As the calendar turns to September, and the temperature cool and the kids return to school just full of enthusiasm about learning, baseball teams turn their attention to either making the playoffs or evaluating minor league talent, and in very few instances, both.
The Orioles have had quite a few September call-ups that have gone on to stellar Orioles careers. Members of the team's Hall of Fame, including Brooks Robinson, Dave McNally, Boog Powell, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair, Rich Dauer, Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan, all saw time as September call-ups, and in a few cases, such as Robinson and Belanger, went through the experience twice. Even Cal Ripken, Jr. got his first taste of the big leagues as an August call-up.
In determining the best September call-up in Orioles history, one name makes the most sense - Gregg Olson.
Not Cal Ripken? No. He was an August call-up, so he's out, as is Manny Machado. Not Eddie Murray? No. He went from the minor leagues to a starting job in 1977. Mike Boddicker? Scott McGregor? No and no. Neither truly changed the team within the next year the way The Otter did in 1989.
Gregg Olson had been a phenom as a high school pitcher, helping his Omaha Northwest High School team win four straight state championships with his dad as his coach. He threw a no-hitter in the championship game his senior year of high school. After a pedestrian freshman year as an Auburn Tiger, Olson set the college baseball world on fire as a sophomore and a junior, compiling and 11-1 record with 10 saves as a sophomore with a 1.26 ERA and a 7-3 record with 10 saves and a 2.00 ERA was a junior.
1988 had been the worst start to a MLB season the game had ever seen. The team lost its first six games before firing manager Cal Ripken, Sr. So Hall of Famer Frank Robinson replaced him, and promptly lost 15 more games. After 11 losses, WIYY-FM (98 Rock) disc jockey Bob Rivers vowed to stay on-air 24 hours a day until the team won, and thus began his 258-hour journey into self-imposed madness. Ten games later, the team finally won, and Rivers finally got to play The Who's "I'm Free" and go take a nap.
And then the team lost again the next day.
Olson was the fourth overall pick of the 1988 MLB draft by the Orioles, signing for $200,000. He spent the summer of 1988 in the minors, with a so-so 1-1 record and a 4.44 ERA. The summer drudged on, and the losses piled up for the O's. By Sept. 2, when Olson made his MLB debut, the Orioles were already 40 games below .500 with a 46-86 record. But the O's saw something they liked in Olson, and called him up in September of that year. They needed a spark, a change, a hope, and Gregg Olson seemed as if he'd be as good an option as any the team had in the minor leagues.
Olson entered his first game on Sept. 2 against Seattle. He threw 16 pitches, pitched 1 inning, faced just four batters and struck out two batters while stranding a runner. It would be his first ML win.
The Otter went on to pitch in nine more games, helping a hapless Orioles club by eating innings in mostly lost causes. While his first two games resulted in a win and a hold, his only other official result the rest of the season was a blown lead in his fifth game. The Orioles lost the last six games in which he appeared, and in the last five, the team was already losing when he entered the game.
Yet those 10 games and 11.0 IP told the O's they had something in the young reliever. He had a 3.27 ERA and allowed just 10 hits in his 51 batters faced. He did walk 10 batters against just nine strikeouts, but on an Orioles team desperate for any glimmer of hope, Olson showed enough promise to earn a Spring Training invite. The 12-to-6 curveball would be refined, the fastball command would be developed, and a closer was born.
The rest is Orioles history. Gregg Olson went on to have a stellar 1989 season, earn 27 saves, deliver a 1.69 ERA in 85 innings, and become the first American League reliever to earn Rookie of the Year. The Orioles didn't quite make the playoffs in 1989, even though the season came down to the last series against Toronto. Manager Frank Robinson made a few questionable decisions in the penultimate game that arguably cost the O's the playoffs, but Olson did everything he could to get the team to the post-season.
Olson eventually pitched parts of six seasons, pitching to a 2.26 ERA and 1.25 WHIP with 160 saves, a record he still held by a stunning 48 saves over current closer Jim Johnson as of Saturday night. He was selected for the All-Star Game in 1990, and was one of four pitchers to combine on the Orioles last no-hitter in 1991. He left the Orioles after the 1993 season after blowing out his elbow in August and the team decided to sign Lee Smith as a proven vet as closer in 1994 rather than depend on Olson's elbow. He finished his career with 217 saves, 588 strikeouts and 672 innings pitched. But he never was as good again as he was those first five years on the Orioles.
This September, when Kevin Gausman makes his return, or in future years as Hunter Harvey or the next pitching phenom suits up for the first time for the Orioles, or when Dylan Bundy makes his triumphant return from elbow surgery to try for his own Rookie of the Year award, take a moment to remember The Otter, Gregg Olson, and hope the latest best new hope turns out as well.