A Face in the Crowd by Katie Baker

Katie Baker (@katiebakes) is a writer for Grantland. She finds it impossible to read any of the below names without hearing Bob Murphy’s voice.

There’s a story about Rickey Henderson that goes like this: After being released by the Mets in 2000 and picked up by the Seattle Mariners, he approached teammate John Olerud and asked him what was up with the whole batting helmet in the infield thing. Olerud explained that he had always worn it, having undergone a 1988 surgery for a brain stem aneurysm. Rickey nodded.

“Last year when I was with the Mets,” he said, “I had a teammate who always wore his helmet too.”

“Yeah, Rickey … that was me,” Olerud said.

The story isn’t true, sadly — it was a Mets clubhouse joke that was erroneously reported as fact (this even in the days before Twitter!) and gained traction because, as the New York Post reported, “of Henderson’s history of saying odd things. For example, last year Henderson couldn’t remember GM Steve Phillips’ name.”

But it’s really a John Olerud story at heart. That his role in the tall tale was (and remains) even remotely believable is a sign of how unassuming he was, always half-hidden serenely beneath that doctored batting helmet of his as if it held powers of invisibility. The player whom, as a sophomore in college, had been deemed one of those coveted Faces In The Crowd, at times appeared practically faceless.

Olerud went straight to the majors from college, but his breakout season came several years later in 1993, when he flirted for a little while with .400 and earned an All-Star nod and a 4-games-to-2 World Series victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Still, a Steve Wulf column comparing Phillies first baseman John Kruk to Olerud merrily painted Olerud as bland: “they’re both named John, but one is Cougar Mellancamp and the other is Philip Sousa,” Wulf wrote, adding that Kruk was beer and Olerud was … milk.

“He don’t talk,” said Kruk of Olerud. “Man, that guy is boring. He just gets his three hits a game, that’s all. He didn’t say a whole lot at first base. He don’t like me, I guess. I can’t say I blame him.”

Olerud, for his part, was later taken aback by the suggestion that he didn’t like Kruk. “That’s not true,” he said. “I don’t know him very well, but he seems to be a good guy, and I very much respect him as a hitter.”

Heartbreaking! My own real exposure to Olerud came from his all-too-short stint with the Mets during their slow late-90′s crawl back toward relevance. He wasn’t fast (it’s a true wonder that he hit for the cycle twice in his career) but he was efficient and economical in other ways — his glove Gold, his swing once described as “so sweet you could pour it on pancakes.” He set several single season team records, hit .354 in 1998, and helped twice bring the team to within a game of making the postseason.

More importantly, in 1999 he was part of one of the top Ninetiesest Sports Illustrated covers of all time:

(At least Rey wore a shirt.) But alas, such a provocative cover — look at Olerud giving Robin Ventura that headlock! Whatta jokester, that guy! — was little more than a farce. His name appears only thrice in the 2000-word article:

1. “With shortstop Rey Ordoñez showing more reliability to complement his gymnastic flair for the spectacular and first baseman John Olerud providing his usual steady play, New York gives away almost no runs.”

2. “Alfonzo (four errors), Ordoñez (four), Ventura (seven) and Olerud (eight) had combined for as many errors as Ventura’s replacement with the Chicago White Sox, Greg Norton.”

3. [Part of a quote from JT Snow]: “Ordonez and Alfonzo stand out up the middle, but Ventura has five Gold Gloves, and Olerud gets the job done.”

That, in a piece ostensibly about “THE BEST INFIELD EVER,” of which he represented 25%. Poor Olerud. With coverage like this, it’s really no wonder that everyone might believe that he’d be forgotten about one day by Rickey Henderson.

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5 Responses to A Face in the Crowd by Katie Baker

  1. Elliot S says:

    John Olerud is my all-time favorite athlete. Legit. And not surprisingly, that’s my favorite SI cover as well. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Andrew G says:

    I’ve been honored to play baseball with Elliot S. His swing emulates that of a younger, smoother, faster John Olerud. The legend continues.

  3. Elliot S says:

    Andrew — Sod off, tosser.

  4. LB says:

    .354 in 1998 not 2008, I think.

    I have no idea how to verify this, but I recall that he was still above .400 on August 1, 1993. Regardless, I think he did more than “flirt” with .400 that year.

    And that year Olerud-Molitor-Alomar finished 1-2-3 in BA in the AL. Molitor did play some games at 3rd = better infield ever?

  5. Eric says:

    Thanks, LB. Typo fixed.