Sunday, September 23, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 1999

Part 38 of our 50-year Sweet Swing...
What is it: 1999 Topps #32, John Olerud

What makes it interesting: Topps did something they probably shouldn't have done in '99, which was basically that they tried (badly) to replicate the 1998 design. Once again, a gold-bordered set, but with a player name that's a bit more difficult to read, and a team name placed ignominiously in the corner so it got lost on most cards.

I've always been unabashed in my affection for John Olerud. Owner of one of the sweetest swings you'll ever see, Olerud was basically handed to the Mets prior to the '97 season by the Toronto Blue Jays, who paid the majority of his contract and accepted nothing more than Robert Person in return. Olerud, who replaced the popular Rico Brogna, basically made everyone forget about Brogna by showing that he was a better hitter and fielder. Despite only spending 3 seasons with the Mets, Olerud made every one of them count, which is why he's remembered so fondly.

The Mets needed a bat like Olerud's in the worst way. They had power in Hundley and Huskey, but nobody who could hit for average and move runners around the bases. Olerud did that from the moment he arrived. Olerud was the glue of the lineup, hitting in the #3 spot pretty much the entire season. A rather taciturn type, Olerud was thought to not be the best fit in New York. But he acclimated well, even becoming one of the rare players who would ride the Subway to Shea Stadium. Olerud also had his quirks, including wearing a batting helmet at all times due to an aneurysm he suffered in college. These things, combined with his ability to come up with several clutch hits, made him an instant fan favorite. Olerud was, in general, always in the thick of a rally as the Mets returned to prominence in '97, and his big hits included a walk-off HR against Colorado, and, despite being notoriously slow, a night when he hit for the Cycle against Montreal. He also finished with a flourish, topping the 100 RBI mark on the final day of the season, to go with his 22 HRs, .294 AVG and .400 OBA.

Olerud was even better in '98, when he just hit everything in sight with regularity. Having previously won a batting title in Toronto, Olerud flirted with a batting crown again, setting a club record with his .354 AVG. Supplementing these numbers were a .447 OBA (also a club record), 22 HRs and 93 RBIs. As usual, Olerud was right in the thick of just about everything the Mets accomplished that year, even playing in 160 of 162 games. The Mets may have fallen flat at the end that season, but it certainly wasn't Olerud's fault.

In 1999, John Olerud was as steady as ever, providing the anchor for The Best Infield Ever. In addition to his usually solid defense, he provided his usually solid and clutch hitting. Olerud played out 162 of the Mets 163 games in '99, hitting .298, with 19 HRs and 96 RBIs, and supplemented that with a team-record 125 walks, giving him a .427 OBA. Among his notable moments that season were a Game Winning hit off Curt Schilling to cap off a 5-run comeback, a Grand Slam against the Cardinals in the midst of a 6-run rally, and, of course, the Grand Slam off Greg Maddux in late September when the Mets desperately needed a win.

When the curtain rose in October, Olerud raised the level of his game even more. In Game 1 of the NLDS in Arizona, Olerud hit a 2-run Home Run off Randy Johnson in the 3rd inning. This was no small feat. At that point, Johnson was at the peak of his game, and hadn't allowed a Home Run to a left-handed batter in over 2 years. Even more impressive was that Olerud had gotten around and pulled the ball, something lefties generally did not do. Back in  New York in Game 3, Olerud chipped in a key 2-run single in the Mets 6-run 6th inning as the Mets coasted to a 9-2 victory. Against Atlanta in the NLCS, Olerud plated the first runs in both Game 4 and Game 5 with a pair of Home Runs, one off John Smoltz and the second off Greg Maddux, and in the Bottom of the 15th inning in Game 5, it was Olerud who was intentionally walked, loading the bases for Todd Pratt in the midst of that fateful inning. In the 6th game, Olerud was right in the middle of the Mets game-tying rally in the 7th inning, singling home a run, and scoring on Mike Piazza's Home Run. The Mets miracle ride would end that night, but Olerud was certainly a big reason that they were able to get that far.

Olerud would depart the Mets following the '99 season as a Free Agent, opting to return to his hometown Seattle Mariners. Maybe it was because he wanted to be closer to his family. Or maybe it was because Steve Phillips stupidly didn't offer him a contract. Nonetheless, he was gone after 3 excellent seasons in New York, as a major part of the Mets resurgence in the late 1990s. Olerud would go on to win 3 Gold Gloves with the Mariners, before spending the final seasons of his career bouncing around to the Yankees and the Red Sox, and retiring following the 2005 season. Olerud, who never spent a day in the Minor Leagues, was considered washed up before he arrived in New York, and in his time with the Mets, he not only resurrected the team around him, he resurrected himself. Though his time here was brief, it was certainly not forgettable, and the Mets were fortunate to have had him here.

Card back:

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