Forgotten might be the wrong word for former New York Mets star John Olerud. Fans haven’t forgotten him, they just underappreciate him.
The New York Mets were a rising team after the 1996 season. They went 71-91, but there were glimmers of hope. Todd Hundley had an elite offensive season, Edgardo Alfonzo impressed in his rookie campaign, and Jeff Kent continued to be a wrecking ball offensively.
Not to mention, Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson underwent historically impressive seasons. The future looked as bright as could be.
There was one glaring hole in the lineup after that season though, and it was at first base. Butch Huskey was good, but he could be improved on, and that’s exactly what the Mets did.
The Toronto Blue Jays had a young prospect by the name of Carlos Delgado ready to take over at first base full time. Therefore, they were looking to move on from former All-Star John Olerud.
They were so desperate to get rid of Olerud that a trade with the Mets was a simple salary dump. The final deal agreed to was Olerud and a then-MLB record $5 million in salary relief for reliever Robert Person.
That trade is still one of the best in the history of the Mets franchise.
The 1997 season
Olerud had been in steady decline over the previous three seasons with the Blue Jays. His offensive numbers were in free fall. In 1996, he had his worst season since 1992, hitting .274/.382/.472. That’s a fantastic batting line today, but in the mid-90s, that was weak.
He wasn’t hitting home runs and his batting average was declining. The Mets seized the opportunity to buy low on an elite player.
Olerud brought his elite defense to Queens in 1997. Pairing him with Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez gave the Mets one of the best defensive infields in MLB.
The first baseman had a bounce-back season at the plate as well. He hit .294/.400/.489 with 22 home runs. That’s good for a 138 wRC+, and paired with his defense, he was worth 4.4 fWAR. Alfonzo was the only Mets hitter worth more that season.
The Mets won 88 games, a 17-game improvement from the year before. That came despite huge letdown seasons from Johnson, Gilkey, and Huskey.
It didn’t take long before MLB knew that Olerud was back. That only made things more difficult for the Mets as his contract was up and he hit free agency.
The 1998 season
After a strong first season with the Mets, Olerud quickly re-signed with the team. Just a few weeks into free agency, both parties agreed to a two-year, $8 million contract. Olerud rewarded the Mets with the best season of his career.
In 1998, he hit an astonishing .354/.447/.551. He was additionally worth 8.1 fWAR. That was good for third in baseball, behind only Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
It was also the second-best fWAR season in franchise history. Only David Wright’s 8.4 fWar in 2007 is better.
In addition, Olerud set a franchise record for both batting average and on-base percentage, both of which still stand to this day. The two Mets who have come the closest to breaking the batting average record are Mike Piazza (.348 in 1998), and Moises Alou (.341 in 2007).
The closest in on-base percentage are Alfonzo (.425 in 2000), Richie Ashburn (.424 in 1962), and Keith Hernandez (.424 in 1983).
Somehow Olerud didn’t make the All-Star game but finished 12th in MVP voting. The game was very different in 1998, but that’s absolutely ridiculous. He was one of the three best hitters in baseball, and he was undeniably the best hitter who wasn’t using steroids.
In a different world, Olerud is the Mets’ one and only MVP winner. That’s the kind of season he had in 1998. The Mets just didn’t have the same kind of luck.
Despite witnessing a dominant year from Olerud and acquiring Piazza in May, the Mets still missed the postseason. But having finished with 88 wins for a second straight year, they were no longer the optimistic underdogs. New York was now one of the favorites to win it all
The 1999 season
Olerud wasn’t able to live up to his amazing 1998 season the following year, but he was still one of the best first basemen in the majors.
He played in all 162 games in 1999, which tied Felix Millian’s 1975 mark for the most in a single season throughout the franchise’s history. The more impressive stat is Olerud’s 125 walks, which was a new franchise record. The next closest Mets to achieve that mark are Keith Hernandez (97 in 1984) and Darryl Strawberry (97 in 1987).
Olerud hit .298/.427/.463 and didn’t earn an All-Star nod once again. After setting the franchise record for on-base percentage in 1998, Olerud put up the second-best mark in 1999.
He was simply one of the best first basemen in baseball, portraying elite defense and reaching base at an elite clip. There was nothing that Olerud couldn’t do during his tenure with the Mets.
That includes hitting in the playoffs. The Mets finally broke through and made the postseason in 1999, reaching the NLCS before bowing out against the Atlanta Braves in six games.
Olerud was not to blame for the failure to win the pennant though. He hit an absurd .438/.525/.625 in the NLDS and .296/.345/.519 in the NLCS. He even hit three home runs in 10 playoff games after hitting just 19 all season.
Unfortunately for the Mets, all good things must come to an end. Olerud’s tenure with the team concluded after the 1999 campaign.
Why did the Mets let you go, Johnny O?
When Olerud came to the Mets, he was a player in decline. But when he left, he was one of the best in baseball. The Mets fought with the Seattle Mariners for his services after the 1999 season. According to Olerud, the two teams made similar offers but the allure of playing at home was too strong to turn down.
Olerud grew up in Seattle and always dreamed of playing for the Mariners. He couldn’t turn down the opportunity, not even if it meant leaving Queens.
If the Mets were willing to spend like the big-market team they are and significantly outbid the Mariners’ three-year, $20 million offer, maybe a deal gets done. That didn’t happen though, and the rest is history.
The Mets went to the World Series in 2000 after replacing Olerud with journeyman Todd Zeile.
Meanwhile, the Mariners have still never been to a World Series. They did find success though. Seattle went to the ALCS in both 2000 and 2001, and in 2002, they won 93 games but missed the playoffs. The great consolation prize is that the Mariners tied the MLB record for single-season wins in 2001 with 116.
Olerud won two Gold Glove Awards and made an All-Star appearance during the duration of that three-year contract. Maybe with Olerud, the Mets stand at the top of the mountain in 2000. Maybe they don’t collapse into nothingness after that season.
Nobody knows for sure. But what they do know is that Olerud was a special player during his tenure in Queens. His greatness is more than just a footnote, and fans should remember that.