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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Love in the City at Century’s End

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Not every man’s a talker, John.
—Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin to William Daniels as John Adams, 1776

On August 13, 1997, Comedy Central debuted a new animated series called South Park. In its premiere episode, “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe,” uh…well, you pretty much got the major plot point right there. The fourth-grade kids who would soon take over basic cable entered the cartoon world pretty well drawn and remain recognizable from their original form twenty-three years later. At no point, however, did breakout character Eric Cartman drop into small-town Colorado conversation on his first evening on the air what would soon become his and one of the more ubiquitous overall catchphrases of the era this side of Austin Powers’s “yeah, baby”:

“Sweet!”

Several channels over on certain cable systems that fateful Wednesday night in television, the New York Mets were playing and defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-4. It would require ten innings and include four singles by a first baseman whose swing had come to be universally described one way above all others:

“Sweet!”

South Park continues to air to this day, but it was a true cultural influencer in the late ’90s. Its initial wave of popularity culminated two years after its unveiling in the release of a movie subtitled Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which somehow brings to mind that first baseman again, the one whose production as a Met couldn’t have been bigger; whose career as a Met should’ve been longer; and whose place in the upper echelon of Met history deserves to be uncut.

By 1999, both Eric Cartman and John Olerud were at the top of their games. Sure, Cartman was unabashedly foulmouthed while Olerud tended toward the closemouthed, but each had a way of grabbing the attention of those who knew that sooner or later they’d each make their presence felt — and that you’d hardly ever see either of them without a hat.

Eric Cartman always could recognize swings.

Cartoon or not, the South Park feature film — an old-fashioned, albeit quite profane movie musical — was an enormous hit in the summer of 1999, drawing boffo box office receipts, winning critical raves and attracting a Best Original Song nomination from the Oscars for the show-stopping “Blame Canada” (“with all their hockey hullabaloo/and that bitch Anne Murray, too”). Robin Williams was tabbed to sing it at the Oscars on March 26, 2000, which was three days before the next Met season was to begin, in Tokyo as well as in something of a state of mourning, for by 2000, John Olerud’s days as a Met were over. Yet instead of dwelling in sadness that he was gone, we really needed to smile that he was here among us for three sweet seasons.

And for Olerud arriving on the shores of Flushing Bay, thank Canada.

***
By December of 1996, John Olerud’s future appeared to be as the subject of a “Where Are They Now?” profile, as in do you remember that guy in the batting helmet, even when he played in the field, who flirted with becoming the first major league batter to hit .400 since Ted Williams? Actually, by December of 1996, that was a good question in the present. Whatever happened to that guy whose sweet swing — “so sweet it should be poured on pancakes,” as Phil Taylor’s memorable Sports Illustrated phrase framed it — was the toast of a continent?

In the summer of 1993, John Olerud of the defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays was causing a run on pocket calculators. Though he was enough of a prodigy to leap from his home state Washington State University to the Jays without minor league grooming, and his first three MLB seasons were good enough to earn him regular playing time for an absolute powerhouse of a ballclub, Olerud’s combined batting average from his 1989 cup of coffee to Toronto’s first pennant in 1992 was .269. Nice, maybe, but not particularly noteworthy.

Next thing you know, the guy you never saw without a helmet — a precaution born of the aneurysm he suffered in college — emerged in ’93 as the most dangerous man in North America whenever he held a bat. At the end of April, John was hitting .450. At the beginning of June, he was still at .400. Fans voted him to start the All-Star Game, at which point he was five points from the magic number. On the first night of August, he was two points over it.

“We’re still trying to figure out to pitch to him,” White Sox manager Gene Lamont told Taylor as Olymania was taking hold in the AL. “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 the balls out of the strike zone. A tape of him hitting ought to be mandatory viewing for young lefthanded hitters.”

The Jays kept soaring even as their first baseman leveled off. Olerud’s average cooled to .363, but it was plenty high enough to win the American League batting title, topping his teammate Paul Molitor by more than 30 points for what we love to call the crown. More than a decade before people began enthusiastically adding on-base percentage to slugging percentage and calling it OPS, Olerud was the best in his league at that, compiling a 1.072. Most Valuable Player Frank Thomas finished second. Most popular player Ken Griffey finished third. And the Blue Jays of WAMO — Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Molitor and Olerud — finished as world champions yet again.

