Olerud Coping Well With Impact Of Head Injury -- Blue Jay From Bellevue Making Noise As A Rookie

The dull sound of the ball cracking against the batting helmet echoed through the Kingdome. Toronto's Fred McGriff dropped to the ground like he was shot.

He held his head as the trainers gathered around. McGriff was removed from the game and taken to the hospital. X-rays showed no fracture. His helmet, battered and split, absorbed most of the impact and prevented a serious head injury.

The on-deck batter in that May 26 game was John Olerud. The Blue Jays' designated hitter/first baseman says that when something like that happens ``you can't let it affect you. The pitcher is trying to back you off the plate and sometimes the ball will get away and hit you. You have to stay aggressive.''

But Olerud, the former Interlake High School of Bellevue and Washington State University star, is not altogether emotionally detached from the beaning. In a real sense, it's on his mind.

Just a year and a half ago, Jan. 11, 1989, Olerud suddenly dropped unconscious during a workout at WSU. His father, John, who is a physician and a former All-American catcher for the Cougars, helped with the diagnosis. An aneurysm at the base of the brain was removed Feb. 27, 1989. Doctors drilled through a bone plate at the left temple.

Olerud's condition, life-threatening at the time, was successfully treated. But his baseball career was uncertain. He was college player of the year in 1988 with a .464 average, 23 home runs, a .836 slugging percentage, and was 15-0 as a Cougar pitcher.

He was medically cleared to Play again and finished the 1989 baseball season at WSU. But that June, the Blue Jays drafted him in the third round, offered big money and an immediate major-league opportunity.

``What we did was we took out a big of piece of paper and put all the pros on one side and all the cons on the other,'' said Linda Olerud, his mother. ``The final decision came from him. We tried to help him with all the elements involved.''

His post-operative condition likely could have been on both sides of the paper. He was assured that the surgery had fixed the problem. But was he ready for the higher level of competition?

``I knew the kind of agony he was going through. He's a real loyal kind of guy (to WSU),'' said his mother. ``Missing his senior year was something he couldn't buy later, but on the other hand there are no promises of good health in life.''

John's father had spent seven years as a minor-league catcher before embarking on a medical career. The opportunity for his son to be one of just 16 players from the amateur draft since 1965 to go directly to the big leagues ``was the dream of the entire family,'' she said.

Young John signed Aug. 26. But that didn't mitigate the concern. Even though John wears a helmet, in the batter's box as well as on the field, the family had to cross over the anxiety threshold.

``I have the advantage being married to a doctor and an athlete. John would not let anything happen to his son,'' Linda Olerud said. ``I was surprised how quickly he got back into the batter's box to face those fastballs.

``If it were me, I'd be real tentative and ball-shy. I figured if he can do it, he doesn't need me wringing my hands in the stands.''

The fact that Loyola Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers died on the court last spring was another factor entered on that big piece of paper.

``Some say it's the same sort of thing as Gathers, but I say not,'' said young John. ``I guess he went off his (heart) medication, but I don't need any. I'm fixed. I don't need medication. I'm not worried.''

He shouldn't be worried about his stats. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder, who will be 22 next month, is batting .271 with 10 home runs, 35 runs batted in and has one of the sweetest swings in the game. He is a strong candidate for rookie of the year, along with Sandy Alomar, All-Star catcher from Cleveland.

When he negotiated his contract, Olerud had the Blue Jays commit to pay for his parents as well as his grandparents, Everett and Alice Olerud of Des Moines, to come to spring training and spend a week with him in Toronto.

Everett played some baseball but was limited by wartime service. His brother, Ilef, was inducted into the North Dakota Hall of Fame for his baseball talent. The brothers handed that talent down to John Sr., and he, in turn, to his son.

The Blue Jays completed their second and final trip to Seattle yesterday, and the Olerud clan was well-represented. John requested more than 50 tickets for each of the three games, down some from his 118 requests for a game in late May.

If John Olerud Jr. fails in his major-league effort, it won't be for lack of support.

``Give him a couple years in the majors,'' his Grandpa said, ``and he'll be one of the best.''