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Big Leagues No Big Deal to Him : Blue Jays: John Olerud, who recovered from brain surgery, seems unfazed by his jump from college ball to the majors.

May 24, 1990|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — The pressure suddenly thrust upon a 21-year-old making the jump from college baseball to the major leagues can be formidable, but John Olerud, Toronto Blue Jays rookie, seems unfazed by it all.

When you've sat in an operating room wondering if you'll survive surgery to remove a brain aneurysm, contemplating whether you'll live to see another fastball down the heart of the plate, what's a little transition from All-American to the American League?

"There's a lot of pressure, and you want to do well so you can stay here," says Olerud, the Blue Jays' part-time designated hitter and backup first baseman. "But at the same time, you have to realize it's not the end of the world if things don't work out."

Olerud came dangerously close to the end of his world on Jan. 11, 1989. Jogging with a teammate in Washington State's Hollinberry Fieldhouse, Olerud collapsed, the victim of a brain seizure.

He was diagnosed as having a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which caused bleeding into the spinal column. In simple terms, Olerud called it "a leak in my head that kind of patched itself up."

Olerud remained in a hospital for about two weeks after the seizure. He lost 15 pounds but felt good and was back in class by the end of January. Olerud, Baseball America's NCAA Player of the Year in 1988, suffered no brain damage and wasn't expecting to miss any of the 1989 season.

"He beat the odds tremendously," Dr. Scott Carlson, a Spokane, Wash., neurologist, said at the time. "He's probably not going to have any problems at all."

Carlson was wrong. About a month later, doctors discovered an aneurysm at the base of Olerud's brain, placing him in a life-threatening situation. He underwent surgery to remove it Feb. 27, 1989.

Two months later, Olerud joined the Washington State baseball team for his junior season.

A little more than six months later, Olerud was in the major leagues.

"I feel lucky to have made it through all that," said Olerud, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound left-hander who also was an outstanding pitcher in college. "When I first had the hemorrhage, I made it through, and after they found the aneurysm, surgery was successful. When I look back on it, I'm a little more appreciative of things."

Olerud, who likely will be in the lineup tonight when Toronto concludes its two-game series against the Angels, says he hasn't felt any ill effects from his brain problems.

"Once I made it through surgery, I could see clearly and move everything all right," he said. "I figured playing again was just a matter of getting my strength back. It wasn't like knee surgery or arm surgery, where you wonder if you'll run or throw the same. All the problems were in my head."

Doctors told Olerud he could run and throw and take batting practice as soon as he felt up to it.

Olerud didn't waste any time, beginning a training regimen one month after the surgery. He joined the baseball team April 15 and played 27 games, batting .359 with five home runs and 30 runs batted in. As a pitcher, he went 3-2 with a 6.68 earned-run average.

Olerud, projected as a first-round pick going into his junior year, wasn't nearly the player he was as a sophomore, when he set Washington State records for batting average (.464), hits (108), home runs (23), pitching victories (15) and strikeouts (113).

So he informed scouts that he would be staying in college for his senior year.

"My intentions were to go back to school, get my strength back and show people that I was the same player they saw in 1988," Olerud said. "I told them that first-round (bonus) money wasn't going to be enough to get me."

The Blue Jays still took a chance on Olerud, picking him on the third round of the June draft. Olerud, though, wasn't interested, and went to Alaska to play summer ball.

But by late August, Toronto had increased its package to include a signing bonus reported to be in excess of $250,000 and an $800,000 contract through the 1991 season--$300,000 more a year than the major league minimum salary.

What's more, the Blue Jays were in the middle of a pennant race, and front-office officials assured Olerud he would report directly to Toronto.

"They made me an offer that was too good to pass up," Olerud said. "I had an opportunity to be in a pennant race, and that's something a lot of great players never experience."

On Sept. 3, Olerud became the 15th player since the start of the amateur free agent draft in 1965 to make his debut in the major leagues, and he singled against the Minnesota Twins. He appeared in six games last September, getting three hits in eight at-bats for a .375 average. He was not eligible for Toronto's American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics.

This season, Olerud is platooning with Glenallen Hill at designated hitter and backing up Fred McGriff at first base. Olerud has played in 33 games, batting .250 with four home runs and 13 RBIs.

His strikeout total (21 in 100 at-bats) has been high, but Olerud has still impressed his teammates.

"He has unbelievable ability," Toronto catcher Pat Borders said. "It makes me mad, because I work so hard and I could never have a swing as nice as his. He reminds you of Wade Boggs--he has a super eye and a great swing. Everything is so compact, it's hard to make him look bad on any pitch."

Borders also is impressed with the way Olerud has handled all of the media attention and the pressure of being a rookie in the big leagues.

"Nothing fazes him," Borders said. "He's still the same person he was when he got here. He's very shy and not cocky about his ability. His head is screwed on straight."

Every once in a while, there are thoughts of that fateful January day in 1989, when he lay sprawled on the Hollinberry Fieldhouse track. But Olerud doesn't let those memories consume him.

"Sometimes when I'm working out or running on the back roads, I wonder if I'm going to collapse like I did before," Olerud said. "But I don't think about that everyday. Just occasionally."

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