Bowie, Md.â€"If you'd asked Justin Olson five years ago what he thought he would be doing today, playing professional baseball probably wouldn't have cracked his Top 100.
In 2000, Olson was a sophomore pitcher at the University of Illinois laboring through a season he'd finish with a 6.83 ERA. Then his father, former OPRF High School teacher and coach Gary Olson, died of a heart attack.
"That whole year basically sucked," Justin Olson said last week before a game in this minor-league town east of Washington, D.C. "My dad died and I basically stopped caring about everything. Baseball meant nothing to me."
As years went by and the pain eased and the game became fun again, Olson continued with baseball at Illinois and then with an independent league team. Now, thanks to hard work and a break or two along the way, he's a Double A pitcher a phone call away from the major leagues.
High school to the pros?
While Olson's chances of playing pro ball appeared remote at best in 2000, as an OPRF senior two years earlier he was a signature away from entering the Chicago Cubs' farm system after the Cubs selected him in the 44th round of the 1998 amateur draft. That was following a senior season in which Olson and three other future Major League drafteesâ€"Vasili Spanos, Blake Whealy, and Ryan Kalitaâ€"led the Huskies to a national ranking and a trip to the IHSA's Elite Eight.
"Those were all good memories. Every year of high school was good," said Olson, now 25. "The thing about it was, the winning was secondary. I was playing baseball and having fun with all these guys that were my friends, guys I had been playing with since we were 11 years old. We did everything together, not just baseball."
Olson went 7-0 his senior season with a 1.69 ERA, striking out 65 batters in 49 2/3 innings pitched. He wasn't bad at the plate, either, hitting .408 as OPRF went 36-5.
But, Olson says, the success wasn't as important as the relationships. Even today he remains close with his high school teammates.
"I'm not home as much anymore," he said, "but when I'm back in town I still see some of the guysâ€"Blake a lot, but also Matt Yeisley, Scott Legan, Andy Ralston, Spanos occasionally."
After being drafted in the summer of '98, Olson strongly considered signing with the Cubs, but he followed his dad's advice and opted instead to go to college.
"The money the Cubs offered me was decent enough," he said, "but the deal and the scholarship Illinois gave me was tough to say no to. Plus my dad valued education and pushed me toward getting the education."
One step up, two steps back
During his career at Illinois, Olson occasionally wished he'd followed his first instinct and signed with the Cubs out of high school. His college earned run averagesâ€"6.50 his freshman season, then 6.83, 4.74, and 7.76â€"looked more like minimum wage figures than ERAs. He gave up a whopping 228 hits in 168 innings over his career. ("I'm sorry you have to look at those," Olson said when someone mentioned they had seen his college statistics).
Olson's problems on the mound paled in comparison to those he would face after his father died in the spring of 2000 of a heart attack he sustained while exercising at OPRF. "It was a hard time for all of us, my entire family, as you can imagine," he said. "It took a lot out of me."
Considering his struggles at Illinois, Olson had few thoughts of continuing his playing career after he graduated in 2003 with a degree in kinesiology. He returned to Oak Park that spring to complete his student teaching, while helping out Chris Ledbetter as an assistant with the OPRF baseball team in his spare time.
Back in the saddle again
Olson continued throwing while he coached the Huskies, though, and after their season ended he had a tryout arranged for him with the Rockford RiverHawks of the independent Frontier League. He impressed Rockford with his low-90s fastball and joined the teamâ€"intending to spend just that one summer with the club before moving on to a teaching or coaching job.
But from his first appearance with the RiverHawks, Olson began getting interest from the White Sox, Marlins, and Twins. He signed with Minnesota in June of '03 after pitching just five innings for Rockford, and reported to the Twins' Class A Midwest League team in Davenport, Iowa. He pitched 19 innings there before getting promoted to Class A Fort Myers of the Florida State League.
Olson finished '03 and then spent all of '04 with Fort Myers, going 7-7 with a 2.88 ERA as both a starter and closer. Now he's moved up to the Double A New Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats of the Eastern League, where through Sunday he was 7-7 with a 4.48 ERA and had 73 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings. Olson says his fastball is consistently 92-94 mph and tops out at 95, though he had been as high as 97 earlier in his career.
Although he prefers starting and made his first 11 appearances with New Britain as a starter before moving to the bullpen in late May, Olson is now fitting into his role as a reliever.
"When Justin was a starter we'd see him lose velocity and wear down as the game went on," New Britain manager Stan Cliburn said after his team lost to the Bowie Baysox 3-2. "We see him as a middle relief guy, a three or four-inning guy."
But Olson is by no means a mop-up man for the Rock Cats. "If it's a close game or if it's tied I might come in," Olson said, "but if we're up by one or two there are probably a couple guys up there ahead of me."
New Britain's opponent on this night is an Orioles affiliate with a couple players in their early-30s. A visiting reporter asked Olson if he could see himself still playing in the minors when he's near that age.
"No, no, no, that's not going to be me," Olson said. "I'm not going to be that guy who's 28, 29, and still in Double A. I'm giving myself a short leash here."
Part of what dictates Olson's timetable is the fact that he's married. He and his wife, Jamie, want to start a family, which isn't easy with the husband on the road seven months out of the year.
But Olson is giving himself a few more years to make it to the majors. If he retires, he said, he'll most likely follow in his father's footsteps and teach physical education and coach. Until then, he will continue the minor-league life of long bus trips to towns like Portland, Harrisburg, and Trenton.
"I'm looking at this whole thing as one long ride," Olson said. "I feel like I can get to the next level, but if I don't, that's okay. If I'm 28 or 29 and I don't feel like I'm improving any, I'll call it quits, but I'm going to give it my best shot while I'm here."