So whatever happened to that guy to make as brilliant a batsman in baseball practically trivial three years later? For one, the Blue Jays stopped contending for world championships pretty quickly, with their drop in status coinciding with the before & after of the 1994-95 baseball strike. The Blue Jays were an attendance magnet the first five years they played in the super futuristic SkyDome. Soon enough, the novelty wore off. Coming up the ranks, hopefully to help lead a Jaynaissance, was a power-hitting catcher-outfielder who wasn’t really much on catching or the outfield, and when the DH slot got otherwise filled (by 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter), he needed a new position. That kid, Carlos Delgado, was a comer by 1996, with 25 homers and 92 rabies to his credit. That made Olerud, whose average had steadily dropped until it was nearly 90 points off its ’93 apex, a goner. That, and the fact that John’s power never matched what Delgado was demonstrating, which didn’t go over so well with manager Cito Gaston. That, and John’s contractually guaranteed compensation being deemed too heavy for an increasingly light bat.

A non-contender in a heretofore big market that decided the market had downgraded to middling did what teams of that ilk often do. It sought a taker for a contract it no longer wanted to pay — and paid much of the freight to have it taken off its hands. Shortly before Christmas of ’96, the Jays found their match in the Mets, who’d recently parted with first baseman Rico Brogna. They sent Olerud and $5 million (then a record for cash included in a trade) of the $6.5 million their former batting champ was owed to New York in exchange for pitcher Robert Person.

The next time you’re tempted to mope about all the horrific trades the Mets habitually make, please remember the Mets once traded Robert Person for John Olerud and received $5 million in the bargain. No offense to Robert Person. Loads of offense from John Olerud.

Where was John Olerud now? He was exactly where he needed to be — where we needed him to be, too, not incidentally.

***
What made John Olerud’s swing so darn sweet? In 1997, the first baseman explained to John Alta villa of the Hartford Courant that at his Ontario peak, “I used to be able to hit the ball where it was pitched really well. If the pitch was in, I pulled it. If it was away, I went with it.” Then the ’90s went deep and greater power was deemed a necessity. “After a while,” Olerud continued, his former team “started working with me to pull the ball, and I lost the feel for the outside pitch.”

When the lefty brought his bat through customs, the Mets were content to let the swing and the swinger be. Bobby Valentine noticed that John (whom the Mets drafted out of high school in 1986, before he opted for college) had “tried to change and drive the ball to right field in an attempt to hit more home runs. I don’t see that as a necessity when the guy can get a .400 on-base percentage and produce the amount of extra-base hits he has in the past.”

Good guy in a white hat.

“Once I got to New York,” Olerud agreed a few weeks into his Met career, “I found I was able to concentrate better on getting my swing down and being able to cover the plate.” Comfortable again at last, the tall fell in the hard hat began banging the ball like it was 1993. In his first month as a Met, John batted .356. It was a harbinger of the 1997 Mets’ renaissance. The team that had wallowed below .500 for six seasons was newly competitive, rising to an 88-74 record that nipped at the heels of the Wild Card-winning and eventual world champion Florida Marlins. Though Oly’s average dipped below .300 in the second half (landing at .294), he continued to deliver extra-base hits (34 doubles, 22 homers), drive in runs (passing 100 on the season’s final day) and, improbably, generate a cycle.

Mind you, it took an injured rookie outfielder playing out of position (future Hall of Farmer Vladimir Guerrero, in center instead of right and dealing with a sore hamstring) to help create the triple portion, but John was preternaturally pokey on the basepaths, so fair is fair. Besides, there was no questioning the single, double and homered he also hit on September 11, 1997. The triple was the only three-bagger of the year for Olerud, yet it came in the company of the other varieties of hit. Go figure.

And go figure what Cito Gaston anticipated for the quiet player the Jays were only too happy to have the Mets take off their hands: “John doesn’t look like he’s having fun playing,” his former manager said after the trade, suggesting that maybe once he played out the final year of his contract, Olerud would rather retire than play in the hostile environs of New York.

That, in the patois of the 21st-century Internet, proved a freezing cold take.

***
John Olerud and his wife Kelly took to New York like fishes to water. It was that natural. They set up their home in Manhattan, they took in the opera at Lincoln Center at the other Met, they walked all over the place, unless it was to get out to Shea, in which case you might spy No. 5 for the New York Mets on the No. 7 eastbound. Those vicious fans Gaston fretted might eat the low-key out-of-towner alive? We embraced him.

