ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Commuting to work this season, Mets first baseman John Olerud
has sometimes taken the subway, a 17-stop odyssey on the
Flushing No. 7 line from his apartment on Manhattan's East Side
to Shea Stadium in Queens. During these trips, Olerud insists,
not a single passenger on the crowded train has ever recognized
him, which speaks partly to the blase nature of New Yorkers but
also to Olerud's shrunken celebrity.
After all, just four seasons ago Olerud was baseball's cover
boy, a 25-year-old with a smooth lefthanded swing who chased the
elusive .400 mark into August and helped the Blue Jays win their
second straight World Series. However, after batting .363 that
year, Olerud had three consecutive disappointing seasons, and
his stock dipped so dramatically that Toronto traded him last
December to the Mets for Robert Person, a righthander with just
five major league wins. In fact, the Blue Jays were so eager to
jettison Olerud that they agreed to pay $5 million of the first
baseman's $6.5 million salary in '97, a record for cash included
in a baseball trade.
Toronto brass will be pleased to learn that while Person was 0-4
with a 6.39 ERA through Sunday, at least Olerud is earning his
bucks from the Blue Jays. At week's end he was among the
National League's top 10 in seven batting categories. "I don't
blame Toronto for trading me, because I had a big contract and I
was coming off some mediocre years," says Olerud, who becomes a
free agent after this season. "It was clear that I needed a
After finishing that brilliant '93 season with the American
League batting title, 24 homers and 107 RBIs, Olerud slipped to
.297, 12 homers and 67 RBIs in the strike-shortened '94 season.
The following spring Toronto manager Cito Gaston suggested that
he concentrate on hitting for more power by pulling the ball. As
a result Olerud's stroke deteriorated, and by last season his
average was down to .274. "I could've swung the bat the way I
thought was best, but I didn't," Olerud says. "I did what they
asked because I wanted them to stick with me. I learned a lesson
that you have to stay with whatever style makes you successful."
Toronto G.M. Gord Ash isn't convinced that Olerud is any
different than he has been the last few years, and he says, "NL
teams don't know how to pitch him yet, plus they aren't
positioning themselves the way teams in the AL did."
Says Mets manager Bobby Valentine, "It's like taking a Picasso,
putting it in another frame and calling it a Rembrandt. John's
swing is what it is."
Olerud went to spring training this year determined to
rediscover his natural stroke. New York hitting coach Tom Robson
gathered video from Toronto's '93 season, and Olerud identified
some subtle flaws in his more recent mechanics. Through Sunday,
Olerud was tied for ninth in the league in average (.333), walks
(30) and RBIs (40); tied for fifth in runs (39) and ninth in
total bases (105); and he was hitting .511 with runners in
scoring position (chart, below).
Olerud cautions that he has not fully recaptured his '93 form,
but he is feeling more and more comfortable at the plate. "It's
fun to get back to swinging like I should swing, because at
times the last few years I was an easy out," Olerud says. "I'm
back to hitting the ball where it's pitched, hitting to all
fields. Basically, I'm hitting like John Olerud again."
Eight inside-the-park home runs were hit between May 24 and 29,
the most over a six-day span in at least 50 seasons, according
to home run historian David Vincent. The variety of misplays
that set off the races around the bases was nearly as astounding.
The mad dashes began in Toronto on May 24 when the Angels' Darin
Erstad hit a blooper that ricocheted off sliding centerfielder
Otis Nixon's leg into leftfield foul territory. The next night
Twins shortstop Pat Meares lofted a routine fly that A's
centerfielder Damon Mashore lost in the vast Metrodome ceiling.
The trend reached epic proportions on Memorial Day in
Pittsburgh, where the Cubs' Sammy Sosa (after rightfielder Jose
Guillen crashed into centerfielder Adrian Brown) and the
Pirates' Tony Womack (after his fly ball eluded diving
centerfielder Doug Glanville) hit inside-the-park homers in the
same inning. "This is how bad it's going for me," said Guillen.
"I can't hit a home run anymore, but now I'm helping other guys
hit them." In Montreal, Doug Strange of the Expos also pulled an
inside job that day against the Mets after his long fly to right
center hit the wall and rolled across the artificial turf into
On May 27 the Braves' Kenny Lofton touched all the bases after
Padres leftfielder Greg Vaughn didn't field a live ball in the
San Diego bullpen--located in foul territory--because he was not
aware of the ground rules in his own ballpark. The same day, in
Kansas City, Craig Paquette of the Royals scooted home after
driving a ball over the head of A's rightfielder Jose Canseco.
Finally, on May 29, in Miami, Kurt Abbott of the Marlins hit a
deep drive past the outstretched glove of Rockies centerfielder
Who owns the longest hitting streak in Mariners history? Ken
Griffey Jr.? Edgar Martinez? Alvin Davis? None of the above. Try
Joey Cora, the club's unassuming second baseman, who hit in 24
Cora began his record run by going 1 for 3 against the Brewers
on May 2 and broke the team mark of 21 straight games--held by
Dan Meyer and Richie Zisk--with a first-inning single at
Minnesota on May 27. The following night at the Kingdome, Cora
set the standard for American League switch-hitters at 23 with a
third-inning single against the Rangers. Last Thursday, with the
Mariners trailing Texas 8-2, two outs and nobody on in the
ninth, nearly 29,000 fans remained at the Kingdome to watch
Cora, who was hitless in his first four plate appearances, try
to keep the streak alive. After Seattle fans gave Cora a
standing ovation, he beat out an infield single on an 0-and-2
pitch from Ed Vosberg, bringing a roar from the crowd. His
streak was snapped last Friday when he went 0 for 3 with a walk
in four plate appearances in a 5-2 loss to the Tigers.
