It would be hard to enter baseball any more audaciously than Gregg Olson did as a rookie for the 1989 Orioles.
The team had suffered through a brutal 107-loss season in 1988, and many expected the collection of youngsters and also-rans to produce a ghastly repeat. That's why the team's pennant chase that year was so much fun. One of its leaders was the baby-faced reliever known as "Otter," with his magnificent, diving curveball.
"I think we were too young to realize we weren't supposed to be winning games," Olson recalled.
He was in town this weekend to be inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame. Olson was honored in a pre-game ceremony last night along with the club's longtime traveling secretary, Phil Itzoe. The Orioles also dedicated a new award for fan devotion to William "Wild Bill" Hagy and named him the posthumous first winner.
Olson, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, said Baltimore has always held a special corner in his heart.
"This place is just different," he said. "The fans adore the athletes who play in this city. I never found that anywhere else. Maybe it's because it was my first stop, but I don't think so."
Olson lives in Newport Beach, Calif., where he's raising four children and working for a start-up company called Tool Shed Sports, which makes "high-performance undergarb" for athletes. Gray streaks his beard, but he still has the twinkling blue eyes and impish smile of a young man.
The Orioles drafted Olson in 1988 from Auburn. He hardly pitched in the minors before debuting at the end of the season. The Orioles couldn't have been much worse, but Olson didn't despair.
"I was living my dream," he said, "just getting to go to the ballpark with Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken."
The club couldn't decide whether Olson would start or relieve in 1989. But he stuck as a late-inning man and it soon became apparent that his breaking ball was good enough to befuddle any hitter.
One night early in the season, he struck out Mark McGwire, Dave Parker and Dave Henderson - the heart of a mighty Oakland lineup - in succession. The inning became an iconic moment in the "Why Not" season.
"It was like, 'All right, my stuff really does work,' " he recalled.
He loved pitching at Memorial Stadium, where the crowds seemed so intimate and familiar. The pressure of the ninth inning didn't bother him. He might walk the first batter, but then he'd shut down the next few with his curve.
"To steal a line from Top Gun, I needed to have my hair on fire," he said. "I wasn't awake until I put myself in a tough spot."
Olson saved 160 games over five seasons with the Orioles. The club hasn't seen a run like that from one of its closers since he left after the 1993 season. Olson never found such a steady groove again, either, though he pitched for nine other teams and posted two strong seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the late 1990s.
Payton front and center
Jay Payton and Adam Jones are friends and neighbors in the Orioles' clubhouse. But, Jones' broken foot is giving Payton the chance he has wanted all season - to start regularly.
Manager Dave Trembley said yesterday that Payton will start most days in center field, though he might try recent call-up Lou Montanez there, as well.
"Right now, I'm getting the opportunity to play, and that's all I wanted," said Payton, who has started the past six games. "It's hard to develop any consistency when you're not playing every day."
Trembley spent a large part of the season trying to convince Payton, hitting .245 after last night, to accept his role as a platoon player, pinch runner and defensive replacement.
"I've told him, 'You have a place of value if you accept what it is,' " Trembley said. "You don't have to like it."
Trembley said Payton has earned the chance to fill in for Jones by accepting his bench role.
Montanez is primarily a corner outfielder but played a few games in center at Double-A Bowie. Trembley said he will have to show coaches he can handle the position to receive regular chances. "This is not instructional league," he said.