Especially his batting average, which was something the Mets had literally never seen from one of their own before. In 1998, in the first year of a new two-year contract Olerud signed quite voluntarily, John shattered a club record that had lasted as long as the one Babe Ruth held for home runs. In 1935, Ruth finished his legendary run with 714 dingers. Thirty-nine years later, Henry Aaron topped his equally legendary total. Though not as famous as “714,” Cleon Jones’s .340 from 1969 seemed just as unassailable to Mets fans and for just as long. To put it in perspective, the average second-highest behind Jones’s ’69 figure for 20 years belonged to…Jones: Cleon’s .319 in ’71. That .340 wasn’t remotely approached until Dave Magadan got hot in 1990 and stroked to a tune of .328. Lance Johnson smashed the club record for most base hits in a season with 227 in 1996, yet his average fell seven points shy of .340.

Along came Olerud’s 1998. John hit .354 for the Mets. It was not only fourteen points better than any average that had come before it, it is still fourteen points better than any Met average behind it. This was the Olerud of 1993 returned to full possession of that sweet swing and all the delicious hitting that poured from its spout. Except for an aberrantly dry June, John batted above .350 in every single month of the season. In September, when every game proceeded as if it would be the difference between the Mets’ breaking their decadelong playoff drought and going hunting & fishing per usual, John channeled Ted Williams, hitting .413. Against righties across the year, Olerud’s batted .346. Versus lefties, presumably a tougher matchup, he batted .375. And in case you didn’t notice him — this was, within the realm of NL first basemen, the Age of McGwire — he made sure you paid attention by connecting for nine hits in nine at-bats and reaching base fifteen times in fifteen consecutive plate appearances…in September…in a pennant race…in New York. When he wasn’t hitting, he was walking. John started 152 games; he reached bases in 144 of them.

After watching him for 160 out of a possible 162 games in 1998, the surprise wasn’t that John Olerud batted .354. The surprise was that .646 somehow got left on the table. When Olerud was hot, he was getting a hit or at least a walk. When he wasn’t hot, it was June, and that was over in thirty days.

The Mets wound up one game from a postseason berth after their schedule elapsed, dropping their final five to fall behind both the Cubs and Giants, who engaged in a tiebreaker to determine a Wild Card. Before anybody’d ever heard of the 2007 Mets, the 1998 Mets were judged to have collapsed. As a team, perhaps. But individually, Olerud never wavered one inch. John finished second to Larry Walker in the National League batting race in 1998, nine points behind a man who took half his swings not at pitcher-friendly Shea Stadium but thin-air Coors Field. The Met who’d supplanted Cleon Jones also finished second (to Barry Bonds) in WAR among NL position players; second (to Mark McGwire) in on-base percentage; and third (to McGwire and Bonds) in adjusted OPS+. Somehow, despite playing in the nation’s largest market for a ballclub that contended to its very last out, John Olerud received only enough votes to finish 12th in MVP voting. It was the year of Big Mac socking seventy balls out of ballyards and Sammy Sosa doing the same 66 times. A very good hitter whose case was best illustrated by more intricate calculations stood little chance of standing out.

Good guy in a black hat.

For someone who measured 6’5” and had no compunction about being seen out and about on public transportation, Oly sure had a way of keeping a low profile.

***
Technically, the 1999 Mets became the 1999 Mets on Opening Day in Miami. Spiritually, I’d date the idea that the 1999 Mets were surely the most special Mets ballclub since 1986 — and just as unmatched for specialness in the two-plus decades that have followed — to the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday, May 23, 1999. That was The Curt Schilling Game, one of those wins you name for an opponent because the presence of the opponent greatly explains why you won.

That was the day the 1999 Mets became the 1999 Mets.

The Mets were trailing the Phillies on a gray, desultory Sunday, 4-0, going to the bottom of the ninth at Shea. There’d been a rain delay to begin the day, and the ending had fait accompli hovering over it. Schilling had handled the Mets with no discernible resistance for eight innings. Starting the ninth was exactly what an ace of his caliber would be asked to do.

Mike Piazza singled to lead off and Robin Ventura homered directly thereafter. Now it was 4-2, but “even still,” as they liked to say on The Sopranos. Instead of losing by four, they’d lose by two. Brian McRae’s groundout made that much obvious. Then, though, Matt Franco singled and Schilling hit Luis Lopez. Say, a person with a Met rooting interest might think, the tying runs are on base. How the [bleep] did that happen?

Yet Schilling was still on the mound. These weren’t Old Days so old that starters weren’t removed when in trouble in the ninth. But Phillies manager Terry Francona didn’t make a move. His closer, Jeff Brantley, was unavailable and Schilling, by the skipper’s reckoning, appeared “in complete control”.

Yet the next batter, Jermaine Allensworth, pinch-hitting for Rigo Beltran (how are those for 1999 Met names?), singled to left and brought Franco home to make it a one-run game. Allensworth, however, was about to be erased on a 1-5 fielder’s choice at second, meaning the Mets had Lopez on third and Roger Cedeño, the batter who’d provided Schilling with his fielding choice, on first. With Edgardo Alfonzo up, Cedeño dashed to second. With Fonzie up a little longer, Schilling hit his second batter of the inning. Edgardo took first.

