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The greatest two-way college baseball player ever? Probably John Olerud

7:23 AM ET

  • Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer

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    • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
    • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
    • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

Here is how great John Olerud was in college.

Every week during practice, the Washington State baseball team ran the Ole (pronounced “Oh-lee”) Drill. The beanpole underclassman would step into the batter’s box while his Cougars teammates took their positions in the field. As pitches were hurled toward Olerud at the plate, head coach Bobo Brayton would loudly growl out the situations he wanted his defense to practice.

“Hot grounder through the six-hole!”

Olerud would meet the ball with a downward stroke that sent a worm-burner just past the outstretched glove of the shortstop.

“Double over your heads and off the left-center-field wall!”

Olerud would stroke a slow-rising glider that outran the outfielders — and indeed ricocheted off the wall in left-center.

Brayton would keep going.

“Infield fly between the mound and first! Baltimore chop toward third! Opposite-fielder down into the corner!”

“It was the craziest damn thing I’ve ever seen,” recalls Dave Wainhouse, who played with Olerud at Washington State and played against him in both high school and in the majors. “Whatever Bobo said to do, no matter how crazy, John just did it. I can’t remember a time when he missed. You would catch yourself just watching him. And that happened all the time, not just in practice. During games too. That’s how good he was.”

John Olerud wasn’t merely good at Washington State. He wasn’t simply great either. He might very well have been the greatest college baseball player who ever walked his golden spikes onto campus. Over three seasons (1987-89) in Pullman, he hit .434 with 33 homers. He also posted a career pitching record of 26-4.

“You would prepare for a series against Washington State by saying, ‘OK, we know John Olerud’s going to get his three hits, so let’s just try to minimize the damage he can do with those hits,'” recalls Mark Marquess, Stanford’s head coach from 1967 to 2017 and part of the other half of a massive Cardinal-vs.-Cougs rivalry during Olerud’s three seasons. “Then you had to remind everyone that, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s also pitching Friday night and he hasn’t lost a game all year.'”

The list of the greatest two-way college baseball players is packed with legendary names, from Tennessee’s Todd Helton and Kentucky’s A.J. Reed to Texas Longhorn Brooks Kieschnick and Minnesota’s Dave Winfield. So many of those legends were built on foundations of both Paul Bunyan-sized stats and personalities.

But they all might very well take a backseat to the gentle giant from Seattle, who at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, was built like Ted Williams, with a textbook swishy swing to match. But unlike the vociferous Splendid Splinter, Olerud chose to speak softly while swinging his stick, all the while making others swing and miss with theirs.

“I’ve always been so proud of what I did in college, being a two-way player, and I loved tracking other guys who played the same way,” says Winfield, the four-sport Golden Gophers star who legendarily won Most Outstanding Player of the 1972 College World Series even though his team failed to make the finals. He hit .467 while striking out 29 batters.

“I had heard about this kid from Washington State and the numbers he was putting up,” Winfield says. “Just a couple of seasons later we started the season hitting back-to-back in the starting lineup with the Toronto Blue Jays. The first time I saw John take live batting practice, I said, ‘OK, this is the guy they were telling me about.’ And yeah, he was every bit as good as they told me he was. We won a World Series together in 1992 and the next year he nearly hit .400. I don’t think I ever saw his pulse rate get above 60. We started calling him Hobbsy, because he was this aw-shucks guy who could hit like you’ve never seen, like Roy Hobbs from ‘The Natural.'”

When Winfield talks about his old lineup mate, he quickly shifts the conversation away from the numbers.

“Then, when you asked him about that helmet that he always wore, even in the field, and you learned the story of what he had overcome, that’s the real story of John Olerud,” Winfield said.

The Hall of Famer is speaking about the moment Olerud was quite literally struck down by an unforeseen illness. His 1988 sophomore season was historic. He hit .464 with 23 homers and 81 RBIs. He also posted a perfect 15-0 record on the mound with a 2.49 ERA and 133 strikeouts, doing so as college baseball was stepping into the dawn of its tricked-out-bat-powered “Gorilla Ball” era. He was named Baseball America’s College Baseball Player of the Year at 19. The following January, as the Cougars were in the middle of preseason workouts, Olerud was running indoors with his teammates when he collapsed suddenly. He was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a stroke that was pouring blood into his spinal column, though the initial X-rays failed to diagnose the true cause of the problems. His father, Dr. John Olerud, also a former Wazzu star and the head of dermatology at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, sought a second opinion. That X-ray revealed a brain aneurysm just behind his nasal cavity. Had it burst, it could have been fatal. So that February, just as he should have been starting his junior season, Olerud underwent a six-hour brain surgery. Dr. Olerud requested the surgeons go in through the left side, to minimize any potential damage to the right side of his brain, the half that controlled the baseball-critical motor skills of the left-handed hitter and pitcher.

By mid-April, Olerud was back in the lineup, wearing a helmet full time, and he hit .359, good enough to earn first-team All-Pac-10 honors as a designated hitter. He was drafted in the third round by Toronto and skipped the minors entirely, joining the Blue Jays only a few days after signing. He never pitched professionally, but he didn’t need to, hitting .295 over 17 seasons, earning a pair of All-Star Game selections, three Gold Gloves and a pair of World Series rings.

Meanwhile, the John Olerud legend continues to loom large. Since 2010, the College Baseball Hall of Fame has presented the John Olerud Award to the sport’s best two-way player of the season. He still lives in Seattle, where he and wife Kelly run the Jordan Olerud Foundation, providing support for parents of children with special needs. Their middle child, daughter Jordan, was born in August 2000 with the rare chromosome syndrome tri-some 2P, 5P-, missing an extra second chromosome and missing part of a fifth, which greatly hampered her physical and mental development.

Olerud’s final five big league seasons were played back in Seattle with the Mariners as he tried to navigate caring for Jordan.

“It was a challenge that is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there,” Olerud explains. “That’s why we started the foundation in 2003, to try and set up a support system for parents who find themselves where we did, with their world turned upside down. There is help out there, but there was no road map for us to find that help. Hopefully we have helped people to find the guidance and help they need, because we were right there, for 19 years.”

On March 1, the Olerud family announced that Jordan had died at the age of 19.

“That was the last time that I saw John and it was the first time I had seen him in a long time, even though we live close to each other,” says Wainhouse. “It was great to see him, despite the circumstances, and it was a reminder that we all need to do a better job of staying in touch.”

It was also a reminder of the good old days on the Palouse, when the quiet gentleman from the Pacific Northwest set records with his arm and his bat that might never be broken.

Among the general public, the greatest two-way player in the history of college baseball might never be as acknowledged as he should. But back in Pullman, No. 18 will never be forgotten. “For years, Bobo kept putting John in the lineup, even after he was long gone,” Wainhouse says, laughing. “When you’d ask him about it, he’d say, ‘Hell, Ole was the best player we’ve had, so we might as well keep plugging him in there, just in case.'”

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