Sometime in 1867, just two years after Abraham Lincoln had a rough night watching Our American Cousin, a fellow by the name of Candy Cummings noticed that seashells curved when they were thrown. He applied that technique to a baseball and, as legend would have it, the curveball was invented. About 120 years later, Gregg Olson used the curve ball to devastate batters the way few ever have with that pitch.
Olson joins BallNine for this week’s edition of Spitballin’ as we go beyond the curve to discuss his legacy in the game, a run of intriguing baseball accomplishments, and turning down an opportunity to play offensive line for Tom Osborne at Nebraska in the old Big 8 Conference to pitch at Auburn.
In 2012, ESPN’s Buster Olney surveyed a panel of baseball evaluators on a quest to find the “best pitch” in baseball history. Candidates included Tom Seaver’s slider, Phil Niekro’s knuckleball and Nolan Ryan’s fastball. Even Gaylord Perry and Burleigh Grimes’ spitballs were considered. The final list included 35 different entries, six of which were curveballs. Those placing curveballs on the list were Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez and Gregg Olson.
Olson was introduced to Major League Baseball fans in September of 1988. He made his debut for the Baltimore Orioles about three months after concluding a historic career at Auburn in which he pioneered the closer role in the NCAA. In his first Big League inning, he froze Steve Balboni and Jim Presley, who both struck out looking. They wouldn’t be the last two batters Olson turned into statues by a longshot.
During Olson’s fantastic prep career, he led Omaha Northwest High School to four straight Nebraska state titles, capped by a no-hitter in the championship game as a senior. At Auburn, Olson spent a majority of his time as a relief pitcher, which turned out to be a genius, if unorthodox move by legendary head coach Hal Baird. It may have been the first time a major Division I team moved their best pitcher into a relief role to affect more games than a starter would. It paid off in success for the program and for Olson, who still rates as one of the best relievers to ever pitch in the NCAA. Fans of a certain age will remember Olson’s 1989 “1st Round Draft Pick” Topps baseball card showing up in packs of after the Orioles made him the fourth overall pick in 1988. On the back of the cards, fans learned that Olson struck out 209 batters in 150.1 innings in his last two years at Auburn. He also left as Auburn’s career leader in games pitched, saves and strikeouts. He was a member of Team USA, was an All-SEC pitcher in 1987 and ’88 and led the nation with a 1.26 ERA in 1987.
Olson initially duplicated his collegiate success in the Majors until a serious elbow injury detoured his career. He may not have sustained his health, but he was able to remain in the Majors for 14 seasons. Over his five full seasons in Baltimore before running into arm problems, Olson saved 160 games and pitched to an ERA of 2.26. He did enough to land in the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame and still remains popular with fans who enjoy him on Orioles radio broadcasts and remember him giving batters linguini legs in the early 90s.
Looking back at his 14-year career, Olson jammed way more than his share of memorable moments and curiosities into his time in the bigs. He was college teammates with Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas, beat out Ken Griffey, Jr. for the 1989 Rookie of the Year, intentionally walked Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and finished off the second combined no-hit, no-run game in modern baseball history. And just when his career was winding down, Olson hit a home run on a 3-2 pitch in the final at bat of his career for his only Major League hit.
For the past five months, Americans have been told to flatten the curve. Well, here at BallNine we do things differently, so we’re bending that curve like few ever have with Gregg Olson in this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Thanks for taking the time to join us, Mr. Olson. Man, did you have one wicked curve ball. We’ll get to that in a little bit for sure among other things, but for now, let’s talk about your start in baseball. You were a big football guy too. What led you to make that decision of baseball over football?
About my sophomore year in high school it became really obvious that baseball would be the path that I would take. I played both sports in high school and actually had an offer of a full ride to play offensive tackle at Nebraska. It wasn’t really a hard decision to make, but I did think about it a little. I grew up a Husker fan and wanted to play for Nebraska my whole life. When you’re a Husker fan and you get a call from Tom Osborne saying he wants you on his team, you’re kind of like, “Oh wow, that’s a dream come true.” How can you say no to that? But I like to play baseball too and had that dream to be a Major Leaguer too. I couldn’t do both because how am I gonna pitch if I have to get up to 320 to play offensive line? So, I chose to go pitch at Auburn in the SEC. But I kept that football mentality. I loved football and hitting people and I took that mentality to pitching too.