So here we were: the bases loaded, two out, a teetering Schilling continuing to be trusted by Francona and, at bat, John Olerud, the .354 hitter from the year before. In 1999, through Saturday, May 22, he was at .357. On Sunday, through eight innings, he had two singles. Now, in the ninth, over WFAN, Gary Cohen called what became of the first pitch Schilling threw to Olerud, the 28th of the inning, and the 136th of the game.

“The pitch to Olerud…line drive…BASE HIT INTO LEFT FIELD! In comes Lopez! Here comes Cedeño! Here’s comes Gant’s throw from left field…the slide…SAFE, THE METS WIN IT! THE METS WIN IT! Cedeño slides home under the tag of Mike Lieberthal, a two-run GAME-WINNING single for John Olerud, the Mets score FIVE RUNS off Curt Schilling in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mets win it in a REMARKABLE finish!”

While it wasn’t the first REMARKABLE finish the Mets crafted in 1999 — they had topped the Brewers three days earlier, 11-10, in a doubleheader during which Robin Ventura hit a grand slam in each half — it was the one that confirmed that this was the season when the Mets would be doing their best Pippin impression. They had magic to do just for us; miracle plays to play; parts to perform; hearts to warm; kings and things to take by storm. In the middle of the magic and the madness and the myriad ups and dangerous downs and the holding on to of hats (hard and otherwise) was a stoic figure whose big stick/soft speaking literally went without saying. Quiet John Olerud bested voluble Curt Schilling and was now batting .366.

When one recited the top of 1999 Mets’ lineup, unprecedented for power and production in Flushing, Olerud’s was inevitably the third name to come up. On its most bountiful days, it went Rickey Henderson, Alfonzo, Olerud, then Piazza and Ventura. Robin, Mike and Edgardo finished 6-7-8 in the NL MVP voting, and Rickey was practically in the Hall of Fame already. Olerud’s 19 homers and 96 ribbies were there, too. When we got to talking defense, John was necessarily a quarter of the conversation. Around the horn, from left to right, it went Ventura, Rey Ordoñez, Alfonzo, Olerud, every last one of them deft as all get out with the leather, though one of them maybe a little easier to miss. Robin, Rey-Rey and Fonzie attracted passels of praise for leaping, diving and performing sleights of hand. Less explicitly stated was that somebody had to reel in everything fired from odd angles to first. Ventura and Ordoñez won Gold Gloves. Alfonzo finished second to Pokey Reese. Olerud’s glove was there, too. His face joined the others on the cover of SI as well, no matter that the primary focus of the accompanying article was on Ventura.

John Olerud, content to hit and field without a lot of muss and fuss, went relatively unnoticed in 1999 as the Mets chased that playoff spot that eluded them in 1998. Mojo rose in his midst. He played in every game but one, starting all but four the Mets played. Opposing pitchers presumably kept an eye on him just as Olerud watched what they were doing quite closely. He walked 125 times in ’99, taking as gospel the bromide about it being just as good as getting a hit. It would figure that in the season cleanup man Mike Piazza set the franchise RBI record and five-hole hitter Robin Ventura drove in more runs than any Met ever other than Piazza, somebody would be on base a lot just ahead of them. Oly, you know, batted third in 159 games.

On July 10, when the Mets were somehow engineering a comeback at least as REMARKABLE than the one they mounted against Schilling, John Olerud batted in the ninth inning again. The score at the time was 8-7, the Mets with the 7. The other team was the Yankees, so, yeah, it was kind of a big deal in the moment. There was one out when Henderson walked and Alfonzo doubled over Bernie Williams’s head. Second and third, and Oly was up. Because Piazza was on deck, Rivera was forced to face Olerud. Talk about picking your poison.

John grounded to second. I bring that up here because I was shocked that Olerud didn’t win the game right then and there. We had to wait through an intentional walk to Mike and a pinch-single from Matt Franco to take it, 9-8. From the instant Fonzie beat Paul O’Neill’s throw from right, it became The Matt Franco Game, and quite rightly. But after two-and-a-half years of exposure to Olerud, I was convinced John would take care of Rivera the way I was continually confident John would take care of business, embodying BTO seven years before anybody thought to habitually blast “TCB” at Shea. Amid the oft-roiled waters of the Bobby Valentine epoch, Olerud was a sea of tranquility. It was rare when he spoke up, and if he spoke up, he had a good reason for it.

