On an unseasonably warm Saturday last November, senior Kyle Olson hoisted the championship trophy at Franklin Field.
The Quakers had claimed the Ivy League football title for the first time in six years, and Olson had unquestionably helped lead them there, battling shoulder and knee injuries to throw for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns.
It could have been the perfectly scripted ending for any student athlete, the chance to leave Division I on top.
But Olson soon found himself in the office of Penn baseball coach John Cole. He wanted to pitch.
“I didn’t want to leave any regrets — I wanted to go out with a bang,” Olson said. “I don’t want to look back on my life and say ‘God, I wish I would’ve played baseball in college.’ This is awesome, man.”
So over a span of 36 hours, the 6-foot, 210-pound Californian went from standing under center to sitting in the bullpen.
“I love it,” he said with a wide smile. “I love the transition.”
Throwing from a three-quarters arm angle, the lefty’s new job out of the bullpen is to retire one, maybe two, tough left-handed hitters per outing.
Olson has appeared in six of the Quakers’ 12 games, facing 10 batters and allowing four earned runs on four hits over two innings.
“He’s accepted his role, and he’s great to have in the program,” Cole said.
That Monday meeting between Olson and Cole was years in the making. Olson always considered himself a baseball guy; in fact, he didn’t take up football until the seventh grade. But the gridiron eventually came calling, first at Fullerton College — a two-year school in California, where he played both sports — and then at Penn, where he transferred at the behest of football coach Al Bagnoli.
During his first year at Penn, Olson met catcher Will Davis. The two economics majors happened to work together on a homework assignment, and Olson mentioned that he might want to pitch again once he finished his football commitment.
“We were just talking, spitballing,” Davis recalled. “I wasn’t sure how serious he was about it, but I told coach, and coach had interest in it.”
Olson stumbled upon a secret that helped prolong the careers of Jesse Orosco, Mike Myers and others: throw left-handed, become a late-inning specialist.
Though the Quakers had a pitching surplus, Cole needed the help: only two of his nearly 20 hurlers were lefties.
Olson’s roommates, juniors on the football team, have teased him — “Oh, it must be nice playing baseball, sitting out in the grass chewing seeds, catching fly balls” — yet here he was, two years removed from his last baseball action and working to change his arm angle.
He was wild at first, taking a month to get away from his football throwing motion and redevelop the arm flexibility necessary for baseball.
He lost some speed, too, with his fastball now topping out in the low-80s. But the new sidearm delivery has added sink to his fastball, sweep to his breaking ball and deceptiveness to his release point.
“Velocity’s not going to be what gets the guy [out],” Cole said. “It’s going to be the breaking ball from the side, a different look … He’s done a really good job throwing strikes from that angle.”
“A junk thrower,” Davis offered as an only-in-baseball compliment. “But very effective.”
That reliance on movement gives Olson a rubber arm — a miracle, perhaps, given his injury-plagued football season. He has pitched both halves of a doubleheader once already and, according to Cole, could be used in all four games of a weekend series.
So Kyle Olson can quarterback Penn to an Ivy title. He can punt, pinning nearly half of his 43 attempts inside the opponents’ 20. And now, it turns out, he can pitch.
Is there anything he can’t do?
“Homework,” he said, laughing.
But perhaps there is one other thing. Olson was the starting first baseman at Fullerton, where he actually hit .310. But he has not seen live pitching in two years, and despite his wishes, he’s not going to take batting practice anytime soon.
“Maybe we’ll have a seven-on-seven Wiffle ball game and give him a look,” Cole said, “but I think right now, we’ll keep him on the hill.”Comments powered by Disqus
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