Oliver has revamped career

BY foxsports • March 27, 2010

Welcome to Kleenex Week in the major leagues. In a sport known for its grind, this is one time of year when it’s OK to be sappy.

Prospects, journeymen and aging stars learn that they made the team. They call home and share the joy.

Prospects, journeymen and aging stars learn that they didn’t make the team. They call home and share the sorrow.

As fans and followers of the game, we scan the Opening Day rosters, see the aging names and say to our buddies, “Whoa, did you know that guy was still around?” But maybe he will be one of the lucky ones — the player who reinvents himself and flourishes for years to come.

Darren Oliver did that.

In fact, he might have done that as well as any player in uniform today.

That’s a hard statement to support, but this might convince you: Oliver, now a left-handed reliever with the Texas Rangers, is the only active pitcher with 300 or more relief appearances and 225 or more starts.

Others are close. Miguel Batista. Tim Wakefield. Derek Lowe. John Smoltz. But as of this moment, the 300/225 Club has a membership of one.

Oliver, who turns 40 in October, wasn’t all that great as a starter: 82-77 with a 5.13 ERA. We should keep in mind that he has had the misfortune of pitching at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in Arlington more frequently than anywhere else. That’s the sort of thing that can skew your numbers.

But think about it: How frustrated are you by the starting pitchers on your team who lug around a 5.13 ERA — or even slightly better than that? Has it occurred to you that a guy you try not to watch might one day become one of the most reliable late-inning men in baseball?

Darren Oliver did that.

It should be enough to make you pause when a familiar-but-unexciting player is traded, or released, or designated for assignment between now and Opening Day.

Don’t judge too quickly. He might not be as bad, or as old, as he seems.

In Oliver’s case, the metamorphosis was gradual: He started almost exclusively through the 2003 season. He started and relieved in 2004. He was semi-retired in 2005. Then he returned in 2006 as a reliever — and has been one ever since.

He is coming off, statistically, his best full season in the major leagues. He pitched in a career-high 63 games. He had a career-low 2.71 ERA. The Angels played nine postseason games, and Oliver appeared in eight, which says just about all you need to know about his value to that team.

Then he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the division rival Rangers. He is still a terrific athlete and has thrown well this spring. And the team is happy to have his positive, veteran influence in the clubhouse.

After eight teams and 15 major-league seasons, Oliver is both needed and appreciated. And yet this is the same pitcher who was released by three teams (the Rockies, Diamondbacks and Cubs) in 2005.

“I went to the minor leagues for a month or so and quit,” Oliver said, one day earlier this spring. “I thought that was it. I went home.”

Home, as in Dallas. The Rangers drafted him in 1988. He spent most of his 20s pitching for them. He still lives in Southlake.

At the time, Oliver wasn’t looking for a second chance in baseball. But the game came to him. As luck would have it, Dallas hosted the ’05 winter meetings. He showed up to see friends, including Mets executives Sandy Johnson and Bryan Lambe.

Johnson and Lambe were working for the Rangers when Oliver was drafted. Just like Mets general manager Omar Minaya.

“We were just at the bar, having a couple drinks, and they said, ‘How do you feel?’” Oliver recalled. “I said, ‘I’m out of shape, but I feel all right.’”

Those words, along with a long track record and functional left arm, were enough for Oliver to get an invitation to the Mets’ major league camp.

His wife, Melissa, gave her blessing … but that might have been because this looked like a six-week proposition.

“I didn’t think I was going to make the team, either,” Oliver said, laughing. “ Nobody thought I was going to make the team.”

But he did. He was there on Opening Day. He was there all year. He pitched for the Mets in the postseason. (Yes, that long ago.) Then came three seasons with the Angels, during which he posted ERAs of 3.78, 2.88 and 2.71.

So … What happened?

Well, the baseball answer is that Oliver developed a cut fastball. The pitch has enabled him to succeed against right-handers (.217 batting average last year) and therefore complicate life for opposing managers.

Now he’s back with the Rangers, playing at home, for a team that has a shot. He knows how fortunate he has been, which places him comfortably in the easy-to-root-for category.

Including this year’s guaranteed contract, Oliver has earned in excess of $10 million (before taxes) since that fortuitous conversation with Johnson and Lambe. If those winter meetings had been held in Nashville instead of Dallas, the Oliver family treasury might be a little less robust.

Whether he will play in 2011, Oliver said, will be the subject of a future family roundtable. Right now, he’s enjoying himself.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I’ve played long enough now that my kids are older, so they’ll be able to remember it one day. They don’t care too much now, but I think they will down the road. That’s the fun part.”

Fun indeed. He probably remembers that, not long ago, he wasn’t good enough to pitch for a Rockies team that finished in last place. Oliver was released on March 31, 2005, and he has proven a lot of people wrong since. Someone, somewhere, is about to do the same thing.

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