When John Olerud and Kelly Plaisted were high school students in Bellevue, Wash., people who knew them felt that they should be a couple long before they became one. Kelly will tell you that it didn't take her long to realize that John was the right man for her. But it wasn't until they were in college three years later, John at Washington State and Kelly at Arizona State, that they became more than just friends.
Even then there was no rushing the always-deliberate Olerud. He thought they should date for two years and be engaged for another year, and that is exactly what happened before he and Kelly were married last November, thereby removing the friendly, clean-cut and universally liked Olerud from the top of the list of eligible young men you would most like your daughter to marry. "One thing about him you have to understand," Kelly Olerud says, smiling at the thought of their slow-developing courtship. "John does like to take his time."
As his marriage to Kelly indicates, Olerud may wait awhile, but he doesn't let the really good ones go by. The Toronto Blue Jays' first baseman was hitting a league-leading .453 at week's end, with 18 runs batted in and 11 multihit games, including four three-hit games and a five-hit game last Thursday. Says Blue Jay batting coach Larry Hisle, "I tell the guys at the start of the year that the less I talk to them, the better they must be hitting. At this rate, John and I might never talk."
Olerud, whose swing is so sweet it should be poured on pancakes, takes his time doing just about everything, with the notable exception of making it to the big leagues. He jumped straight from Washington State to the majors late in the 1989 season and has never spent a moment in the minors. But in almost every other way he is a man who moves at his own leisurely pace. If you are his dinner companion, be prepared to stay late at the restaurant, because he satisfies his voracious appetite—"I'm a big food guy," he says—slowly. He is often one of the last Jays out of the clubhouse after games because he is in no hurry to get dressed. Even when he's running at full speed on the bases, Olerud isn't what you would call a blur; he was nicknamed Cheetah in high school because he was anything but. Even his heart seems unhurried. His resting heartbeat was once measured at a remarkably serene 44 beats per minute.
Olerud's calm is also evident at the plate, where his eye for the strike zone makes him especially selective, sometimes to a fault. "Oly is so patient that he used to get himself behind in the count," says Jay bench coach Gene Tenace. "He'd take a couple of strikes because they weren't his kind of strikes, and before you knew it, he'd be behind 0 and 2 or 1 and 2. We tried to keep reminding him to be more aggressive early in the count, because once you get behind, you're probably going to have to hit some kind of freak pitch, the forkball or the split-finger or something like that."
This season Olerud seems to be hitting everything and justifying the belief held by many baseball people that he would someday be a batting champion. The feeling around the American League is that this could be Olerud's much-anticipated...
"Break-out year?" he says, finishing the sentence. "I've heard people say that. The last couple of years I thought I might break out, and then I got off to a slow start both times, but this year is the best start I've ever had. I don't want to jump the gun and say I've finally got it all figured out, but, yeah, this has a chance to be a pretty enjoyable year."
That isn't to say Olerud's first three full seasons in Toronto were chopped liver. He hit .284 with 16 homers and 66 runs batted in last year, perfectly respectable numbers. But that was below what he and the Jays believe he's capable of. Olerud, 24, must be the most admired career .269 hitter in baseball. His smooth, compact lefthanded swing is considered the stuff of which instructional videos are made. In fact, the New York Yankees' Don Mattingly studied the famed Oly stroke to help pull himself out of a batting slump in 1990. "I asked him in spring training when he was going to stop messing around and go ahead and ring up that first batting title," says Toronto DH Paul Molitor. "With his stroke and his eye and the way he uses the whole field, you know he's going to put up really big numbers."
Olerud seems so effortless at the plate that the Jays have taken to calling him Hobbsy, as in Roy Hobbs, the hero of The Natural. Indeed, Olerud's life story reads a little like fiction. When he was a junior at Washington State, he had to undergo a delicate, life-threatening operation to repair an aneurysm at the base of his brain. A scant seven weeks after the surgery, he was back pitching and hitting for the Cougars. A few months later Olerud signed with Toronto and became just the 16th player since the start of the amateur draft, in 1965, to make his professional debut in the major leagues. But then his father, Dr. John Olerud, had already enjoyed enough minor league experience for the two of them. Says Dr. Olerud, an ex-catcher who became a dermatologist after getting as high as Triple A, "I played in every league but the American and National."
