By KIRBY ARNOLD
He’d always been known as John Olerud, professional hitter.
As the years went by and the batting accolades piled up, Olerud’s defense became something only his teammates and hometown fans seemed to appreciate.
Those who saw Olerud daily, though, realized his glove was as sweet as his swing.
And now, everybody knows.
Olerud won his first Gold Glove Award on Tuesday when voting by managers and coaches for the nine-man American League team was announced.
“This is something that I’m real proud of,” Olerud said. “I’ve always been looked at more for offense, and early in my career, defense was a little bit of a struggle. But over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable.”
Comfort comes from repetition, and nobody did it as often or as well at first base as Olerud this year. He made just five errors in 1,408 chances for a .996 fielding percentage that doesn’t fully explain his value to a team that ranked second in the league on defense. He consistently dug balls out of the dirt, snagged hot shots headed toward the right-field corner and ranged far for foul popups down the baseline.
“Defense is something I’ve always tried to improve on,” Olerud said. “This year I feel like I did a better job of being more aggressive going to balls to my right, toward second base.”
It’s not like Olerud is a Johnny Come Lately to defense.
He was an all-around star as a pitcher-first baseman at Washington State University and went straight to the major leagues after being drafted by Toronto in 1989. He immediately made his name as a hitter, and in 1993 won the American League batting title with the Blue Jays, hitting .363 after flirting with .400 much of that season.
All the while, Olerud flashed some fine leather at first base. He has never made more than 10 errors in a season, but also never got a Gold Glove for his efforts.
“The fact I hadn’t won it didn’t get me upset at all because there are a lot of really good first basemen out there,” he said.
Olerud beat two of the best for this year’s award, Rafael Palmeiro of Texas and David Segui of Cleveland.
Those two spent considerable time as designated hitters, but they still put up impressive defensive numbers. Palmeiro made four errors in 880 chances (.995) and Segui, a former Mariner who hasn’t won a Gold Glove despite being considered the league’s flashiest defensive first baseman, was perfect in 617 chances.
“I thought he definitely would be someone who would be up for it,” Olerud said of Segui.
The key to Olerud’s improvement may be nothing more than his day-in, day-out presence at first base. The 12-year veteran has been an iron man the past four seasons, having played 650 games, including 159 in the regular season and nine in the postseason for the Mariners this year.
“The more that you’re out there, the more comfortable you are,” he said. “You’re used to balls coming to you and there’s a confidence that comes in making the plays. The more you’re out there, the more it helps build confidence.”
And, like any perfectionist, Olerud can’t think of one play last year that he considers his best. It’s the ones he muffed that stand out.
“You can always look back on the errors you made and think of how you’d do them differently,” he said. “You’re always shooting for perfection and making all the plays you can make. Any time you make a good play, a diving play that saves your team a run or helps them get out of an inning, that’s a good feeling.”
Griffey, who had won the award every year since 1990 while playing center field with Seattle, ranked only ninth among National League center fielders this year with a .987 fielding percentage. He made five errors.
The three NL Gold Glove outfielders are Andruw Jones of Atlanta (.996, two errors), Steve Finley of Arizona (.992, three errors) and Jim Edmonds of the Cardinals (.990, four errors).
Rohn, 44, replaces former Tacoma manager Dave Myers, who last week was named the Mariners’ third-base coach for next year. Myers had managed the Rainiers the past five seasons.
“The saving grace was that he’s an experienced pitcher, so there wasn’t a lot of correction to do,” Price said. “It’s not like his delivery was falling apart and we would have to re-invent it.”
The only times he needed to be careful with Sasaki occurred during meetings on the mound, when Price had to communicate such topics as the slide step or how to approach a hitter.
“And that was easy to get through because there were key words we used to get the message through,” Price said. “It will only get easier next year.”
Price also doesn’t discount the presence of interpreter Alan Turner and Sasaki’s personal trainer, Kiyoshi Egawa, who were at Sasaki’s side all season.
“It was essential that he had Alan with him and it was nice to have Iggy (Egawa) also. They created a much more comfortable environment for him,” Price said. “Here was a guy in a new country and he was away from his family most of the season. There could have been a lot of setbacks for him.”