You had an incredible high school career as a starting pitcher in Nebraska and still are considered one of the best high school pitchers to ever come out of the state. When you went to Auburn, you mostly pitched in relief. How did that change come about and what were your thoughts making that adjustment?
Well, I started my freshman year at Auburn and like just about every other freshman in the SEC, I got beat around a little. It had me questioning things. Every athlete at some point runs into a level where they have to question if they’re good enough. I had a couple of times like that and the first time was as a freshman in the SEC. After my freshman year, I had this conversation with our coach Hal Baird, who is a legend. I think it was fall of my sophomore year and I told him it was just killing me not playing every day. Growing up, I played every single day. When I wasn’t pitching, it was at first or third base. It was just killing me to sit there and not help the team as a freshman. I would pitch Saturday, so I didn’t play on Friday or Sunday. I might get an inning on a Tuesday, but I wasn’t helping the team. It was a big personality switch for me.
Coach suggested a move to relief for me in that conversation and there weren’t a lot of college closers at the time. It was somewhat of a mutual thing; I had the same idea. That was my personality and my arm type. I could throw every day. It was perfect for me. My mind, my arm, my personality fit it perfect, so I had zero problem with it. I just wanted to see how I bounced back and how I would be used.
When your role was established, how was it put to use?
We played two seven inning games and then nines on the weekend. That was the series. I’d be in by the fourth inning in both of the sevens and then whatever I could give on the weekend. Most of the time, I was able to shorten the game. So, say we’re winning 4-1 in the fourth inning or fifth in a seven-inning game, I would come in and lock it down. I did very well. A lot of times it didn’t show up in the stats with a lot of saves, but I did grab a whole bunch of wins. It was a perfect scenario in hindsight.
So, you go on to have one of the best baseball careers for any Auburn player. You were inducted into the first class of their Baseball Hall of Fame alongside Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas and Tim Hudson. You were teammates of Bo and Frank Thomas. What was it like to watch those two every day as college teammates?
Yes, I played with both of them. With Bo, you know I actually get personally insulted when someone says that somebody is as good an athlete as Bo. He was a senior my freshman year and, I mean, he was just Bo. You just know he’d be incredible, and it was just a matter of what sport he chose. He was going to be the best in the world at whatever sport he chose.
With Frank [Thomas], he came in and hit like 21 home runs as a freshman. He had unbelievable power. He’s up there at like 6’5”, 260 and it’s just frightening. The only question with him was if he was going to be able to cover that down and away pitch. You know, if someone like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine was going to be able to paint the corner on him. There were no questions about him adjusting to a wood bat or hitting a fastball or is he going to hit it far enough. Obviously, you know, 500-plus home runs later, Hall of Fame, he had no problem with any of that.
Going into the 1988 draft, you were projected as a high pick and you ended up going fourth overall to the Orioles. What were your expectations going into the draft?
Being brutally honest, I thought I was going number one overall. Coming out of my ’87 season and doing Team USA Pan Am, I was in good shape. I moved from a reliever to a starter with Team USA because we had Cris Carpenter. He had two pitches and he was a better closer. I added a couple of pitches and became a starter. So, I thought I had a shot to go to the Padres first, but they picked Andy Benes, which obviously was a great pick. The Indians and Braves were next, and they were looking at high school guys. They picked Mark Lewis and then [Steve] Avery.
Then I start looking and see the Dodgers at five. The Dodgers were a team that made the World Series that year and now I’m thinking, “How do I get past the Orioles at four to go to the Dodgers at five?” I’m having that conversation with my agent and wondering how we can get Baltimore thinking I’d go back for my senior year. Now I look back at it saying, “Baltimore picking me was the perfect scenario.”
Baltimore called me up later in 1988 and then I made the team out of Spring Training the next year. Things are different now. Look at Casey Mize. He’s a guy I thought was as close to Major League-ready that I had seen, and he goes to A Ball. That’s the model they’re using now. They’re trying to protect guys’ arms.
An amazing pitcher and some guy named Randy
You pitched just 16 games in the minors and then were called right up to the Majors. Was it overwhelming to be moved up that fast?
It was like Baltimore said, “OK, you got your butt kicked in AA, so we’re calling you up to the Major Leagues.” It’s funny. I did better in the Majors than I did in AA by about a two-point margin. Then I made the team out of Spring Training next year and went on from there.
