PITTSBURGH — Walking between the clubhouse and Cubs Park, Mike Olt saw all the tailgaters and got a sense for how much the fans wanted to see him on this team. It became a daily obsession for the media in Mesa, Ariz., because it seemed like everyone wanted to read about the comeback.
“I’m really a nobody as of now and they’re all cheering for me and pushing for me, wishing me the best of luck,” Olt said. “At the (Cubs Convention), it was the same way. Every autograph I signed was: ‘Hey, we’re just looking forward to seeing you play.’
“That does go a long way for a player. Especially coming off last season, I could have heard a lot of worse things coming from their mouths.”
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The Cubs think Olt can be a somebody. He walked into PNC Park on Monday morning and found out he would be in the Opening Day lineup, hitting fifth behind Anthony Rizzo and playing third base against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Olt said he always knew he could play, but he was almost viewed as a throw-in for last summer’s Matt Garza trade with the Texas Rangers. He then hit .168 with 37 strikeouts in 39 games at Triple-A Iowa.
Olt had been the Texas minor league player of the year in 2012, but then got hit by a pitch playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, a freak accident that knocked him off the fast track. He consulted with a series of doctors trying to figure out the concussion/vision/allergy/tear-duct issues.
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“I’ve been through a lot,” Olt said. “I’ve definitely been waiting for this moment for a long time. It was tough to sleep last night, just thinking about everything. There’s definitely nerves, but there’s a lot more excitement.”
It wasn’t a storybook ending, because Olt went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in a 1-0 10-inning loss. But Theo Epstein’s front office does have a history with Olt, who got drafted 49th overall coming out of the University of Connecticut in 2010. The Rangers made Olt untouchable in the 2012 trade talks involving Garza and Ryan Dempster.
“Olt’s a great story,” Epstein said. “Hopefully, bouncing back to the career trajectory he was on before, a guy who could hit in the middle of the order, see pitches, hit the ball out of the ballpark, play good defense.”
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Olt has become a billboard for this rebuilding project. At the age of 25, he’s old enough to help the team compete now and young enough to still be here when the franchise turns the corner. He’s showing those summer sell-offs can pay dividends. He’s not off somewhere in the distant future.
“I’ve heard about all the young guys coming up,” Olt said. “But as of right now, the main focus is what we have here and how much talent we have in this locker room right now. The veteran guys we have and some of the young guys coming up, it’s going to be a good mix.”