In early June of 1999, not that long after The Curt Schill…er, John Olerud Game, the heretofore hellacious Mets ceased to do much correctly. Bruised from an eight-game losing streak, Steve Phillips sent up a warning flare to his archnemesis Bobby V, purging three of the manager’s coaches, including the man in charge of helping the hitters, Tom Robson. Robson had helped no hitter as much as he’d aided Olerud. They’d been together since 1997, not coincidentally coinciding with Oly emerging from his downward Toronto spiral.

“He was the perfect hitting coach,” Olerud said after the dismissal. “He helped save my career. We came from the same philosophical school of hitting — hit the ball where it’s pitched — and we really hit it off.”

Olerud was so angry about having his mentor snatched from him that two months later, he said of Robson’s successor, Mickey Brantley, “We’ve been working together and he’s helped me with a few things.”

A team player doesn’t have to say much.

That was Oly, politely saying just enough to reporters when asked (no Steve Carlton media boycotter he), but refusing to stir the pot. It was no wonder that when John was drafted to appear in the classic Nike NY vs. NY stickball ads, his most memorable contribution was wearing a blue batting helmet and silently contemplating whatever Masato Yoshii just told him in Japanese.

In the course of playing almost every game of every season for three seasons, John just did his job and did it extremely well. He’d get to the ball. He’d dig out the throw. He’d drive in the run. He’d reach base. He’d be John Olerud, and everything would be OK.

• Like that time Greg McMichael gave up an eighth-inning lead to the Rockies, just as the Mets were asserting their contending aspirations for real in May of ’97, and Oly rode to the rescue with a ninth-inning walkoff homer.

• Like that time he started and all but ensured a triple play. It was in August of ’98, with the Giants in town. Those charmers Jeff Kent (first) and Barry Bonds (third) were on base. J.T. Snow grounded to Olerud. Olerud threw to Ordoñez to get Kent. Ordoñez threw to Olerud to get Snow. Bonds? He got daring and dashed for home. John took note and threw to Todd Pratt. Bonds was out, 3-6-3-2, in the first triple play the Mets had turned in nine years. Score it two assists for the first baseman.

• Like that time in August of ’99 when most eyes at Shea gravitated to the visiting first baseman, McGwire. Ah yes, Mark McGwire. Even during that game the Mets beat the Cards two years earlier, on the night South Park premiered, McGwire seemed intent on stealing Olerud’s unassuming thunder. Olerud had four hits in a win? McGwire, still new to the National League, crushed two homers, including one off Mel Rojas — big surprise — to tie the game in the eighth. (Mark wasn’t chemically enhanced; like Cartman, he was just big-boned.) Now Big Mac was at it again, smashing a ball so hard and so high up the Shea scoreboard in the very first inning that it took out a light bulb. Who could compete with that? Try Oly, whose eighth-inning grand slam highlighted yet another REMARKABLE comeback.

The Mets steadied themselves to such a state of excellence by September of 1999, that the only thing that would have seemed remarkable would have been their falling apart just when everything they’d been striving for was in their grasp. As it turned out, ya couldn’t say the 1999 Mets weren’t remarkable in every way possible because, as if on cue, the Mets descended once more. This time it was into a seven-game losing streak that a) cost them their shot at dethroning divisionally dynastic Atlanta from first place and b) was killing their chance at the Wild Card. Everybody, even good old reliable John Olerud, was in a miserable slump at the worst juncture imaginable. Nothing was going right.

The Mets were bound to stop beating themselves. Wisely, with less than a week to go, they chose instead to beat Greg Maddux. Good choice! At first, it wasn’t so obvious that this night would be any different from the preceding nights and days of woe. Maddux was out in front, 2-1, going to the bottom of the fourth. But a blooper here, a bleeder there, and the Mets began to chip away. Even Al Leiter, whose batting average was generally as low as his pitch count was high, singled. There’d been six singles in all, allowing the Mets to cobble together three runs and load the bases.

Up came Olerud to swat a grand slam off the four-time Cy Young winner and blow the roof off of Shea Stadium. (What, you didn’t know Shea used to have a roof?) The Mets would go on to pummel the Braves and breathe life into themselves, setting us up for a final unlikely weekend. All our team would have to do is sweep the Bucs and hope a bunch that somebody somewhere else did us a favor.