That 1989 season was incredible for the Orioles and yourself. A year after losing 107 games, you fought for the AL East down to the last series. You won the AL Rookie of the Year and got votes for the MVP and Cy Young Award. I don’t know how you can sum it all up, but what can you say about that season?
You know what it was? We had about 16 rookies that year, not even including guys that got called up that contributed too. We just though, “Well why can’t we compete in the AL East?” That was when there seven teams in the division and we wondered, “Why not us? Why can’t we just play our best and see what we got?” When you looked across the locker room, there really was only Cal and Billy [Ripken] and a few other guys, but besides that we were all rookies.
We had guys like Craig Worthington, Randy Milligan, Bob Milacki, Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley, Brady Anderson and none of us knew better. We got a month’s worth of good pitching from Davey Johnson and Mickey Weston when they got put in there. So, we just rolled, and everybody played well. We had some guys called up in the middle of the season and they gave us a month of unbelievable play. Then if they got hurt, someone else came up from AAA and did the same thing. It was bizarre. Like something you can’t explain.
Frank Robinson was the manager that season and I’d imagine he was a pretty straight shooter. What was your experience with Frank Robinson as your manager?
To be brutally honest, there were guys that couldn’t handle him. You know, he had 586 home runs and the game was easy for him. He didn’t always understand when guys weren’t functional. He wasn’t the guy to put a loving arm around you or someone you could put your head on.
But you know, I was 22 and stupid. I walked into his office on a couple of occasions after a game and said, “Why didn’t you put me in that game? That was my game.” When I was 35 and ready to retire, I was looking back at that going, “Oh God, how could I do that?” I think I did it twice and both times I walked by the pitching coach and he’s looking at me like, “Holy Crap, you can’t do that!” But I was just like, “That was my game and I want an explanation. I don’t understand. Yea, I threw yesterday, but I was fresh. It’s a 2-1 game and that’s my game.”
Frank just sat there and shut the door and just smoothly and calmly answered my questions like I was a five-year-old. He could have screamed me out of his office, that would have been the normal thing to do. But he kid-gloved me and shut the door and explained his thinking and told me to be ready tomorrow. I was like, “OK, still doesn’t work for me because that was my game.” Then when I was 35 and looking back on walking into Frank Robinson’s office like that, I’m thinking, “I wouldn’t even do that now!”
I loved him. I really did. Every time I saw him at reunions or anything else in Baltimore, he was just the best to me. I love him and I love his family and I miss him.
Your career had two distinct periods. Your first five years you were a mainstay in Baltimore. Then you had the injury and you bounced around and played on eight different teams after that. How do you look back at those two periods?
It was kind of one of those things where you got this story that’s supposed to be written. Then I had the Tommy John Surgery and it’s 50/50 whether I’d even come back again. That’s no guarantee. Looking back, I really spent the second half of my career searching for the guy who was there pre-injury. The curve ball never came back and that’s’ who I was from 1994-2002. I spent so much time working on mechanics and watching film.
I don’t know how to put this right, but I feel like I was decades ahead of my time. I had that bats page where I kept track of pitch sequence and I had every at bat for 14 years on a computer page. I knew the exact sequence I wanted to pitch a guy, before my injury or after the injury. But you know, after the injury I just didn’t have that breaking ball again. The one where I could just say, “Here, you can’t hit this.” So, I went from a guy who, for five years, had a pitch where I could say, “You can’t hit this,” to having to figure out a way to get guys out.
And while you’re trying to figure out a way to get guys out for the second half of your career, you had to do so playing for eight different teams. Was there one stop along the way you particularly enjoyed?
They all had their moments, other than Cleveland, I was only there for a short time. Kansas City picked me up twice off the waiver wire and had me pitch the seventh and eighth inning. They trusted me and I threw well for them. In Detroit they gave me the closer’s role after a couple of weeks, but they were the worst team in baseball at the time so there weren’t many opportunities. But I was functional there as a closer because that’s where my adrenaline was.
Then I had two years in Arizona, and they were great. The second year I got hurt in Spring Training and tried to pitch through it but got off to an awful start. They finally lost patience with me and picked up Matt Mantei. We ended up having a great second half and won the NL West. Then I went to the Dodgers and, somewhere along that line there’s a magic number of 33. Most guys start to blow up and break down at that age, so, yea, back, elbow, forearm. I think those last two years alone I had 15 cortisone shots and just tried to muddle through.
