Well, five great trades behind us (six including Leiter), we are halfway through our list. It’s interesting to note that so far all six players we have discussed (Leiter, Clendenon, Delgado, HoJo, Agee, and Grote) were part of Mets playoff teams. That streak continues today with John Olerud.
Even though I was a fan at the time, I still feel like I should write a letter of apology to John Olerud. He wasn’t just good. He was nearly great.
We wrote about it a year ago. I will call it the “Piazza factor,” but as terrific a player as John Olerud was I believe he was not fully appreciated. As we mentioned when discussing Al Leiter, that period was the height of the steroid era, and home run numbers were out of control. John Olerud, as pure a hitter as the Mets have ever had, was not a slap hitter, but he played first base, known as a power position. Hitters all over the place were getting 30 plus jacks a year, and that was not John’s game. It made it easy to under-appreciate him, something that began, thankfully for us, in Toronto. Cito Gaston wanted more pop from his first baseman, and Joe Mcllvaine swooped in to pick up the unwanted Olerud for Robert Person.
Cito drove Shawn Green out of town, too. Both Olerud and Green didn’t fit the mold of what Gaston wanted them to be — and he completely missed on appreciating the players they were. Interesting comparison to the current Mets organization that also wants its players to fit into a preconceived type. Long, long ago, in the 1980′s, I worked in the corporate world. I had a great boss, a wise old guy, and he used to say, “You have to take the whole man.” Meaning that we can’t pick and choose the attributes we want, while dismissing the flaws. You have to take the whole thing. This is true of marriage, too, the essential lesson. I think you get into trouble when you focus too much on a person’s weaknesses without properly balancing those against his/her strengths.
Deep stuff, I know. Please forgive me.
Getting back to baseball, there are very few players who can do everything well. So if you look for a problem, you can usually find it. John had few actual issues, the fact is he was no Dave Magadan. He could drive the ball. The only tool he did not possess was speed, I can’t give him that.
It’s amazing that Big John only played three years for the Mets. During that time he put us a slash line of .315/.425/.501. I mean, holy shit. And talk about consistency:
- 1997: 154 G, 22 HR, 102 RBI
- 1998: 160 G, 22 HR, 93 RBI
- 1999: 162 G, 19 HR, 96 RBI
In the 1999 NLDS, he had an OPS of 1.151; in the NLCS, he hit .296 and slugged a couple of homers for an OPS of .863 against a tough Braves staff. What’s more, he was a perfect #3 hitter, as solid as they come.
All that said, everybody just seemed to accept that he was going to leave the Mets for Seattle after the ’99 season. I didn’t flip out, and the organization seemed resigned to it, too. Weird. We should have been screaming for the Mets to keep him. He was only 30 years old and we let him walk.
We didn’t just lose a bat, we lost a glove too. Olerud was a fabulous first baseman, a three time Gold Glove winner. Zeile was okay, but he could not carry John’s bat, or his glove. We came so close in 2000, it is hard not to wonder how the team would have done in that World Series with Olerud still on the team.
Of relevance here, I think, is that this was yet another trade where the Mets gave up a live arm, Robert Person. There was a time when the minor league mavens were giddy about Mr. Person’s potential, but he never really amounted to a hill of beans — though for a time he was our hill, and our beans. It seems that historically, Mets teams have done well trading unproven pitching in exchange for projectable hitting.
In fairness to Robert Person, he looked like a pretty decent pitching prospect in the Mets system, though he didn’t crack the roster until 1996 (cup of coffee late in ’95). He went on to start 135 major league ballgames. That’s not nothing, including two good years with the Phillies in 2000 and 2001. For all his mediocrity, I’m glad (and heartsick) to learn to that Person went on to “earn” $11,972,000 over the course of his MLB career. Not bad for a guy who retired at age 33, unable to get anybody out for the Red Sox.
What I remember most about Person’s post-Mets career was an incident where the police had to hogtie him so he could be safely transported to the station, after resisting arrest. It was the day of his arbitration hearing, and is a reminder of how dangerous that process can be for a player.
Be careful Ike!
In the end, all it took was one long look at Todd Ziele for us all the realize what we had in John Olerud. Sigh.