The solid came from Milwaukee, where the Brewers beat the Reds Friday and Saturday. (Thanks, Crew.) By Sunday, with the Mets having taken two of two from Pittsburgh, we knew that if we could win one more game, the 162nd on the schedule, we’d see another day, maybe more. In the third inning, with the Mets down, 1-0, Olerud reached base and scored. In the ninth, with the score still tied at one, John came up with the most urgent game the Mets had played in more than a decade on the line. Melvin Mora was on third base. Edgardo Alfonzo was on first. All 124 RBIs of Mike Piazza were on deck. There was one out.

Bucs manager Gene Lamont — the same man who six years earlier described Olerud as a hitter without a hole — decided he’d rather take his chances with Mighty Mike than Big Bad John. Olerud was intentionally walked. This was about to become The Melvin Mora Game, courtesy of a Brad Clontz wild pitch and a savvy break off third from Melvin, but again, as in July against Mariano Rivera, or any time against any pitcher, really, I never didn’t have confidence that if somebody challenged John Olerud, John Olerud and thus the Mets would emerge victorious.

Mojo wouldn’t have risen nearly so high without Olerud in the picture.

What needed to get done got done. Clontz with the wild pitch, Mora with the scamper home, the Mets off to Cincinnati for this year’s sudden-death one-game tiebreaker, then, with that pocketed, to Arizona with the wildest of Wild Cards stowed securely in the overhead compartment. The 1999 postseason was about to feature the Mets.

And starring for the Mets in the course of two series, ten games and nine extra innings was John Olerud. Oly’s slash line was .349/.417/.558. His timing was exquisite, starting with Game One of the NLDS. In Arizona, he clobbered Randy Johnson for a homer, which was supposedly something lefty batters didn’t do to the lefty Unit. At Shea, before The Todd Pratt Game was properly named, it was Olerud who kept the sixth-inning rally that Al Leiter would nurse until the eighth going, and it was Olerud who lofted the fly ball to right that Tony Womack couldn’t find, setting up the tying run after Leiter (and Armando Benitez) couldn’t nurse that lead any longer. When the Mets were one loss from having their 1999 expire at the hands of the hated, hated, hated Braves in the next round, Olerud almost singlehandedly altered the prognosis. In NLCS Game Four, he homered off John Smoltz to give Rick Reed a lead in the sixth and, in the eighth, he wiped the smirk off John Smoltz’s loathsome face with the single that brought in the tying and go-ahead runs en route to the Mets’ literal must win.

The next day, Maddux returned to Queens, and just guess who couldn’t wait to greet him. Oly indeed got him for another home run. If nothing else, it would give Mad Dog something to stew over when he got to chatting with Smoltz and Johnson someday at Cooperstown. “Yup, we’re all in the Hall of Fame, yet John Olerud homered off each of us in the same postseason when the stakes were highest. That guy sure could hit.”

He sure could. Oly’d collect another hit in what was about to become The Grand Slam Single Game, though not the titular blow itself. In the fifteenth, with runners on second and third, Bobby Cox pulled a Gene Lamont and chose to intentionally pass Olerud, sensing in his wet, tired bones that John was likely to get on base no matter what. It was Olerud on first who trotted to second on Todd Pratt’s game-tying walk. It was Olerud on second who trotted to third on Robin Ventura’s very long hit over the right field fence, not that anybody noticed once Pratt turned from second to tackle Ventura, who’d blessedly touched first.

That was one time you couldn’t blame anybody for not noticing John Olerud.

In Game Six, John was in the middle of the Mets’ first rally, singling on the heels of Fonzie’s double in the sixth, which led to three of the most vital runs in franchise history. The Mets had been down, 5-0, and dead. Of course the Mets didn’t play dead very well in 1999, so it their fatal condition was only temporary. In the seventh, with the deficit four runs, Olerud once again warded off coroners, singling Henderson home (off Smoltz) to make it 7-5. Piazza followed with the frozenest rope of a home run you’ve ever seen, knotting the game at seven and setting the Mets up for Game Seven.

Strangely, that game never got played. Game Six kept going as long as it could, tied at nine heading to the eleventh. The Mets had let go of 8-7 and 9-8 leads by then, but I was confident we’d go back out in front in a matter of batters. John Olerud was leading off the top of the eleventh. John Olerud’s on-base percentage in the three seasons he’d been a Met was .425. It was the best in team history. (Heading into 2021, it’s still the best in team history). John Olerud’s batting average in the three seasons he’d been a Met was .315 (also the best ever by a Met with at least a thousand at-bats). Maybe he’d put the Mets ahead by himself or place himself in scoring position (of those who qualified over the first 38 seasons of Mets baseball, only Darryl Strawberry had posted a higher slugging percentage).

