Miracle Met

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.

Scared.

How could a 20-year-old die from a headache?

Easily, apparently.

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 headache.

"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.

"I didn?t 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.

Slender and 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 to do.

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 my head.

"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 remember."

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 fixing.

"The realization 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 anymore."

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.