Nebraska native Gregg Olson was a high school pitching phenom. He led Omaha Northwest High School to four state titles, even throwing a no hitter in the state championship game to cap off his senior season. He was featured as one of the “Faces in the Crowd” in an issue of Sports Illustrated back in 1984.
The powerful closer attended the Auburn University and continued to dominate on the mound over the course of his three collegiate seasons.
Olson was drafted in the first round (4th overall) of the 1988 Amateur Draft by the Baltimore Orioles. He wasted no time making an impact, as he became the first reliever to ever win the American League Rookie of the Year award, setting a rookie record for saves with 27 while posting a 5-2 record with a minuscule 1.69 ERA all while recording 90 strikeout in 85 innings pitched.
Olson’s career spanned 14 seasons with nine different teams. He retired with over 200 saves and was inducted into the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame.
He spoke with us about opening a box of Topps baseball to find his rookie card, the mancave in the making and conversations with Fidel Castro.
Tony Reid– Your rookie cards appeared in a slew of products in 1989 including Bowman, Topps and Upper Deck to name a few. Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on a card?
Gregg Olson-I was back visiting my grandmother in Fremont, Nebraska. I don’t know how I found out that the cards came out but we went to the local pharmacy and bought a box of Topps and went diving through it trying to get one of me. We finally found one later night but yeah, that was a pretty cool moment.
TR–You were still in your Auburn uniform on that Topps card, being a draft pick, right?
GO– Yeah. That was exactly it. It was that moment where you tell yourself, alright now I’ve made it to the Big Leagues. It was a really cool moment. I didn’t realize that the picture was going to be used on my first baseball card otherwise I would have taken that picture a little bit more seriously.
TR–I’ve talked to a number of retired players and their rookie cards have them pictured in their practice uniforms, in odd preseason poses and things of that nature. Back in the day they didn’t have multiple photo shoots and technology to create great cards, sometimes they used whatever picture they could take or find.
GO-I think that is what they did with the Auburn picture. They pulled that random picture and used it on the card. I wish they would have let me know that was going to be on a baseball card.
TR– Were you a card collector as a kid?
GO– Everybody collected cards in the seventies when I was growing up. If anybody did anything seriously at the time with baseball cards I didn’t know about it. Everybody had Topps cards. You would trade guys and try to compete your set. I collected in the seventies and then I got to college and a couple of my roommates decided to take it up again. That was when Donruss was out and Score came out. We started doing those three sets and trying to put them together. We would get baseball cards whenever we could. So, I started collecting again when I got to college.
TR–You were a major college player collecting cards. That is pretty cool.
GO– Baseball card collecting started to get really hot then. I don’t know if it was trying to get the 1985 Olympic Team guys or what. It got hot and we started doing it. The next thing you know, within a year, I am playing against a bunch of the guys on those cards.
TR– In 1989, you were the American League Rookie of the Year beating out Ken Griffey, Jr and Tom Gordon. You set the Orioles saves record and the list goes on and on. It was an off the charts season. What are your fondest memories from the crazy rookie year?
GO– The main memories are the rollercoaster ride. When I get back to Baltimore, everybody brings up a game or two that they remember from that year. For me, it was just getting a shot early in April. Frank Robinson was my manager and he gave me a shot. I just ran with it. I hit a slump in the middle but got hot at the end. The most fun about it was that we were in a pennant race when we should have been in last place in the AL East. This was before an AL Central or an NL Central. It was a big AL East and for us to go from last place to just a game or two back from Toronto in 1989 was a great run. The city of Baltimore was on fire. It was a blast.
TR–We mentioned the Rookie of the Year Award, you were an All-Star in 1990, you went on to become an Orioles Hall of Famer, and you passed the 200 career save mark. Do you have an office or mancave where you have memorabilia or items displayed?
GO-I have in the past. We moved from Southern California to Auburn, Alabama. We haven’t purchased a house yet. We are looking. I have no mancave as of right now. I had a decent one in Maryland. I had a good one in California. I have my jerseys. I collected bats and baseballs. I had those all displayed. The photos were in a different office.
I have some interesting photos from over the years of running across the presidents. The presidents would come into Baltimore on Opening Day before the Nationals existed. We had George Bush, Bill Clinton and I have multiple photos with all the presidents that came in. I have a photo with the Queen of England. She came in for something and came down to the dugout and met the Orioles. That was a cool photo. I have a photo of Fidel Castro and myself from the USA Team in 1987 when we went down and played in Cuba.
TR–Anyone what knows baseball knows how much of a hotbed Cuba is for baseball. For better or worse, Castro was very influential in growing the sport there. There was a weird relationship with him and the United States. Did you share a moment or have a conversation with him?
GO– Yeah. I was in between starting and relieving for Team USA. I was going back and forth. I was relieving one night. I don’t remember the exact number but I struck out a lot of Cubans one night. He came down out of the stands. The USA Team hadn’t won there in decades. We won that night. We ended up winning two out of the seven games. He came down and wanted to meet me and talk about my fastball that night. My breaking ball got taken away from me by some 38-year-old pinch hitter that hit it at my forehead.