ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It just happened, he said. He needed a uniform and a clubhouse attendant grabbed one out of a basket and gave it to him as he headed out onto the field.
Uniform No. 89.
"Not a bad omen," Gregg Olson said yesterday as he peeled off the orange uniform after pitching for 20 minutes under a bright morning sun.
Eighty-nine was, of course, a very good year for Olson, as were each of the four years that followed it. Olson was one of baseball's best closers, one of the Orioles' most essential players, a major major-leaguer.
Then he couldn't get his right arm loosened up in the bullpen one August afternoon in 1993, and everything fell apart.
"No warning," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said yesterday. "Boom, a blowout."
Twenty months later, Olson, 28, is attempting to orchestrate the most important save of all. He wants to save his career.
"I want to be a closer again," he said yesterday. "I think I can be."
Whether some general manager believes him is what counts, of course. Olson is unsigned, having been released after each of the past two seasons. He paid his way to Florida from his home in Baltimore so he could pitch in front of the Orioles' decision-makers yesterday. He said he will throw for two more teams down here. The Orioles said he will throw for them again, possibly as soon as tomorrow.
It is a situation with any number of possible resolutions. He could sign a major-league contract if he really impresses someone, or a minor-league contract if that is his only choice, or no contract if no one wants him. He could make it all the way back to being a major-league closer, or settle for a lesser major-league role, or fall short of his goal and land in the minors.
The strike isn't helping him. Most teams are thinking about truck drivers and substitute teachers these days, not prospective closers. Most personnel decisions are on hold.
"I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen," Olson said. "But I'm healthy."
When he was diagnosed with a partially torn tendon in his elbow two years ago, he elected not to have surgery and the Orioles elected not to re-sign him. He spent last year with the Braves, for whom he pitched little and poorly after pulling a muscle in his elbow during spring training.
"I'm not bitter about what happened with the Orioles," he said. "It's not a good idea to burn bridges. And I think I have handled [the decline] pretty well, although last year was pretty depressing. People would watch me pitch and say, 'Man, you used to be good in Baltimore.' Guys that I had gotten out easily before were clobbering me. That was tough."
This winter he has worked out on a temporary mound at Cal Ripken Jr.'s house -- once with Ripken as catcher. His performance yesterday was his third for Orioles management in the past six weeks. He threw at Camden Yards in January, then at Towson State before scouts from six teams in February. He threw hard yesterday. Many of his curveballs broke sharply.
"He was much improved this time, which was encouraging," Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "He threw better than I expected. The velocity was there. He wasn't protecting his arm or elbow. There are a lot of positive signs."
Yet no one is getting excited. His mechanics were badly flawed yesterday; he was having trouble getting his lower body to drive toward the plate. And it was just one workout in early March.
"I'd need to see him quite a bit more before I could decide whether he'd be able to help us," manager Phil Regan said.
Olson agreed that it was still too early to keep score on his comeback. "I need to get my mechanics straightened out first," he said.
Yet the absence of pain in his elbow has him talking big. He wants it all back.
"My goal is to be a closer in the big leagues again," he said. "When I'm looking at [prospective] teams, their closer situations will play a big part in my decision. I'm not asking for a guaranteed closer job or anything like that. I just want a chance."
The Orioles' closer situation is, of course, that Regan is high on rookie Armando Benitez. Olson won't be encouraged by that.
Yet Regan insists his mind is open. "If a guy who was as good as Olson can prove he's back close to that level, any team would take him," the manager said.
It's a long shot, but one the Orioles clearly would relish taking. Robinson, Flanagan and general manager Roland Hemond all admitted they would love to see Olson back in a Baltimore uniform. Robinson met privately with Olson for 20 minutes yesterday.
"He jumped into all sorts of fires for this organization, which should count for something," Robinson said. "He was the best in the game. Even if he doesn't come all the way back, he'd be pretty darn good."
Said Flanagan: "He's an Oriole first. He's had some rough times. Between coming back from an injury and the labor situation, he's worried and confused. But he gave his heart to this organization. I'd love to see him come back."