I just assumed John Olerud — whose lifetime Met OPS would add up to .926, a number no other Met has yet to match — would figure out a way to push the Mets into Game Seven, and after the Mets won that seventh game after trailing the series three games to none, John Olerud would, in the company of the rest of the never-say-die 1999 Mets, figure out how to win us a World Series. From there, it would just be a matter of calling into work to let them know I’m not coming in today because I’ve got a parade to go to.

Except John Olerud couldn’t do it all, at least not in the top of the eleventh. Versus Russ Springer, he flied out. The Mets who followed him to the plate, Shawon Dunston and Robin Ventura, also surprised me by not succeeding. I swear, I had so much confidence in those 1999 Mets. Alas, three up, three down. In the bottom of the eleventh…well, let’s just say there wasn’t a parade on my or the Mets’ agenda, though I did wind up calling the office after the Mets lost Game Six, 10-9, and leaving a voice mail that I was gonna be out sick.

The Braves, you see, they killed Kenny.

***
Give or take an ill-timed spate of Kenny Rogers wildness, I didn’t regret a second of the 1999 Mets. That was the kind of season you live for as a fan. John Olerud was the kind of player you live for as a fan. I swear he did nothing wrong for three years. Not that he didn’t leave the occasional runner on base, but he never let the Mets down. You could trust John Olerud right down to the nub of the only millennium you’d ever known.

Then, when the next one began, he was a Seattle Mariner, for crissake. I guess it was his idea. I kept reading how he and Kelly wanted to raise their family in the vicinity of their respective parents. The babysitting came a lot cheaper that way. Maybe if the Mets had made an offer as spectacular as Olerud’s 1998 season had been, he could have been lured back. Or maybe not.

“[W]e have our son now who is fifteen months old,” Olerud explained when he decided to sign with Seattle, and “as a husband and a father, I want to be characterized as a guy who puts family first, and that was a real big priority.” Nevertheless, he added, leaving New York did not come easy. “I had a great experience there, John said. “Everybody in the organization, people in the front office — the clubhouse and the players were all great. We really enjoyed the city as well. The fans treated us fantastic and the tough series we went through last year developed real camaraderie.”

“He just wanted to go home,” Jim Duquette, then the Mets’ farm director, recalled for the Athletic in 2020. “His agent was pretty upfront it would just have to take a huge offer for us to keep him. Even if we did that, he wasn’t sure he would stay in New York.”

MAYBE DO THAT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS???

Sorry, I’m yelling at the past again, which doesn’t really change the results from any already completed Mets games, seasons or eras, including the trajectory of the era the Mets were in as 1999 turned to 2000. They had come fairly close to the playoffs in 1997, then achingly close in 1998, then they landed at the doorstep of the doorstep to the World Series in 1999. That ’99 team may not have been perfect, but it was beautiful. Nobody was more beautiful than John Olerud. Without Olerud to marvel at, the eye of the beholder in 2000 simply couldn’t find them nearly so alluring.

You could have told us, Oly, our world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

Instead, we got Todd Zeile. And Zeile was not Olerud. Zeile wasn’t even a first baseman most of the time. He’d come up as a catcher and settled in at third for the approximately forty or fifty clubs in whose clubhouse he’d briefly set down his suitcases. An ESPN assessment of the Mets’ options in the days after letting John walk (he always could walk) declared Todd “an awful option…a player whose numbers always look better on paper than they do in person. More importantly, he is a defensive liability regardless of what position he plays.”

Yeah, so like I said, we got Zeile. He wasn’t awful. But, to reiterate, he wasn’t Olerud. Sports Illustrated was no longer tempted to laud the Mets’ infield as perhaps the “best ever” on its cover. “On base” was no longer a guaranteed destination for the first baseman, either. The Mets were different without Olerud. They were less fluid. They were clunky. They were also, for a year, more ultimately successful, reaching the World Series with Zeile. Todd put up some solid numbers during the season and some spectacular stats during the postseason. He was not quiet. He was one of those guys who came over and spoke up for the team when needed. He was, honestly, a very good Met for a pennant-winning club and, eventually, a well-liked Met, especially when he retired as a Recidivist Met, after a few more trips to a few other teams, in 2004.