Although the Jays let John Jr. take the mound in the Instructional League after the '89 season, they envisioned him as a dominant hitter, not a pitcher. That projected dominance was readily apparent last Thursday when Olerud went 5 for 5 in a game against the Kansas City Royals. Olerud literally used the whole field, doubling down the leftfield line, singling on a line drive off the pitcher's leg, singling down the rightfield line, doubling off the centerfielder's glove and singling on a high chopper up the middle. Says Chicago White Sox manager Gene Lamont, who was the victim of an Olerud three-hit game earlier this month, "We're still trying to figure out how to pitch to him. When Olerud's hitting well, he's one of those guys who doesn't seem to have a hole. There's no place to attack him, and he won't help a pitcher by going after balls out of the strike zone. A tape of him hitting ought to be mandatory viewing for young lefthanded hitters."
The 68 runs Olerud knocked in two years ago are his career high, but he and the Jays think that as the number-five hitter in their potent lineup he should drive in at least 30 more this season. "I don't want to put pressure on him, but John can drive in 100 runs and hit 20 or so home runs a year," says Tenace.
But RBI men aren't usually so finicky at the plate. They go up there hacking. To become a big run producer, Olerud knows he'll have to keep doing more swinging and less looking. "I think it's true that sometimes I wait for the perfect pitch and let some good ones go by," he says. "When I'm struggling, I wind up kicking myself after a lot of pitches, saying, Man, that was a good pitch to hit, I should have gone after it. And if I don't say it to myself, I know I'll hear it from half the coaching staff."
Olerud's success in this, his fourth full year, may just be part of a natural progression from wide-eyed newcomer to established veteran. Says Kelly, "He told me during spring training that this was the first year he really felt entirely comfortable with the Blue Jays and with being a major league player in general." Many of Olerud's teammates think that Kelly herself is responsible for that newfound feeling of comfort, that her outgoing personality has rubbed off on her soft-spoken husband. Olerud agrees that there may be something to that theory. "Just her presence has helped," he says. "Having someone I feel totally relaxed with has probably made me a little more relaxed around other people. She's an athlete herself [Kelly went to Arizona State on a volleyball scholarship], so she understands the things I go through. It's not that I was unhappy before, but I'm happier now."
There was a time, in Olerud's early days with the Jays, when he was Toronto's quiet man. He may not exactly be the clubhouse clown these days, but he has become a bit more extroverted. "I was up here playing with guys I had watched on TV," says Olerud. "It wasn't that I didn't want to talk to them, it was just that I figured there was no way these guys would want to talk to me or go to lunch with me."
But slowly a more engaging Olerud has emerged. When he was asked recently about becoming the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, Olerud said he hadn't expected the comparison so early, "at least not until July or August."
"He never would have said that a couple of years ago," said Toronto leftfielder Joe Carter. "He probably would have just smiled and said nothing. Getting two sentences out of Oly used to be a real challenge."
But Olerud hasn't completely erased his shy, quiet image. Before the start of the season, a radio commercial for the Blue Jays was aired in which a guy named Bernie is at the Jays' spring training site in Dunedin, Fla. He calls a friend back in Toronto and tells him, "I've been working on John Olerud's shyness. Getting him to come out of his shell."
"Has it worked?" the friend asks.
"Terrific," Bernie says.
Olerud is nearby, waiting to use the pay phone, and Bernie puts him on the line with his friend, who says to Olerud, "Give us your comments on spring training, how you feel, how the other guys feel and how you think the team will do this year."
To which Olerud says, "Great."
"Atta boy, John," says Bernie. Then he whispers to his friend, "I've still got a little work to do."
That's how Olerud feels about his hitting: As impressive as his offensive performance has been this season, he thinks he has a little work to do. "It seems whenever you get to the point of thinking you've got things pretty well figured out, the game has a way of turning around and humbling you," he says.
Maybe so, but he may be ready to fulfill all the promise the Blue Jays see in him. Though John Olerud likes to take his time, it looks as if he's worth the wait.
Olerud carries the team as easily as he carries his wife, Kelly.