by John Long
He was scared. Frightened, really. This was serious. Success had always
come so easily. God blessed very few people with his skills, and he knew
he would be in the major leagues soon. Baseball America College Player of
the Year. All-American. The trappings of success were so close
he could almost reach out and touch them.
Too fast, it all
seemed to be running away. "I could die from this," he thought.
How could a
20-year-old die from a headache?
At the time, on
January 11, 1989, John Olerud was a student at Washington State
University, just about to finish his junior year, get drafted, and head
for the majors. But first, a strong dose of reality hit.
"I wasn?t in my
best shape," he says. "A strong run and some stretching would
help me get back on schedule for baseball season. There isn?t all that
much time before the games start after Christmas break. You really can?t
lose days getting your body into peak performance condition."
One second he is
running the Christmas vacation laziness out of his body and the next?.
"My eyes opened
to a foreign world full of antiseptic smells, white walls, and soft
voices. Quiet sounds drifted toward me from a distance but never fully
touched me as I tried to make sense of where I was and what had happened.
I could remember finishing the three-quarter mile run on the university
track and looking down at my feet. I remembered having such a terrible
"It was like the
tape recorder in my head that recorded my memories just switched off.
Nothing connected me to this place in my conscious thought. Nothing there
to help it make sense either.
remember anything else. My mom, dad, and aunt were there. That made me
feel a little less weird, and my body was beginning to check in. I
remember concentrating on feeling my arms and legs, fingers and toes.
Everything seemed to be there, and everything seemed to be working. An
entire day had gone by, and I had been ?out of it? completely. How I
got there was a mystery to me. I did know how it started, but I had to be
briefed about how I got to a hospital in Spokane, Washington.
soft-spoken, John Olerud is so quiet he almost disappears in the cacophony
of noise and activity of a major league clubhouse. His calm demeanor and
quiet confidence bespeak a pro athlete whose immense talent prohibits him
from having to worry about his place on the team. He seems almost exempt
from the problems that plague so many pro athletes.
Perhaps it was his own
very real brush with death that makes other problems seem less stressful.
And surely His walk with Jesus Christ has a great deal to do with his
quiet confidence, as is so often the case with confident believers. Christ
takes the crises out of John?s days.
John survived that
dramatic crisis when he collapsed on the school track and woke up the next
day with blood leaking into his skull cavity. Doctors finally diagnosed
the problem as an aneurysm at the base of his brain. He could have died
that day, but God spared John for His sake and for the things he has yet
Olerud?s problem had
surfaced earlier that college year, but he found ways to dismiss it.
"The fall baseball season was over, and we would soon be breaking up
to go on Christmas break," he recalls. "The baseball team was
out for a box-jump exercise shortly before the break. We were seeing how
many box-jumps we could do in so many seconds. I had this awful head pain,
and I mentioned it to my roommate. He thought I might not have been
breathing very well during the exercise and caused pressure to build up in
"We did it again
a few days later, and I concentrated on my breathing. The pain was just as
bad, but didn?t last as long, so I chalked it up to this breathing thing
and pretty much dismissed it. The coaches like us to stay in shape while
on break, but because conditioning is not my favorite pastime I kind of
slacked off on that during Christmas break. We had a light workout the
first morning back, and I knew I had better do some running. One of my
teammates and I hit the track, and I ran as hard as I could go for three
quarters of a mile. At the end I had that bad headache again and thought,
?What is with these headaches?? and that is the last thing I
It had been the time
of his life. John was on the fast track to fame, riches beyond
imagination, and honors reserved for the special few. How could it all
come so drastically unraveled during a simple conditioning run on a sunny
afternoon in Pullman, Washington?
"I wasn?t a
Christian at the time of my aneurysm," says John Olerud, 1993
American League batting champion, World Series hero, All-Star, New York
Mets first baseman, husband, and father. "It was such a shock to be
20 years old and come face-to-face with a health problem that is more
often fatal than not. I have heard of many people who die from what I had.
Much more often than not, you die. That should have brought me to Christ,
but I had to find Him much later. I know He spared me so I could have the
lifetime I needed to love and know Him more.
"You would think
if I took care of myself, stayed away from drugs, and didn?t do anything
stupid like driving crazy and stuff like that, I should live to be?old.
The idea that I could die in the time it takes to snap your finger, from a
health problem, just seemed unbelievable. Yet, it hung over me like a
cloud. The doctors call my condition a Sub-Arachnoid Hemorrhage. That was
a symptom of an aneurysm, so they kept me in the hospital for 2 weeks and
ran a bunch of tests trying to find the aneurysm. When they couldn?t
find it, they gave up and sent me home to rest for 2 more weeks. I was
supposed to start light workouts the third week home and then go back to
my normal level of activity.
