Closer Olson enters O's Hall of Fame
Righty began career with Baltimore, playing from 1988-93
BALTIMORE -- Gregg Olson's journey back to the mound in Baltimore has been a long one, to say the least.
Eight different teams, nine years and thousands of miles separate one of the best closers in Orioles history from his last trip out to the rubber strip in the middle of a baseball field in Baltimore.
But on Saturday night, Olson made that trip. This time, however, there wasn't a jam waiting for him when he got there. Instead, Olson was greeted with a green blazer and inducted by his father, Bill, into the Orioles Hall of Fame. The right-handed pitcher, who became the first reliever to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1989, was honored by the Orioles for his five impressive seasons as Baltimore's closer.
"It is a tremendous honor," Olson said. "I don't think I've had an honor that will compare; I don't think I ever will. It is probably my highest honor that I will achieve."
Olson solidified his place in the Hall of Fame by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch -- an attempt at his trademark curveball -- but it wasn't exactly a pitch that would have struck anyone out.
"I spun a little one," Olson said. "But I got caught up in here with the coat and I missed the catcher by 10 feet."
It was the first time Olson had been on a mound as a member of the Orioles in 15 years.
"This place is just different," he said on Friday. "It's not your typical Major League Baseball city. The fans adore their players, whether it be the Ravens, the Colts or the Orioles. It's just a special bonding with the people here in Baltimore, and I never found that anywhere else -- maybe because it was my first place, but I don't think that was what it was. They just have a special fan base here and it meant a lot to play here."
The closer, who dominated with his 90-plus-mph fastball and a devastating curveball, established the club record for saves in a season (37 in 1990) and over a career (160).
But despite that stellar 1990 season, Olson's most memorable year in Baltimore was arguably his rookie campaign, in which the Orioles rebounded from a 107-loss season to make a run for the AL pennant.
"Any time you're in a pennant race, it's fun," Olson said. "But to be in a place like Baltimore and to do what nobody remotely expects you to do, and then you couple it with your rookie season -- so everything is new and fun -- it was a great, great season."
He had no trouble picking out his most memorable of the 160 saves he racked up for Baltimore: in Oakland in 1989.
"I got my first real save," Olson said. "I had the middle of the lineup with a one-run lead, and it was [Mark] McGwire, Dave Parker and Dave Henderson. And I struck all three of them out, and I said, 'All right, this stuff works.'"
The A's went on to win the World Series that year, but Olson and the Orioles would get a bit of history of their own two years later when he, along with Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan and Mark Williamson, combined for Baltimore's first no-hitter since 1969. The Orioles have not thrown a no-hitter since.
Olson suffered a torn ligament in his throwing elbow in 1993 and struggled to regain his prowess on the mound for the next five seasons -- all after leaving Baltimore. The constant shuffling over the next few years didn't dishearten the hurler, who took them all in stride and reestablished himself as a closer with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998. His curse, it seems, was leaving teams as they were on the brink of greatness.
"That ended up being my M.O.," Olson said, recalling tenures with the Braves, Indians and D-backs. "I went somewhere, and then the next year or two years, they went to the World Series or won the World Series."
Ultimately, though, Olson -- who now resides with his wife and four children in Newport Beach, Calif. -- has always reserved a special place for Baltimore, the city and team that gave him his start. And on Saturday, Olson walked back out on that mound and took his place among the Orioles greats.
"My favorite place to play was probably Memorial Stadium," he said. "You almost knew all the fans because they were accessible. Half the time, the players' parking lot was in the middle of the regular parking lot, so you go to know everybody outside the park after the game. ... You weren't above -- you weren't anything. You were just somebody they came to watch."
Also honored before Saturday's game were traveling secretary Phil Itzoe and the late superfan William "Wild Bill" Hagy, who was the first recipient of the Wild Bill Hagy Award, to be given to longtime dedicated fans.
Itzoe, who has been traveling secretary for 41 years -- longer than any person in any of the four major sports -- received the Herb Armstrong Award, given to non-uniformed personnel who have made significant contributions to the team and the game.
Itzoe was introduced by his son, which the traveling secretary said during the ceremony was "one of the great moments" in his life.
"I try not to dwell on it, but I'm truly very honored that these people would do this," Itzoe said on Friday. "I knew the guy that the award is named for, Herb Armstrong, and there aren't many people left in the organization who knew him. That's an added significance to the award itself. He was a remarkable person, and it's -- I hate to use the word humbling, but it is. I looked upon him as sort of a demigod. He was a remarkable individual: teacher, educator, athlete, mentor, coach. He touched so many lives, it was unbelievable.
After the ceremony, Itzoe added: "It seems very strange to be in the spotlight. Hopefully, in the next short period of time, the light will go off and I can go back to being what I was before, which is the traveling secretary."
Amanda Comak is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.