MESA, Ariz. – Mike Olt has answered all the health questions without getting defensive. He has projected I-belong-in-the-big-leagues confidence without sounding entitled. He has played his way into the conversation.
The Cubs are two weeks away from Opening Day in Pittsburgh (weather permitting) and heading into crunch time in Mesa. Outside of the Javier Baez/Kris Bryant bracket (no chance), there might not be a player in camp that Cubs fans want to see in the lineup more on March 31 against the Pirates at PNC Park.
Theo Epstein’s front office doesn’t care about public opinion – at all – while making these kinds of decisions. But Olt is showing why the Texas Rangers named him their minor league player of the year in 2012, after making him untouchable in the Ryan Dempster/Matt Garza trade talks that summer.
Olt took groundballs at third base on Field 1 at Cubs Park before Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, throwing across the diamond and testing his sore right shoulder. A sellout crowd reacted when Olt drove a ball to the warning track in right field off Justin Masterson, Cleveland’s Opening Day starter.
Olt said he’ll be playing third base “soon,” and he needs to showcase his defense if he’s going to have any chance to break up the Luis Valbuena/Donnie Murphy platoon. The designated hitter went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on Sunday afternoon, but he’s seeing the ball again after all the complications.
Getting hit by a pitch while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Concussion symptoms. Vision problems. Tear-duct issues. Allergies.
“I know I had a lot to prove,” Olt said. “Not really to the people around here, but to myself after last season. I did everything I could in the offseason. Saw tons of doctors and did whatever we could to take care of the problem.
“I was just really confident that we figured things out. I think it’s been easier for me than last year, just because I didn’t know what was going on. This year, I know what’s going on, so it’s easy to answer the questions and it’s easy to kind of move on from it.”
Olt has gone 7-for-29 (.241) with three homers, six RBI, 11 strikeouts and zero walks in nine Cactus League games. He’s shown the power that generated 28 homers, 82 RBI and a .977 OPS in 95 games at Double-A Frisco in 2012.
The same player didn’t show up for spring training last year. Olt wound up meeting an unlikely mentor while trying to rediscover his swing at Triple-A Round Rock: Manny Ramirez.
“I know he got a bad rap in years past, but (he) was just awesome,” Olt said. “He interacted with everybody. He wanted everybody to know he was there for them and helped everybody out. I’ve learned so much from him.”
The eccentric slugger trying to make a comeback with 555 home runs, a career .996 OPS, two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox (and those suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs). Olt noticed how Ramirez always seemed to have a bat in his hands. Manny Being Manny.
“He came out of his car with a bat in his hand,” Olt said with a smile. “He had like the souped-up Porsche.”
Olt, 25, grew up in the southern part of Connecticut off the Long Island Sound – New York Yankees territory in New England. Before going to the University of Connecticut, Olt played against future New York Mets star Matt Harvey in high school: “I’d face like 70, 75 (mph pitchers) and then all of a sudden he’d come in 97. He was definitely a man among boys back then.”
As a 10-year-old kid, Olt experienced another Manny Being Manny moment when the Cleveland Indians rolled into Yankee Stadium.
“In BP, he threw me a ball in the upper deck,” Olt said. “And he remembered it.”
Olt couldn’t believe it. How do you remember that?
“(Manny) said: ‘Well, I don’t throw many balls in the upper deck.’ And he missed the first one. He said: ‘Yeah, I missed the first one and I almost hit a lady down at the bottom.’"
Olt said half his family rooted for the Red Sox while the other half went with the Yankees: “There used to be some serious battles back in the day, but I think they’re all Cubs fans now.”
Olt grew to appreciate the teams Epstein built at Fenway Park. There will never be another Band of Idiots. But sooner or later, Olt hopes to part of the next “It” team at Wrigley Field.
“The Red Sox – I love the way they did things,” Olt said. “Theo brought some guys in that could really play the game and had fun. That’s kind of what baseball’s supposed to be. He’s going to bring that over here.”