By; Brian Frank
Greg Olson didn’t pitch with the Bisons for long, but he was extremely effective in his short time as the team's closer. Olson was an established major-league star when he joined the Herd in the spring of 1995. He’d been one of the game’s best closers since shortly after being selected fourth overall by the Orioles in the 1988 draft. However, after injuring his right elbow during the ‘93 season, he struggled to get back on track. He turned things around closing games for the Bisons.
“It was,” Olson said recently when asked if he viewed his time with Buffalo as a turning point in his career. “It was a lot of time spent with (Bisons pitching coach) Dom Chiti and focused on getting things fixed. It gave me another eight years in the major leagues. Once I got things squared away, I had a good couple months with Kansas City in ’95 and I was able to stay in the big leagues until 2002. So, yeah, it was a big piece and a big time in my career.”
Many fans remember the 6’4” Nebraska native for his signature pitch – a knee-buckling curveball. He first learned the devastating pitch growing up in Omaha.
“My father started teaching it to me when I was thirteen,” he remembered. “It was a process of learning how to throw it and using all sorts of gadgets and gizmos. I started when I was 13. Then when I was 14 he’d let me throw it twice a game. It’s such a feel pitch. It’s the only pitch where your fingers are in front of the ball and your thumb is the only thing behind. When I got to Auburn I started working with my college coach, Hal Baird, and started to figure out that I could throw it harder if I shortened my stride. Then it evolved into what it became – which was this big breaking overhand curveball.”
Olson was the Bisons closer in the spring of '95. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Olson dominated at Northwest High School in Omaha, going 27-0 with a 0.76 ERA ,while fanning 276 batters and tossing four no-hitters in his high school career. He helped lead the Huskies to four Nebraska state championships. After a dominant performance in the final game of the state championship during his junior year, he was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd segment, along with his coach – his father Bill Olson, who would go on to finish with 1,500 career wins and six high school state championships.
“I hit two home runs, knocked in all four runs, pitched – gave up some hits – but pitched seven innings,” Olson said of his first appearance in SI. He also fanned 10 batters. “Nothing special on the mound, it was just that I hit two home runs and went 2-for-2 on the day with all four RBIs. We ended up winning 4-2.”
He was clearly a force to be reckoned with at the plate. His senior season, he hit over .500 and led the state in home runs – before throwing a no-hitter in the state championship game. All his success in high school, especially on the mound, led to him being heavily recruited to play college baseball.
“I had some great offers,” he recalled. “I came down here (to Auburn University) and they were playing Mississippi State on my recruiting trip. Mississippi State had Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen – and all those guys were going into the draft two months later. All the Auburn guys were coming back. Auburn swept Mississippi State on my trip. I was just kind of looking around thinking – they (Auburn) probably have one of the best offences in the SEC and that would be a lot of help for me. I loved the campus. The head coach (Hal Baird) was an amazing man. He just came out and was working with my son, who’s a freshman at Auburn University right now. He’s a good man and he’s a big reason why I came here.”
After being a starting pitcher his freshman year, Olson made the transition to the bullpen during his sophomore season.
“I’d gotten into the SEC my freshman year – and like every freshman – pretty much got thrashed,” he said. “I just had a problem pitching once a week. I was pitching every Saturday and maybe getting an inning or two every Tuesday. I had the 'play every day' mentality. I was miserable just sitting around watching and not being able to affect any of the games. My coach and I both noticed that and sat down and talked it out. I threw my sophomore fall as a reliever – just worked on seeing what it looked like, how fast I could bounce back, how my arm felt and if I’d lose any velocity or anything the next day. It turned out I was born to be a reliever. It was natural. My arm’s resilient, it bounces back quickly – everything that a reliever needs to be.”
Olson led the NCAA with a 1.26 ERA his sophomore season and followed that up by leading the SEC with a 2.00 ERA his junior year. He collected 20 saves in his time with the Tigers and was a two-time All-American.
Following his junior season, he was selected by the Orioles with the fourth pick in Major League Baseball’s 1988 June Amateur Draft – the highest a reliever had ever been selected. Later that summer, he pitched briefly at Single-A Hagerstown and Double-A Charlotte, before appearing in 10 games out of Baltimore’s bullpen as a September call up. He entered the ’89 season just hoping to make the big club. He’d go on to achieve much more than that, becoming one of the game’s most dominant closers during his rookie year.
