That gave Olson more chances and the Braves later released Davis. Even better, Olson found his batting stroke. With Whitt's struggles and later injury issues, Olson became the guy behind the plate. Through May 31, Olson was hitting .290/.380/.507. While his numbers would fall, his big year still led to an All-Star appearance, the first time in 32 years that a Braves rookie played in the Midsummer Classic. Olson finish the season with a .262/.332/.379 slash and a career-best 7 homers.
The unquestioned starter behind the plate heading in 1991, Olson would ride his adrenaline down the stretch as he played all but two innings from September 1 to the final day on October 5. That included four extra innings games plus all 20 innings of a double-header on September 25. The 32-game stretch definitely hurt his full-season numbers at the plate as he hit .191 with a .552 OPS after September 1, but his value behind the plate meant too much.
He seemed to conserve some of his hits, too. In the NLCS, Olson caught every inning and had eight hits, including a Game Three homer. In Game Six, Olson came up with two outs in the ninth and Ron Gant on first in a scoreless classic between Doug Drabek and Steve Avery. Rather than pinch-hit for Olson, Bobby Cox stuck with him and he delivered an RBI double to score Gant for what became the only run scored in the game. In addition to calling Avery's masterful effort in Game Six, Olson would be behind the plate for John Smoltz's six-hit shutout to put the Braves in the World Series.
In the Fall Classic, he again delivered some offense with a RBI in Game 3's twelve-inning victory and a three-hit game in Game 5. But he'd go 0-for-9 in the final two games, both losses, that ended Atlanta’s run of greatness.
In 1992, Olson's offensive numbers again failed to rebound. The Braves had acquired Damon Berryhill at the end of 1991 and he cut into Olson's time as well. The Minnesotan was hitting .238/.316/.328 on September 18 as the top of the fourth inning got under way between the Astros and Braves. Charlie Liebrandt had already been chased and the Braves were behind 6-3. Ken Caminiti led off the inning against Armando Reynoso with a double. As Jeff Bagwell flew out to David Justice in right field, Caminiti took third. Pete Incaviglia stepped in. Reynoso tried to find a pitch to strikeout Incaviglia, but the burly outfielder swung and sent one to right field. It wasn't very deep and Justice prepared to try to throw home.
Caminiti took off from third and Justice unleashed a strong throw. Sid Bream caught the ball rather than let it hit the ground and relayed it home. As Olson caught it, he moved the glove to meet Caminiti. The future MVP hit Olson high, running into the tag. Olson's right leg got caught under his body with his cleat digging the dirt as the weight of Caminiti pushed him down. Olson crashed back, and with the help of Caminiti’s momentum, Olson tumbled over in a crash that resembled the previous year’s collision with Dan Gladden. But this time, he didn’t get up. As he tumbled, you could see his right leg flail through the air kind of awkwardly before Olson settled onto his stomach. Face-down, he showed that he held onto the ball and then dropped the glove. Wincing in pain, he remained on the ground. If you’d like to see footage of this event, click here.
It was clear Olson had likely suffered a catastrophic injury. An air cast was put on his right leg and he was carted off. The x-rays were just as horrific as expected as Olson was diagnosed with a right fibula fracture and a dislocated right ankle. Olson would stick around the team moving forward, trying to be the best teammate he could be. His famous cast that had signatures from the team would be later auctioned off to raise money for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome research.
His injury may have also set the stage for Francisco Cabrera. Cox loved to keep a third catcher and would he have brought Cabrera or rookie Javy Lopez? The answer is probably Cabrera since he had more experience, but it’s worth asking the question. Whatever the case, with Olson out and Berryhill the starter, both Cabrera and Lopez made the postseason roster and Cabrera was put into the situation to drive in Sid Bream to win the NLCS.
Olson would return in 1993 and again split duties with Berryhill. And again, his OPS fell for the third consecutive year to a low .613. In the NLCS, Berryhill started all but one of the six games. In his final plate appearance, Olson was hit by a pitch by Danny Jackson in Game 4 and was lifted later. He didn't know it yet, but it was his final major league appearance.
After the season, the Braves were ready to hand the catching job to Lopez. They wanted to spend around a half-a-million for a backup catcher. Olson would have made more than double that in arbitration. The Braves released Olson two weeks after signing Charlie O'Brien. Two weeks later, Olson returned to the team that drafted him over a decade before - the Mets.
However, his time with the Mets would be short-lived. Working his way back from hamate bone surgery, Olson couldn't beat out Kelly Stinnett for the backup spot behind Todd Hundley. While a few offers to head to Triple-A to be a depth option for a major league team came filtering in, Olson decided that he'd rather be closer to his family in Minnesota.
Olson became the manager of the Minneapolis Loons, an independent team in the North Central League. On the team was a former teammate named Juan Berenguer along with a young kid with some impressive sideburns. After a 39-33 record in 1994, the Loons moved to the Prairie League and finished 43-26 in 1995. That youngster with the sideburns, Kerry Ligtenberg, briefly crossed the picket line during the Strike by signing with the Mariners, but was released and returned to the Loons. He excelled with a 2.73 ERA. Olson got Ligtenberg a tryout with the Braves and eventually negotiated a trade - six dozen baseball and several bats for Ligtenberg.
Olson would manage one more year before leaving the game behind. He then got his broker's license. In January of 2012, he was named the General Manager of Bearpath Golf & Country Club in Eden Prairie.
During his short career, Olson was part of some defining moments with the Braves. It was Olson leaping into John Smoltz's arms after the Braves clinched at least a tie for the NL West in 1991. In the World Series, it was Olson who went tumbling after a collision with Dan Gladden at the plate. That time, he got up. It was also Olson laying on his stomach with his leg broken in 1992. And then, there was the funny image of teammates rubbing his cast for good luck in the playoffs.
If you never looked deeper, Greg Olson's career wouldn't seem like much. Twenty-four other catchers in Braves history have a better career fWAR. But Olson's importance to the Braves goes beyond what is so easily seen. It's the rare ray of light in the 1990 season. It was his constant presence down the stretch in ‘91, catching nearly every inning from the impressive group of young arms the Braves had as they went from worst-to-first. It was the big knocks in the playoffs, the ultimately foolish effort to get onto the field to congratulate Cabrera after "The Slide," and the never-ending desire to always be the good teammate first-and-foremost. Hell, it's finding a guy who would become an important reliever for the Braves.
Olson is just an easy guy to love even after all these years.
After all, how can you not be romantic about baseball?
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