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Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Major League Baseball
By Greg Bishop
NEW YORK John Olerud leapt from the limbo of paid unemployment into the starting lineup of the best team in the American League in, well, a New York minute.
Dumped unceremoniously by the Mariners last month, Olerud signed with the New York Yankees yesterday. In doing so, he crossed both the country and the baseball pantheon, moving from Seattle to New York City, moving from worst (see: Mariners, American League West) to first (see: Yankees, American League East).
And in a roundabout way, the out-of-contention Mariners helped put baseball's Evil Empire one step closer to the World Series, where, depending on what happens with ailing first baseman Jason Giambi, Olerud could start.
With that in mind, former Mariner Mark McLemore surveyed the batting-practice scene at Yankee Stadium yesterday. As a former teammate of Olerud's and a current member of the visiting Oakland Athletics, he could only shake his head.
"He's more than an insurance policy," McLemore said. "He's a legitimate force in the lineup and on the field. Just plain and simple. Whatever happened in Seattle that's reconstruction going on right there. If he didn't have what it takes, he wouldn't be in New York. That's for sure. The only people that come here are winners, and that's what he is."
McLemore calls Olerud "The Steam Shovel" because ground balls don't get by him at first base. The question Olerud will have to answer under the heat of the New York media is whether he can still hit.
The Mariners released Olerud on July 23 (after designating him for assignment July 15) because his swing appeared too slow, his average had dipped to .245 and the season slid into a youth movement. Retirement came calling. Sitting alone in his new dugout after batting practice yesterday, Olerud admitted that he briefly considered it.
Then teams started calling Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego and the Yankees. Olerud flirted with the idea of Los Angeles. But the idea of returning to New York, where he hit .300 with the Mets from 1997 to 1999, and possibly the World Series, was too enticing to pass up.
Hence the monster back-page headline in the New York Post yesterday, in reference to Olerud's imminent arrival: On Deck.
"I'm still that same player," Olerud said. "I've definitely struggled the second half of last year and the first half of this year. I haven't had a lot of success offensively. But I'm looking to get that turned around. And I believe I can get that turned around."
"(Olerud) gives us insurance," Torre said. "He's a proven hitter. You don't stop being a good hitter overnight."
Even if Olerud can't regain his hitting stroke, the Yankees got a three-time Gold Glove winner and a first baseman with a career .995 fielding percentage. If Olerud can regain his stroke under batting coach Don Mattingly, the Yankees got a bargain.
Because the Mariners gave Olerud an unconditional release, they pay the remainder of his guaranteed $7.7 million salary minus what the Yankees will pay, what Torre calls "basically, the minimum."
"It's really surprising (to see Olerud released), because it seems like, in our situation, we were at the point where we needed somebody anyway," Mattingly said. "We probably would have given up something. This way makes it easy."
Mattingly said the mechanics of Olerud's swing short, simple and compact make it easier to fix. Olerud said he's been working out at Safeco Field since his release, along with running to stay in shape.
"I haven't felt like I've been that far off all year," Olerud said. "It's been a rough year. I still can't figure out what went wrong with me, with the team. Hopefully, over here, I can get things turned around."
The Interlake High School and Washington State University graduate brought his family to New York this week, and they're looking for a house. But the real work begins at the ballpark.
Olerud owns the emptiest locker in the Yankees' clubhouse. Four pairs of shoes are lined neatly on the ground. Some T-shirts hang in otherwise empty space. A cell phone sits in its charger on an otherwise blank shelf. Bats are in there, too. Question is, will they do any damage?
Former teammate Alex Rodriguez stops by to chat. Gary Sheffield cracks jokes at the next-door locker. Olerud shakes hands and smiles wide, enjoying his fast and fruitful transformation.
And how's this for poetic justice? The Yankees visit Safeco Field Aug. 13-15.
"Beautiful," McLemore said, holding his stomach and bursting with laughter. "Beautiful. That story couldn't have been written any better."
He pauses, remembering he now plays for a contending team that hopes to topple the Yankees in September.
"Unfortunately," he said, "it's great for them."
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com
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