I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention. Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game. Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.
The pitcher’s name? Garrett Olson.
Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes. But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong. Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.
He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners. Still, he’s showing signs of improvement. Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign. He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.) I hope he stays.
My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous. Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year. He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno. I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him. “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence. The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.
Early on, talk like this is cheap. Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters. But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly. His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays. Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.
Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer. I’ll be watching, though.