Looking for one superstar
By John Ring
The lifeline of any baseball franchise isn't signing free agents or making sensational trades— it's by scouting accurately and drafting the right players.
And that's why small market teams, like the Minnesota Twins, can compete and play with the spenders of big money like the Red Sox and Yankees.
Mike Olson is one of those scouts. He coaches baseball at Peoria High School and is a member of the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame. Olson graduated from Richwoods High School, attended Michigan State University and was an assistant baseball coach at Bowling Green University before returning to Peoria. He's coached the Lions for the last 20 years.
Olson is what's called an associate scout and he does it for the Seattle Mariners. He's been with Seattle for three years after serving in the same position with Kansas City for 10 years. He was attending a Galesburg Pioneers game last Saturday night at Jim Sundberg Field.
"I scout Central Illinois for the Mariners," said Olson. "My boss is out of Rockford. I watch a lot of CICL games, legion games and of course, high school baseball games."
"Here's the problem for scouts," said Olson. "I watch a lot of games and see a lot of kids. When you find someone real good, so do a lot of other guys. The great one stand out. If a kid here hits forty home runs, everyone in the world is going to know about him. You may rank a kid real high and think to yourself that this is a kid we can draft in the 13th or 14th round. But another team may have him higher."
"That's what happened with Jeremy Pickrel. I watched him for years and knew he was a good prospect. The only problem was the Twins liked him more and they took him in the tenth round. We were going after him in the 12th or 13th round. But I'm proud of the way he's playing with the Twins."
"He's moving up. As long as he's progressing and doing what they're telling him, he'll be up in Double AA and then, you're a phone call away. If you can get to AA, you can make it."
So if the obvious thing isn't there— like the 98 mile per hour fastball or the great power or the .400 batting average— what three things does Mike Olson look for in a player?
"The first thing I want to see is if a player runs on and off the field, I want to see someone that hustles down the line, I want to see someone that loves the game. Pete Rose was that way. David Eckstein is that way. There's a lot of players faster or quicker or better athletes but tell me you wouldn't want a guy like Pete Rose on your team. He got the job done everyday. All these kids are good or they wouldn't be playing college baseball. They're good or they wouldn't be playing. "
"C'mon, there's a lot of guys with talent. But there's a lot of guys that don't have the heart."
Olson has a love affair with the CICL as well. "I coached and played in this League since 1963. When this league was at its peak, like in the late 1960s, you couldn't find better baseball anywhere in Central Illinois. This league was the best, it was better than the Cape Cod league or the Mason League. That's why I hope it takes off here in Galesburg. That would be a great thing to see. I'd love to see fans give this team a chance."
"But aside from that, the three things I look for are foot speed, arm strength and hitting for power."
Pitching is a different manner for Olson. "With righthanders, they need to throw harder, right in the 92-95 mile per hour range. You have to have the arm speed. Lefthanders are a bit different, they can be in the 85-88 range. But I could never recommend a righthanded pitcher that was throwing 81 or 82 miles per hour. There's no way. We like to see them bigger, too. A righthanded pitcher can develop and if he's 6'3" or 6'4", things can take off for him."
"Some of these guys playing here tonight are going to be moving on towards the major leagues. My job is to find out who they are, to figure out which ones are going to do that."
Olson said the hardest part of his job isn't the travel or the time away from home. "It's watching certain players and not being able to focus in on the game."
He's also attended the College World Series the last two years. "I think that event is getting some legs. It's basically the Final Four and there were twenty thousand fans there for every game. The biggest fan base for college baseball right now is in the Southeastern Conference. They drew a million and a half fans there this season alone."
Olson doesn't get a paycheck from the Mariners— excluding expense money— unless Seattle drafts and signs one of his guys.
Asked who the best player to come out of Central Illinois during his tenure, Olson paused for a few seconds before answering. "Jim Thome."
Olson wouldn't claim a favorite team in major league baseball. It was the only question he avoided. "I'm just a baseball fan," he laughed.
Later in our conversation, he also mentioned a Galesburg native that may be drafted in the future.
"Kyle Hunter, I think his name is. I saw him at a tournament in Peoria last year when he pitched against Notre Dame. I think he lost 2-1. I saw him pitch again this year against Richwoods. He's a young man, I think he has a chance to get drafted if he keeps after it."
And maybe Mike Olson can have some claim to fame for that as well.