“It was a whirlwind,” he said of the ’89 season. “Coming out of spring training I didn’t think I was going to make the team. I was fighting for a job every day of camp. Starting the season with the Orioles, I didn’t get off to a great start the first couple weeks of April. Then I got into a late game, and another late game, and all of a sudden a month later I’m the closer. Literally, I was afraid in the middle of April I was going to be sent down and never be seen again. Then all of a sudden it turns around and I get throwing well and I’m the closer at the end of May. It was fun. We were in a pennant race for the first time in years and I’m right in the middle of it. I think I was dumb and young and didn’t know I was supposed to be under the stress of a pennant race.”
He ended the season with an incredible 1.69 ERA in 64 games, recording 90 strikeouts in 85 innings pitched. He was awarded the team’s Most Valuable Player Award and became the first reliever ever to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
In his six seasons with the Orioles, he was one of the premier closers in all of baseball. He pitched in 320 games for Baltimore, had a 2.26 ERA, and recorded 347 strikeouts. He still holds numerous team records, including: career saves (160); consecutive shutout innings (41); consecutive scoreless appearances (29); and saves by a rookie (27).
In 1993, he tore a ligament in his right elbow during a game in late July. He finished the season with a 1.60 ERA in 50 games – but the injury, and trying to pitch through it, caused him to change his mechanics. The next season, he signed with the Atlanta Braves and threw only 14 2/3 innings in the major leagues before the season ended in August due to the player’s strike. Olson knew that when the strike finally ended in the spring of '95, that the large number of free agents would be in a race to sign with teams.
“Most of the guys that didn’t have great years in ’94 knew there was going to be a glut of signings and people going everywhere as soon as the strike ended,” he said. “We had a whole bunch of major leaguers on that ’95 Buffalo team. Everybody was doing the same thing – just trying to find a foothold and a place. I was just looking at Buffalo as a window to get my chance in Cleveland and hopefully start closing again. I signed toward the end of the strike and was just trying to lock into a place I wanted to go.”
Olson collected 13 saves in 13 consecutive appearances for the Herd. Photo Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Olson joined a Bisons team loaded with both veterans and young prospects that ended up going 82-62 and advanced all the way to the American Association Finals before falling in a decisive fifth game to Louisville. Olson was impressed with how Bisons manager Brian Graham handled a unique clubhouse.
“It was a lot of fun because it was like a major-league clubhouse,” he said. “Brian Graham did a great job of handling all the personalities because we had a lot of personalities in that clubhouse – like Casey Candaele and Billy Ripken – just some characters of the game. He (Graham) was great. He really was. He was dealing with a bunch of former major leaguers through the whole clubhouse – and then he’s got guys coming up, like Albie Lopez and Joe Roa. Brian Giles was just on his way up. (Jeromy) Burnitz had come over from the Mets. We had Herb Perry at first base and he was coming up. Paul Shuey was coming up. So he had this bizarre mix of guys who were not necessarily on their way down but were just there, and then a whole bunch of guys who were the future of Cleveland. He handled it amazing.”
“To be able to switch how you talk to me as opposed to how you talk to Paul Shuey. We were both in the same bullpen – but there was a difference. I had been in the big leagues for six or seven years by that point and Paul Shuey was on his way up and was a huge prospect for the organization. There’s two ways of handling us. He (Graham) did a great job with that.”
Olson also credits Bisons pitching coach Dom Chiti, who was recently hired as the bullpen coach for the New York Mets, with helping him fix his mechanics and regain the form he’d had before his elbow injury.
“He was a great pitching coach,” Olson said. “We stayed in touch and talked. He helped me out quite a bit. I had the elbow injury in ’93 and didn’t get it fixed. I broke a lot of my mechanics when I was trying to pitch hurt. I didn’t get it fixed in Atlanta the year before – you can see my numbers were amazingly awful. I ended up getting it turned around after that. We spent time in spring training working on my mechanics and getting things back in place. We did some drills that I still use with my son. He was really, really solid – one of the best pitching coaches I’ve ever been around.”
