John Olerud x’88: Faith, Hope, and Horses
by Jason Krump ’93 | © Washington State University
John Olerud was not enamored with New York City during his playing days with the Toronto Blue Jays. “Every time we went there and played I was so intimidated by the city.” he recalls. “I just thought, man, it was just a matter of time before I get mugged on the streets.”
So imagine Olerud’s thoughts when he learned he was traded to the New York Mets in 1997.
“Sure enough I get traded to them and my wife (Kelly) says, ‘Let’s just try living in the city and see what it’s like.’
“We did that and just had a great time.”
“I think [God] took me to New York to have me face my fears,” says Olerud. “It looked like the worst thing but it actually turned out to be a great thing.”
Reflecting back on his career at his Bellevue home, Olerud pauses, and then says, “A lot like the aneurysm.”
The aneurysm that nearly ended his career before it had a chance to begin.
As a sophomore at Washington State in 1988, Olerud earned collegiate player of the year honors.
But less than a year after earning college baseball’s highest honor, Olerud suffered a seizure on a January morning while jogging on the WSU campus.
After undergoing numerous tests, Olerud was diagnosed as suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Given a clean bill of health, he was set to return to the Cougar baseball team. But his father, John ’65, a medical doctor and faculty member at the University of Washington medical school, recommended one more test.
“I remember my Dad calling and saying, ‘John, we want you to come back.’ ” Olerud says.
At the time, Olerud thought it was a bad decision.
“I was really upset that he wanted me to come back because I thought it was unnecessary. We had already done all of that stuff and this is going to put me back a couple of weeks.”
What was discovered changed his view.
“I remember the doctor putting the slide up and I could point out the aneurysm. It turned out it wasn’t a bad decision at all.”
Olerud underwent surgery three days later. Although a lengthy recovery process was anticipated, less than two months later, Olerud was back playing for the Cougars. But he had yet to completely regain his strength.
With the Major League Baseball draft fast approaching, Olerud was intending to return to WSU for his senior year.
“I’m telling everyone I’m not 100 percent so I’m going back and finish up,” Olerud recalls. “I might as well finish up my school and come out when I’m 100 percent.”
“At the time John, his dad and (WSU Coach) Bobo (Brayton) probably had a closed mind [about] signing because he didn’t get the exposure his junior year in college that he should have,” then-Toronto General Manager Pat Gillick remembers. “They were very honest with the other ball clubs that John was going back to the Cougars and probably wouldn’t sign.
“We decided to take a flyer and draft John and see if he would be at least open to signing,” adds Gillick.
That summer, Gillick assigned scouts to watch Olerud. One reported back that he watched Olerud play in 11 games and when Olerud swung he never missed a pitch.
“The Blue Jays started talking to me a couple of weeks before school started,” Olerud says. “One of their big attractions was they would bring me up as a September call-up when they expanded the rosters.”
And there was another attraction. At that time the Blue Jays were in a pennant race.
“I remember my Dad saying there have been a lot of good players who never got to experience a pennant race,” Olerud says. “And it was an awfully great offer to sign. I ended up signing and went straight to the big leagues.”
In the span of nine months, Olerud ran the gamut of suffering a life-threatening aneurysm to beginning a 17-year major league career highlighted by 2,239 hits, three Gold Gloves, two All-Star selections, a batting title, and World Series Championships with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.
As with New York, Olerud knows the reason why.
“The Lord spared me. It could have gone completely the other way and it could have been a really bad thing.”
Six years removed from his playing career, Olerud is confronted with another medical challenge. This time with his daughter, Jordan.
The middle child of John and Kelly’s three children (older brother Garrett, younger sister Jessica), Jordan was born with a chromosome disorder that prevented her from walking, feeding herself, and communicating.
Initially, Olerud used the same attitude he employed for his own medical challenge years earlier.
“My attitude was like the aneurysm, it’s not ideal, and it’s a chromosome issue, but give it a couple of years we’ll get it worked out.
“It’s been a lot longer haul than the two years,” he admits. “I’m glad I had that perspective in the beginning. It has definitely been a challenge.”
Just as he did during his playing career, Olerud, along with his wife, is working to confront the challenge. One avenue they are confronting it with is through hippotherapy.
Through Kelly’s lifelong interest in horses, the Oleruds learned of hippotherapy (hippo is the Greek term for horse) that the nearby Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center offers. They have taken Jordan there since 2003.
“When a horse moves forward, it moves in the same three-dimensional pattern as if you or I are walking,” Little Bit Executive Director Kathy Alm explains. “Just by sitting on a back of a horse those muscles get worked. The core is strengthened.”
“She has made a lot of improvement on her walking,” Olerud says. “She’s real close to walking independently.”
Seeing firsthand how hippotherapy has benefited their daughter, the Oleruds, who serve as chairs of a capital campaign to expand the Little Bit facilities, realized how other parents with special needs children need the same help, but don’t have the means to provide it.
“The thing that really hit us about having Jordan and a special needs child is that we had the financial means to get help and to get as good as care as we could get for her,” Olerud says. “We have family and friends around to help us out and it’s still really hard.
“We just thought how do people do it?”
For this reason, they started the Jordan Fund.
“We came up with the Jordan Fund, because that was our desire to help kids and families with special needs,” Olerud says. “If there were things we could do to help out families we wanted to make sure that we could do that.”
“They are so willing to help in any way that they can and they are so caring [about] how the world is for other people,” says Alm. “Faith is very genuinely a part of their life each and every day.”
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