Career scare gives Oliver perspective, motivation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The major-league baseball strike started Aug. 12, but, for Joe Oliver, the season ended exactly four months earlier.

On April 12, the veteran Cincinnati Reds catcher was diagnosed with synovitis (a form of arthritis) of the ankles and knees and never played again in 1994.

"I was thinking my career might be over," Oliver said yesterday after getting three hits, including a home run off Alan Mills, and two RBIs in Milwaukee's 7-0 victory that ruined the Orioles' home opener.

"I had never had a problem with any injuries, had never been on the disabled list. My mind was completely out of it. Finally, I started coming around and my spirits picked up."

But the condition didn't improve quickly enough for him to stay for a seventh season with the Reds, who released him "mostly because of my salary," Oliver said.

It was $2.5 million, and Cincinnati had to decide whether to keep him at a 20 percent reduction. Then the strike arrived and Oliver was confronted with "a double hurt."

The Reds decided against keeping him and he became a free agent.

After signing a minor-league contract with the Brewers and going to camp as a Triple-A player, he is now working for a base salary of $300,000 and "is thankful to be out on the field.

"There were some other offers, but this was probably the best situation because I had the chance to be the everyday catcher. Elsewhere, I would have been No. 2 trying to work toward No. 1."

His condition is under control with medication that he says "is more for maintenance than anything else."

The upside of his story is that Oliver -- who has a World Series ring from the 1990 champion Reds -- received almost a full spring training, which may partially explain why he is off to a hot start at the plate.

"I guess I had enough rest. I'm seeing the ball pretty good," said Oliver, who raised his average to .375 and joined Pat Listach as the team's co-leader with seven RBIs.

He has hit safely in five of six games, including a grand slam off the Oakland Athletics' Todd Stottlemyre on Friday night.

In his first year as an American Leaguer, Oliver is receiving detailed advice from his teammates on "what to look for at the plate. They must begiving me pretty good reports," he said.

The low-budget Brewers "have something to prove," said Oliver. "It's important for us to get off to a quick start. No one picked us to do anything.

"The good part is that there are not going to be too many guys yelling at this team about making too much money."

Oliver said the Montreal Expos showed last season that a small-market team can contend despite financial limitations, and he said there is no reason the young Brewers can't do the same.

He said he has not been asked to be a leader, but in his position "it is understood that you have to be. The biggest thing I have to do now is get the confidence of the young pitchers, get a chemistry with them."

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