You were involved in some really memorable things in your career. I’ll just throw them out there and let you comment on some unique places in history. First one up, you were asked to intentionally walk Barry Bonds with the bases loaded.
I actually came into the game in the eighth to face him. He wasn’t starting, but he pinch hit and they brought me in. There were two outs and he’s the tying run. He was just starting to make that run of four years of doing what he did. I got lefties out pretty well but got behind 3-1 and didn’t want him to beat me. I threw a good 3-1 breaking ball, which I rarely did, and get the count 3-2. I knew he was looking for another breaking ball, so I just throw an absolutely flawless fastball. It was absolutely, utterly flawless and perfect, right on the corner. I couldn’t have put it in the catcher’s glove any better. If they had one of those pitch tracks, it would have showed the circle right on the corner. Well, it’s Barry Bonds, so the umpire calls it ball four. He peels off all that stuff in the batter’s box and just walks down to first. Now, I’m livid, but I get the next guy out.
David Dellucci hits a home run in the top of the ninth [to go up 8-5] and it just starts pouring. I get the first guy out, but then my back foot starts getting stuck in the clay and I start walking guys. I waked four guys, which I never did, and gave up a double and made a mess out of it. Next thing I know, its bases loaded, and Bonds comes back up and the tying run is on second.
At this point, I’m done. There’s nothing left but fumes. I’m in the 40s on my pitch count and just done. But we didn’t have a deep bullpen, so no one was coming in. I start thinking that last at bat I didn’t show him a change up, so I can throw that in there. I was just running through where I’m going to go with this. I’m thinking if I walk him, I still got [Brent] Mayne, so I wouldn’t even care.
If you see the video, I’m just going, “OK.” I was too tired. I was just done and was sopping wet. I’m 40 pitches in and I’m done. So, I walk him, and Mayne comes up. I didn’t have a lot of success against him either. I miss with a changeup and a breaking ball and then he fouls off five or six straight. I’m just throwing little two-seamers in the middle of the plate going, “Hit it! End the game one way or the other.” Finally, he hit a soft liner to right for an out. I pitched one-and-a-third innings and walked six guys. I never do that. But we won the game and I got the save.
The funny part of the story is that I walked into Buck and said, “You know, we could have just hit him.” Buck looked at me like, “What are you talking about?” I said, I could have hit him in the middle of the back. He wouldn’t have thought twice about it, the 12,000 people in the stands wouldn’t have thought about it. I could have had a free shot on Barry Bonds. Buck and I still have a blast with it. Every May 28 I send him a “Happy Anniversary” text.
If I had any common sense whatsoever, I should have realized the moment was as big as it was. I should have realized for the rest of my life I am going to be hearing about this on May 28.
That’s an incredible story. So much more to it than I realized. OK, the next moment I wanted to ask you about was when you closed out a combined no-hitter against the A’s by making Harold Baines look foolish on one of those curve balls.
It was a pretty big deal. At that point, there had only been one other combined no-hitter and that was in the 70s. Bob Milacki left the game in the sixth because he hurt his finger on a ground ball. The next guy gets through the seventh and the next one gets through the eighth. I’m looking and it’s 2-0, so I knew I had the ninth. I knew I had the middle of the order and to be brutally honest, I have never been that nervous in my life. It’s not even close.
I was thinking, “I can’t screw up this no-hitter,” and I got the Bash Brothers coming up with a two-run lead, which is dangerous as it is. I came in and muddled through Dave Henderson, who hit a ball to Ripken on a backhand. I tried to make a good pitch down and away and Ripken made a nice backhand play. I’m kind of like, “Dude, you better wake up and get through this because you’re gonna screw up a no-hitter.” So, I did and struck out Jose Canseco and Baines to end it.
OK, last one. I have to ask about the home run you hit in 1998. It was your only career hit and it came in your final at bat. You are one of just three pitchers to have hit a homer in your last at bat. Take us through that.
