Sunday, November 6, 2016

TOT - Braves Luck Into A Central Player of the Early 90's

Transaction of Today...November 6, 1989 - The Atlanta Braves sign catcher Greg Olson.

Sometimes, a team stumbles on the right player at the right time. And sometimes, things just work themselves out just right.

Bobby Cox, the then-General Manager of the Atlanta Braves, had a problem behind the plate as he started to look toward the 1990 season. Bruce Benedict's best days were way behind him. Since making an All-Star team in 1983, Benedict had hit .213/.293/.262 over the next six seasons and his career was essentially over. The latest addition brought in to help out behind the plate, Jody Davis, had done little to fix things.

Cox brought in Olson to help out, but he wasn't supposed to be the guy in 1989 - unless you count being the guy at Richmond a thing. Cox was enamored with Phil Lombardi, a 26 year-old catcher who had hit .261/.364/.412 for Tidewater, the AAA squad of the New York Mets. Late in spring training, Cox added Lombardi and was ready to hand things over to him. The Braves still had Davis and John Russell, a third backstop that split time from their 1989 team. They also added 38 year-old Ernie Whitt a month after signing Olson. By the end of camp, Olson was ticketed for a trip to the minors and as was Russell, but the latter had the right to refuse the assignment and became a free agent after doing so. Olson reported to Richmond, but his stay there would be short. Shortly before the beginning of the season, Lombardi retired due to the pressures of the game. With the Braves less-than-thrilled with their combo of Davis and Whitt, they would call up Olson after just three games in the minors.

It was Olson's ninth year of professional baseball after being selected by the New York Mets in the 7th round of the 1982 draft. He had been an infielder before being moved behind the plate after hot-shot recruit Terry Steinbach enrolled at Minnesota. Of course, Steinbach would later move behind the plate and became a fixture of some good Oakland Athletics teams. Olson would play regularly as a freshman and would later become an All-Big-Team player for the Gophers. He attracted the eye of Terry Ryan, the director of Midwest Scouting for the Mets and the future long-time general manager of the Twins, who lobbied for the Mets to draft the backstop.

Upon joining the Mets, Olson played two seasons for Lynchburg, a future home of the Braves. The second season was spent as one of the first catchers for the new phenom, Dwight Gooden. Olson's climb up the ladder was slow and he never really earned much prospect status. He was a strong defensive catcher, that was true, but his bat was nearly non-existent. After the Mets added Gary Carter in 1985, Olson was effectively blocked anyway.

After 1988, Olson became a free agent for the first time and went home to Minnesota to join the Twins. Again, Olson flashed his strong defensive skills, but could not beat out Brian Harper for the #2 catcher job that spring. He opened the year in Portland, though he later earned a callup toward the end of June. It was less his production at the plate and more an injury that got him to the bigs. He only appeared in three games during his first stint in the majors, but he did get his first major league hit - a single off Angels closer Bryan Harvey.

That brings us to 1989 and signing with the Braves. After his callup to the Braves, Olson rarely played behind the veterans Whitt and Davis at first, but a pairing with Tom Glavine worked out well for the duo and he quickly became Glavine's personal catcher. He flashed some stick as well and when the Braves decided by mid-May that three catchers was one too many, it was Olson who stayed as Davis was released. Olson became Whitt's platooning partner before ultimately taking over the job after the latter went on the DL by the end of May.

The minor league journeyman took advantage of the situation. He hit .293/.379/.534 that May with four homeruns, He would continue to perform in June, adding a Grand Slam against the Reds on June 12 to his accomplishments. By the end of June, Olson was riding a .299/.381/.456 triple slash and with the Braves needing a representative in the All-Star Game, Olson headed to Wrigley Field as the first Braves rookie to go to an All-Star Game in over 20 years. He would go hitless against Chuck Finley in his only All-Star appearance.

Amazingly, a month later, Cox, who had replaced Russ Nixon as the Braves manager in mid-June, began to to go back to Whitt as his starting catcher after the latter returned from the DL. In late September, he played Kelly Mann and Jimmy Kremers, two young backstops Cox wanted a look at. Olson would play just 100 games with 332 PA in 1990, but did slash .262/.332/.379 - his best offensive season.

Of course, things shined bright on Olson in 1991. The Braves never found an effective replacement to him and Olson became the full-time starter for the Worst-to-First squad as he handled their young trio of elite starters. He hit just .241/.316/.345, but was lauded for his role in developing and working with the Braves' pitchers. He became such a trusted captain on the field that over a 32-game stretch from September 1 to October 5, he caught all but two innings. Olson would have his moment with the bat in the playoffs as well. In a scoreless battle between Steve Avery and Doug Drabek in Game Six of the NLCS, Olson doubled in Ron Gant in the ninth inning for the game's only run. A day later, the Braves beat the Pirates to go to the World Series. In the first game of that series, Olson was involved in a home plate collision with Dan Gladden. The force of the collision caused Olson to do a backwards somersault, but he held on to the ball for the out.

Olson's third season in Atlanta would continue a downward trend with his numbers. Atlanta paired Olson up with Damon Berryhill, who was not a very good hitter, but did belt 10 homers during the season. On September 18, Olson's season came to a close after his right leg was destroyed during a home-plate collision with Ken Caminiti. As he was carted off, Olson did the Tomahawk Chop in front of the packed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium crowd.

The fan favorite backstop would return in 1993, bu saw his statistics continue to decline. For the first time since his arrival in 1990, Olson was not the primary catcher as Berryhill received more starts. A month on the DL for Olson helped to make that a reality, but Berryhill still got all but one of the starts in the NLCS against the Phillies.

Atlanta could have brought the arbitration-eligible Olson back for 1994, but they had an upgrade waiting in the wings. Javy Lopez had joined the team for September in both of the previous two seasons and was ready to take over at catcher. The Braves added Charlie O'Brien from the Mets at half of the price that Olson would have cost and non-tendered Olson. The Minnesota native went to Flushing to replace O'Brien, but was beat out by Kelly Stinnett for the job. While he could have continued his career elsewhere as a depth option in Triple-A, Olson was ready to retire and did so.

He quickly landed a job as the manager of the Minneapolis Loons, an independent squad in the North Central League. In a fun twist, he was the manager of former battery mate Juan Berenguer. Also on that team was a righty and Gopher alum, Kerry Ligtenberg. Olson had seen enough major league talent up close to know Ligtenberg was special enough to deserve a chance. He convinced Atlanta to take a look at the right-hander and Olson negotiated a trade that benefited both sides. The Braves got an electric arm and Olson received six dozen baseballs and several bats.

After the Loons folded, Olson would later get into real estate the Eden Prairie, Minnesota area and is the general manager of a golf and country club. He continues to make appearances both for the Twins and the Braves.

See Also
Random Ex-Brave of the Day - Kerry Ligtenberg
Random Ex-Brave: Javy Lopez
Thursday Throwback - Juan Berenguer

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