And he still wasn’t John Olerud. Nobody was John Olerud except John Olerud. John Olerud kept being John Olerud as a Mariner. He was an All-Star his first year there, something the National League forgot to designate him as a Met. He was a big part of a 116-win juggernaut. He would win three Gold Gloves for them, too. When the M’s released him and he could stay home no longer, he’d make stops as a Yankee (BOO!) and a Red Sock (for whom he’d have to tune up in the minors for the first time in his life). In all, he’d play parts of seventeen major league seasons, retiring after the 2005 campaign. He was 37 then and had made Cito Gaston’s predictive capabilities look pretty shoddy. When he reached the Hall of Fame ballot in 2011, a decent sabermetric case was made for John’s consideration. Olerud could be seen as a harbinger of what baseball would value in terms of offense, what with getting on base nearly 40% of his plate appearances. Combine that with intermittent heights as high as Mt. Rainier, and why wouldn’t Olerud at least be the kind of player worthy of serious mulling for a few winters?

He got four votes and disappeared from the ballot ASAP.

Cooperstown’s loss, just like letting John go prior to 2000 was our loss. At the risk of cycling back to a few paragraphs ago, yeah the Mets with Zeile were real good just like the Mets with Olerud were real good, but man, it was just not as good. Or as elevating. Or as breathtaking. Or, yes, as beautiful. In a time of heated Met passions, John generated such warm affection. I wouldn’t call Oly the most popular Met ever, but I can’t think of any Met of tenure who was less unpopular. I don’t remember a discouraging word muttered or shouted in his direction from 1997 to 1999, and I’ve never heard anybody since 1999 declare relief he was replaced. Nobody seemed to not like him a ton. Nobody seemed to want him to leave. He didn’t come close to overstaying his welcome.

I would welcome watching John Olerud swinging several times a day every day. What a delight that I got to do exactly that for three years running. How sweet it was.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1968: Cleon Jones
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1971: Tom Seaver
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1974: Tug McGraw
1975: Mike Vail
1976: Mike Phillips
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1980: Lee Mazzilli
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1985: Dwight Gooden
1986: Keith Hernandez
1987: Lenny Dykstra
1988: Gary Carter
1989: Ron Darling
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1997: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2011: David Wright
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2015: Michael Conforto
2016: Matt Harvey
2017: Paul Sewald
2018: Noah Syndergaard
2019: Dom Smith
2020: Pete Alonso
2021: Steve Cohen

10 comments to Love in the City at Century’s End

  • Dave

    Finally, an article that makes the connection between Robin Williams singing “Blame Canada” at the Oscars and the best pure hitter in Mets history. Thanks Greg, that was overdue.

    And I do mean best. We had Keith, we had Cleon, we had Rusty, we had Magadan, etc. But Olerud…maybe not quite Tony Gwynn, but wow. The type of guy you could wake up at 3am, put a bat in his hand and he’d stroke a perfect pitcher’s pitch up the gap.

  • eric1973

    When Rickey Henderson was a teammate of Olerud on the Mets, he supposedly said that he played in Toronto with a guy who wore a helmet on the field.

    That is just pure Rickey, oblivious to everything and everyone around him.

  • open the gates

    Some of my all-time favorite Mets resided at first base. Starting with the current arctic resident, who is probably hibernating for the winter, preparing to club the rest of the league into submission next year. I liked Ike; also Rico and The Dude. Dave Magadan definitely makes the All-Time Underrated Met list. Carlos Delgado gave us that one great year. Todd Zeile was a big part of the 2000 Series run, and it’s not fair to blame him for having to fill Olerud’s shoes.I’d even stick Dave Kingman in there, warts and all – his dingers were majestic and numerous. I’ll even admit to being one of the few Met fans who was not sorry to see a couple of late-career years from Steady Eddie Murray – maybe the only hired gun on that early-’90’s team who gave some bang for his buck.

    Having said all that, when I think of all-time Met first baseman, I think first of Keith Hernandez, then John Olerud, then all the others. Pete Alonso stands a chance to expand the top two into a triumvirate. But for now, it’s Mex, Oly, and all the rest. Olerud was that special a player (as was Keith, needless to say). The guy did everything except run, and he did it smoothly and seemingly effortlessly. I was beyond disappointed when he left.

    Incidentally, I was at the Olerud cycle game. I saved the tickets, and they’re probably still in a drawer somewhere.

    • I was listening as I was walking home from the train station when Olerud needed just the triple, which was a long shot, to say the least. When he got it, I was outside my front door and yelped, “CYCLE!!!!” into the Long Island night. Somewhere, it’s still echoing.

  • BlackCountryMet

    Before my time but seems like a heck of a player

    • I’m trying to think of a modern-day Met allegory, but I don’t know if I have one. If anything, Olerud reminded me of an upgraded Dave Magadan (also before your time, I realize).

  • Eric

    Thanks. I asked and you delivered. Olerud is my all-time favorite Met. First I noticed the helmet in the field, then I was enamored by his game. His utterly calm quiet demeanor cinched my fandom. I was very disappointed when he left.