"In the meantime,
my dad, who is a doctor, showed the X-rays and a file to a friend of his,
a neurosurgeon in Seattle. He said they usually take an extra view in the
angiogram. When they did, they found the problem right between my eyes but
a few inches back into my brain. Surgery was scheduled and the doctors
opened my skull on the left side of my forehead and fixed the leak.
"I was so blessed
by God! There was no damage, no rehab, no learning to walk or talk again.
I healed from the wound, wore a batting helmet in the field and at bat to
protect the place where the bones of my skull were parted, and I picked my
life right up where I left off before. I had seen children in rehab wards
trying to speak, stand, and move from this problem, and God chose me to be
the one totally healed?without years of recovering in my life.
"It is a miracle!
The surgery was February 27, and I played my first game April 15! One week
following surgery in the hospital, 2 weeks of rest at home, then a modest
workout schedule for a couple of weeks, while I got my strength back and
my life resumed almost without change. There was no doubt I physically
wasn?t 100 percent, but I was up and active and able to go out and play
ball. It took 6 to 8 weeks for the bone to knit back together, and I had
to wear the helmet to protect myself from serious complications. By the
time I could forgo the helmet, I had become used to it." One of the
trademarks identifying John on the field is his ever-present batting
helmet instead of a baseball cap.
After the season
ended, Olerud was drafted in the third round by the Toronto Blue Jays and
spent the summer on their Instructional League team before making his
major league debut on September 3. After the season, He returned home to
Kirkland, Washington, and rediscovered a high-school flame, Kelly. A
college volleyball player at Arizona State, Kelly represented another
important challenge for John besides just winning her heart. She
challenged him to define his beliefs.
"I always thought
I was a Christian because when I asked my folks what we were, they said we
were Christians. That seemed good enough, I figured my last name is Olerud.
I come from Norwegian descent and my father says we?re Christian, so I
must be a Christian."
Kelly wouldn?t take
that for an answer. She started asking serious questions that required
serious answers. "She asked me things I had to work to answer, and it
was in searching for those answers that I came to know the Lord. You know,
reading the Bible teaches me so many things. I found it to be amazing. It
was the first time anybody showed me what the Bible says about being
saved. It was the first time I found out what it takes to be saved. I
thought, ?If that?s what the Bible says, then that?s what I want to
do.? Without a lot of fanfare, I prayed the sinner?s prayer with Kelly
and knew I had been changed. Not dramatically changed, but that would
happen over time. I knew I needed to be saved by Christ, and Kelly showed
me how the Bible says you have to ask sincerely."
At first, John
struggled. He hesitated to share the news. "I thought I had to get my
life all perfect, and then I could share my Christianity. It never
occurred to me that God sees us as a work-in-progress. I was concerned
with seeming as if I had everything really squared away, so I wouldn?t
look like a hypocrite. As I began to see testimonies lived out in other
people?s lives, I started to understand that we are heading toward
Christ. We aren?t normal people one minute then become ?Super
Christians? with no problems, struggles, or areas of our lives that need
that I didn?t have to be perfect strengthened my faith. I began to read
about the evidences of God and His work in our lives, and that has helped
me grow and mature into the man God is asking me to be. God conditioned me
to be what I am, the same way I conditioned myself to be a baseball
player. The scientific evidence that supports Christianity has been a
great comfort to me. I love to see the ?world? admit that God had to
do something, because they can?t explain it in earthly terms.
"I want to share
Christ more effectively," he admits with a shy smile. "I don?t
always have the right words at the tip of my tongue to cause people to
turn toward Him. My wife and I try to be more of a witness, but finding
the right words is a challenge sometimes."
On the field, the
challenge for Olerud is to help get the Mets where he guided the Blue Jays
in 1992 and 1993?the World Series. "This has been an ideal
situation for me. I love the club, love my role, and we have a very good
team. Last winter we strengthened our offense, an area where we struggled
all last season."
With a contract that
expires at the end of the 1999 season, Olerud is just months away from
deciding where he?ll spend his next few years in baseball. "I don?t
know where God wants me next year," he says. "I have always
thought that when the kids start school they will be less mobile, and it
becomes a serious issue where I play. Right now, I drag Kelly everywhere
with the baby, Garret John, who goes where Daddy and Mommy go. There?s
no real handicap in having my family around me all year. I want to be a
faithful, loving husband and father to my children, who will need me to be
there fulltime, not away most of the year until I can?t play
Not many people face
death as John Olerud did and survive. Perhaps that?s why he is thriving
so well in the spotlight of major league baseball. He knows that God has
given him a purpose that goes beyond the game. "I know I was spared
because Christ has a plan for my life, and I am enjoying the life He gives
me every day."
Taken from Sports Spectrum, a
Christian sports magazine. Used by permission. For subscription
information call 1-800-283-8333.