Cora, who raised his average 127 points during the streak and
was batting .362 at week's end, has an unusual explanation for
his torrid bat--and the reason has nothing to do with juiced
baseballs or warm weather. "I started using Michael Jordan
cologne about the same time the streak started," Cora says. It
must be the scent.
It's not so much Scott Erickson's right arm that has rejuvenated
his pitching career in Baltimore as what he sees over his right
shoulder. When he's on the mound, Erickson spots shortstop Mike
Bordick and third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., veteran infielders
with identical .978 career fielding percentages, who had handled
a combined 15,226 defensive chances in the majors at week's end.
The signing of free agent Bordick allowed the Orioles to shift
Ripken from short to third, replacing B.J. Surhoff, who is back
in the outfield where he belongs.
When Erickson looks to his left, he sees six-time Gold Glove
winner Roberto Alomar at second and the unsung Rafael Palmeiro
(a career .994 fielder but nary a fielding award) at first,
completing what may be the best defensive infield in baseball.
That's good news for Erickson, who throws one of the game's best
sinkers. "I've realized that getting an out with one pitch is
better than throwing four or five pitches," he says. "I feel
better about letting the hitters hit the ball. I've got great
defense behind me, so why not rely on those guys to make the
Pitching half his games at Camden Yards, where the ground is
soft and the grass is thick, Erickson leads the American League
in ratio of ground ball hits and outs to fly ball hits and outs.
At week's end 75.1% of the hits and outs off him came on
grounders, so naturally he was also tied for the league lead
(with Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte) with 14 ground ball
While overshadowed in the Orioles rotation by free-agent pickup
Jimmy Key, a lefthander who began the season 8-0, and
righthander Mike Mussina, a longtime fan favorite who came
within two outs of pitching a perfect game last Friday, Erickson
was among the league leaders with eight wins and a 2.94 ERA
through Sunday. After four lackluster seasons in which he didn't
finish with an ERA under 4.81, Erickson has rediscovered his
form from '91, when he won 20 games with the Twins and finished
second to Roger Clemens in the Cy Young voting.
There are other factors in Erickson's resurgence. He has been
reunited with catcher Lenny Webster, a teammate during his days
with Minnesota. Erickson has also added a sharper slider and a
changeup to his repertoire this season.
With Toronto's recent signing of Ruben Sierra, the former
All-Star has to collect his $5.5 million 1997 pay from four
organizations. Along with the Blue Jays, who will pay him a
prorated major league minimum salary (about $105,000), Sierra
gets money from three of his former employers: the Yankees
($500,000), the Tigers ($4.375 million) and the Reds ($520,000).
Sierra originally signed his current contract (five years, $28
million) with Oakland on Dec. 23, 1992, but the Athletics no
longer have to pay him a cent.... During the off-season the
Phillies tried to invigorate their offense by signing free
agents Rex Hudler and Danny Tartabull. Those two are being paid
a combined $3.3 million and at week's end were hitting a
combined 6 for 53 (.113) with no homers and no RBIs.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON/SABA Just one of the crowd on the subway, Olerud was riding pitchers at a .333 clip through Sunday. [John Olerud on subway train]
COLOR PHOTO:KEITH SRAKOCIC/AP Sosa's inside-the-park homer was the first of his career and one of 13 in the majors so far this year. [Sammy Sosa sliding into home plate]
COLOR PHOTO:CHUCK SOLOMON Backed by superb fielders, Erickson tries to keep batters well grounded. [Scott Erickson pitching]
POPPING THE CLUTCH HIT
With a third of the 1997 season in the record books, it's no
surprise to see six-time National League batting champ Tony
Gwynn of the Padres leading all big league hitters with a .411
average at week's end. However, a better indication of Gwynn's
effectiveness at the plate this year is revealed by his major
league-leading .574 average with runners in scoring position.
Here are the 10 players who, through Sunday, could be most
counted on to deliver in that situation (minimum 25 at bats with
runners in scoring position).
Player, Team AB H RBI AVG.
Tony Gwynn, Padres 47 27 36 .574
John Olerud, Mets 47 24 28 .511
Mark Whiten, Yankees 25 12 13 .480
Jeff Cirillo, Brewers 45 20 32 .444
B.J. Surhoff, Orioles 42 18 26 .429
Joey Cora, Mariners 43 18 19 .419
Steve Finley, Padres 32 13 19 .406
Jeff Blauser, Braves 35 14 21 .400
Frank Thomas, White Sox 50 20 34 .400
David Justice, Indians 43 17 30 .395
Source: Elias Sports Bureau