Even though his time in Buffalo was relatively brief, Olson has great memories of that period – especially hanging out with his teammates.
“A lot of the clubhouse stuff is what stood out – the camaraderie and time together,” he said. “Some of the best characters of the game were there. A lot of it was guys like Billy Ripken, Casey Candaele, and John Farrell – and trying to help out the young kids as much as you can. We had a lot of star power coming up and a lot of old major leaguers sharing time.”
One regret he has from that time is he wishes he’d have been able to see more of the Queen City.
“You know the sad part was – it was so cold,” he chuckled. “I was staying in a hotel not too far from the ballpark. I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. The ballpark was great. It was high end for Triple-A. It was just the weather – it wasn’t baseball weather that time of year. It was brutal. We got snowed out a couple times. I never really got a good feel for the city of Buffalo, sadly. I think I was there for about two months, and we were on the road for a month of it. It was freezing cold so I didn’t get out and about downtown too often. I loved my time there and I wish it wasn’t when it was still so cold. I would have loved to have gotten around and seen the city. I never really saw Buffalo the way it is and I do regret that.”
In 18 games with the Bisons, Olson had a 2.49 ERA and collected 13 saves – which came in 13 consecutive appearances. In mid-June, a pair of major-league teams became interested in acquiring him, forcing Cleveland to make a decision about whether to call him up or allow him to join a new organization.
Olson pitched in 14 big-league seasons. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
“I had it in my contract that if another major-league team came in and wanted me that Cleveland would either have to trade me or call me up,” he explained. “At the time, Boston and Baltimore both had good teams and were in it and needed a backend bullpen guy, so they both came calling. So, Cleveland called me up.”
However, he didn’t receive much of an opportunity once he got to Cleveland.
“My manager in Cleveland (Mike Hargrove) didn’t like my style of pitching,” he said. “I think I threw one inning in three weeks. My first-born son was a week or two away from being born and we were getting ready to go out to the west coast for a two-week swing. So, I went into Hargrove’s office and said, ‘You obviously don’t like the way I pitch because I haven’t thrown here in three weeks and I’m kind of useless to all the teams that came-a-callin’.’ And I was like, ‘My son’s about to be born so can you guys just let me go?’ And a couple days later they let me go. I went home and was home for twelve hours and my son was born. Twelve hours later Kansas City picked me up and I was on a flight to Omaha.”
Olson proved he was back on track while pitching for the Royals. He finished the season with a 3.26 ERA in 20 relief appearances for Kansas City. He went on to pitch six more seasons – with Kansas City, Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was voted the Diamondbacks Most Valuable Pitcher in 1998, a season he collected 30 more saves. He finished his career with a 3.46 ERA and had 217 saves in 622 relief appearances over 14 seasons.
Since his retirement, the honors have poured in. He was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, along with his father. He was in the inaugural class of the Auburn Baseball Wall of Fame – along with fellow Tigers Frank Thomas, Bo Jackson, and Tim Hudson. He also has a plaque honoring him on Auburn’s Tiger Trail. He was also honored for his success at Auburn by being inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2008, the Orioles honored him by putting him into the team’s Hall of Fame.
“That was really cool,” he said. “There’s only 30 major-league teams and the Orioles have a deep tradition. To be thought of as somebody who should be in their Hall of Fame is one of my career highlights.”
Recently, he’s been calling college baseball games on radio and teaching at Auburn.
“I’ve been working with ESPN doing SEC and ACC baseball. I had been involved with the Orioles doing the same thing for them, calling games on the radio, but that ended with COVID. Then I came back to Auburn in 2018 and finished my degree and ended up going on to get a master’s in adult education. I started about a year and a half ago teaching news and sports announcing at Auburn University.”
He can also often be found talking baseball and interacting with fans on Twitter, where his handle is @GreggOlson30.
“I love the interactions,” he said. “I love talking baseball, whether it’s people wanting to ask questions or have conversations about pitching styles, it’s a lot of fun for me.”
Even after such a long, remarkable career in which he pitched for nine different major-league teams over 14 seasons, Olson still enjoys looking back on his seven weeks as a Bison.
“It was a phenomenal time,” he said of his stint in Buffalo. “Other than not being in the major leagues, it was a best case scenario. I loved being there.”