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This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
A forward by Minnesota native and former All-Star catcher Greg Olson.
I have been kidded that by plugging away for so long before finally making it to the majors, I have made it harder to convince other prospects with little chance at the majors to quit baseball and get on with the rest of their lives. But for me, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. As Dan noted when he asked me to write this forward, I have been intimately involved with many aspects of Minnesota baseball. I grew up playing at the youth and then high school level. I played at the University of Minnesota and had a cup of coffee with the Twins. And in what may have been the highlight of my career, I came back to face them in what many consider the greatest World Series of all time.
I spent my first years of any sort of organized athletics in Marshall, a small town in Southwestern Minnesota. Growing up with my older brother Jeff gave me an opportunity to play with the bigger kids. When I was eight or nine I hung around his youth baseball team, acting as an informal batboy. When his teammates missed games because they were on vacation or sick, I would fill in, and since I was pretty good for my age I found I could hold my own when given the chance.
I was nine when my family moved to Edina, outside of Minneapolis, where sports were much more regulated. I could no longer play up with my brother’s team and was stuck playing a year of cub softball. But the area had well-organized youth baseball, and over the next couple of years I played on some elite teams and at some of the best facilities in the region. At Edina East High School I made the varsity team at third base as a sophomore in 1977, a memorable year in which we made it all the way to the state championship game before losing to St. Peter.
After graduation I hoped to follow in the footsteps of Steve Ramler, another Edina player two years older than me who had gone to Oral Roberts University, but the baseball coach didn’t think I was good enough. Fortunately, University of Minnesota baseball coach George Thomas did. After the first day of practice he called me into his office and asked if I’d ever been a catcher. When I told him I hadn’t, Thomas said it was time I learned and that starting tomorrow, I was a catcher. No question, that moment made a big difference in my getting to the majors. My sophomore year I played with all three of New Ulm’s Steinbach brothers, including Terry, who went on to play many years in the majors.
The New York Mets drafted me in the seventh round after my junior year when I was named a first team All-American. I slowly worked my up through the Mets system, but after seven years I had plateaued at Triple-A. I was now a minor league free agent. Rather than retire, I signed a minor league contract with the Twins for 1989. The Twins called me up in June when Dan Gladden was injured, and in my first appearance I caught for Juan Berenguer. A couple of days later I had my first hit when I laced a Bryan Harvey pitch off the top of the left field Plexiglas. Angels left fielder Chili Davis played the carom perfectly, holding me to a single. Kirby Puckett, whom I knew from my days in the minors, liked to razz me that I hit the longest single in the history of the Metrodome.
Unfortunately, I only stayed in the big leagues for a short stint, and after the season the Twins released me. I still thought I could play major league baseball, however, and signed with the Atlanta Braves. My persistence was finally about to run into some good luck. Because spring training in 1990 was delayed due to a short lockout, teams were allowed to carry 27-man rosters through April 30.
I started the season in the minors, but was called up almost immediately to be the team’s third catcher. When I finally had a chance to catch a couple of weeks into the season, Tom Glavine was the pitcher. Glavine liked working with me and asked manager Russ Nixon to allow me catch him going forward. Because I was also hitting well I soon became the team’s regular catcher and even made the All-Star team.
The next season, 1991, was my most enjoyable in baseball. Every player’s dream is to play in the World Series, and here I was, not only in it, but playing against my hometown Minnesota Twins. I caught every inning in that seven-game series, but unfortunately we came out at the short end in one of baseball’s most famous Game Sevens.
I was able to be a part of Minnesota’s baseball tradition at nearly all levels. From youth baseball to the World Series, I experienced some of the best moments the sport has to offer. I remain involved today, working with young baseball players hoping for a chance to play at a higher level. As long as there are young people who love the game and are willing to work at it, Minnesota should have many more kids following in my footsteps.
– Greg Olson