When Jose Reyes won the Mets’ first batting title in franchise history in 2011, he did so with a .337 batting average. While impressive, the total didn’t come close to New York’s single-season hitting record: that distinction goes to John Olerud and his .354 total in 1998. While ultimately beaten out for the NL crown by Larry Walker’s .363 mark, Olerud’s ’98 campaign stands out as one of the most well-rounded seasons in Mets history. It also produced his Glory Day.
Dateline: July 11, 1998. The Mets have the Montreal Expos in town for the finale of a four-game set. While double digits behind a juggernaut Atlanta squad in the NL East, the New Yorkers are in the hunt for the Wild Card berth and their first playoff appearance in ten seasons. A big reason why is John Olerud, batting second and playing first base that day, who forsook the team he won two World Series with (Toronto) before the 1997 season to sign with the team that originally drafted him in 1986 (he chose not to sign and moved up 24 rounds when the Jays drafted him in ’89). Olerud was part of a Queens resurgence in ’97, helping lead the Mets to an 88-74 record. Now he was looking to get them over the hump.
And what a start he would have on this day. After Rick Reed took down the Expos 1-2-3 in the 1st, Olerud came up with one out in the bottom of the inning, took a 3-2 toss from Carl Pavano, and turned it into a home run in the direction of Diamond Vision in right field. The apple woke up quickly and the New Yorkers had an early 1-0 lead. Carlos Baerga’s two-out single four batters later tacked on another run before the end of the inning to make it 2-0.
Another score came on a gift in the bottom of the 2nd: Edgardo Alfonso singled to right and went to second on an error by Vladimir Guerrero, and he was driven in on the very next pitch by none other than Olerud. With a 3-0 lead, things were looking good for the boys in blue and orange.
The wheels came off for Reed, however, in the 4th inning. Orlando Cabrera led off with a double, went to third on Ryan McGuire’s groundout, and scored on a single by Guerrero. Brad Fulmer followed with a single and Rondell White’s single made it 3-2. Mark Grudzielanek tied the game with a sac fly to center, but Brian McRae threw White out at first base to turn the inning-ending double play.
In the bottom of the 5th, Olerud started a rally with a single to right. That brought up Mike Piazza, a month and a half into his Mets tenure, who broke the tie with an RBI double. Piazza came home via two sacrifice hits: Todd Hundley’s groundout sent him to third and Bernard Gilkey’s flyout to center made it 5-3.
Reed cruised after his 3rd inning hiccup and was rewarded once again in the 7th inning when Olerud blasted his second home run of the game off future Met Miguel Batista. McRae tacked on two more runs with a homer of his own off Mike Maddux in the 8th inning to make it 8-3. A complete game was within two outs for Reed, but a solo home run by White and single by Grudzielanek forced Bobby Valentine to bring in Greg McMichael for the rest of the 9th. A groundout, balk, and flyout to left later, the Mets were triumphant over the Expos, 8-4. Piazza’s continued excellence was the heart of the conversation for the 48,006 patrons at Shea Stadium, but the real story was John Olerud and his spotless afternoon at the plate: 4-4, 3 R, 2 HR, 3 RBI.
In a summer overshadowed by the Mark McGuire-Sammy Sosa home run chase, the 1998 Mets team that matched the 88-74 record of the year before, only to fall a game short of Chicago and San Francisco for a Wild Card playoff (the Cubs beat the Giants in Game #163). One reason why they stayed in it for so long was John Olerud and his stellar campaign: 22 home runs, 93 RBIs, and a .998 OPS went along with his .354 batting average. With some offseason upgrades, Olerud and the Mets took the next step in 1999, taking the Wild Card and coming within two games of the National League pennant.
The 1999 season was Olerud’s last in Queens, however. In the offseason he signed with the Seattle Mariners, helping them to 116 wins in 2001. After brief stints with the Yankees and Red Sox, he retired in 2005 with a career average of .295 and 2239 hits. He still holds Mets team records for batting average (.314), on-base percentage (.425), and OPS (.926).
July 11. A good day for Babe Ruth in 1914 (wins his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox) and Bo Jackson in 1989 (homers in his first All-Star Game, bringing home game MVP honors). Also a good day for President William Howard Taft in 1921 (becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the only man to serve both positions). A bad day for the South of France in 1940 (Nazi-controlled Vichy regime established) and Alexander Hamilton in 1804 (loses a duel to Aaron Burr, dying the next day). A great day for John Olerud in 1998.