Our starter got knocked around and another guy got thrown out. I was the fourth pitcher and it was still early in the game. I should have gotten the win that game too. I covered the fifth and was the most effective pitcher that day. Anyway, the Marlins pitcher was Oscar Henriquez. He was one of those cross-firing pitchers who threw in the 90s. It felt like he was landing about 12 inches away and throwing right at me. I faced him in the sixth and struck out. At that point in my career, I was 0-3 with three strikeouts. I hadn’t put a ball in play. We get to the seventh and Devon White is on second base with two outs. Buck Showalter comes up and asked if I wanted the good news or the bad news. I asked for the good news first and he told me that I got to bat again. I was like, “Oh crap! What’s the bad news?”The bad news was that it was the same guy pitching. He’s just firing the ball right at me and it’s not comfortable. He gets me 3-2 and throws a fastball away. I stick my bat out and tried to stop the swing because I thought it was away and I just got a piece of it.
Now, this is something that your readers can call “bullshit” on because it doesn’t make sense. A 93 MPH fastball takes 3/10th of a second to get to home plate. Well this guy threw a pitch on the inside half and literally, I saw it and said to myself, “I could hit this.” I hit it and it was just butter off the bat and I was like, “Holy crap!” I had some bombs in high school, so it wasn’t a totally new thing. Then I remembered I was pitching and didn’t want to show anyone up, so I just put my head down and ran my ass off.
If I didn’t run my ass off, they drill the next guy and then I have to come out and hit somebody. Then I’m the one who gets suspended. So, I sprinted around the bases. Touch first touch second, touch third and home. Run into the dugout and act like I did it before.
But you know, 3/10th of a second and you shouldn’t be able to say that and then swing too. There’s not enough time, but I swear I did. You can’t say that out loud in 3/10th of a second. I can’t explain it. But I smoked that ball to left-center and I knew it.
**OK, saving the best for last. Your curve ball is one of the best pitches for any pitcher who has played the game and that’s not hyperbole. Pitching Ninja is still out there putting it on Twitter showing you freeze George Brett and the comments are great. I guess my question is how does that pitch happen? Obviously, you have to be blessed with the ability and work hard at it, but there are tons of Major Leaguers who have incredible ability and can’t match it. What is the origin and evolution of that pitch? **
My dad taught it to me when I was 13 but wouldn’t let me throw it in a game. When I was 14, he let me throw it once a game. I would spin it and it would be that big 12-to-6 curve. I go to college and get my butt kicked. I came out my sophomore year and realized that every time I try to dial up the velocity on this curve, I do what everybody else does and leave it spinning. It’s not even a hanger, it’s just spinning around and not doing anything. I wanted to figure out how I can throw it harder and still create the spin needed for the break. So, I started to shorten my stride and depending on where I wanted the ball to land, I made an adjustment. My whole process was, “What’s my stride line?”
I would land on my toe and that was my whole focal point. Everything about my curveball was my stride length. It was just, OK, here’s the height level that I want it and then threw it as hard as I could throw it. That was kind of it. Then I went to college and all of a sudden, it became an out pitch. Then I got to the Major Leagues and it was one of those pitches where the batters just didn’t like it. So, I started throwing it more and getting guys out. Then my whole focus was just where it was landing in the zone. I started fell off the mound to the left, so it ended up away to righties and in to lefties. Lefties really struggled with it.
Later on, in ’93 I was playing in a simulated game and we had David Segui hitting. Afterwards, he came up to me and said he never realized my curve was that deep. He said he had seen a bunch of them now and it was two or three inches below where he thought it was going to be. That made me realize I had two or three inches on the bottom of the break that guys were swinging right over,
I love hearing you get into the details of that and all the science behind that great pitch. This has been a lot of fun and I enjoyed getting to talk to you about all of those moments you encountered in your career. Wrapping it up, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
I’d say for a journeyman career, I’ve had a bunch of unique circumstances that made it really fun. You’ve interviewed a bunch of guys and in the grand scheme of things, I end up being a journeyman Major League baseball player. I just had so many things happen to me. How many guys have all of these things?
It’s one of those just like, magical careers. It should have been one thing, but I had the injury and it wasn’t. Then I look at it and I have all these stories and all the crap I went through. The Bonds walk, closing the no-hitter, all this stuff happens to me and I’m like, “This can’t be normal.” I think, “Does everyone have these unbelievable game tales?” Because I feel like I have so many. There’s a whole bunch and it’s hilarious. And in parting, I would just say that I just hope everybody is staying safe and we’ll all get through this together. Thanks for having me, it was a lot of fun.