Two scouts went to see the Portland Sea Dogs in the last couple of weeks, and the guy they wanted to talk about was a 25-year-old right-handed closer named Michael Olmsted.
"I look at the roster and see a 25-year-old guy who's in his sixth year of pro ball, and he's only in Double-A," said one scout. "So I thought, 'OK, organizational guy ... but 6-foot-7, 245 pounds ...
"Then he comes in throwing 97 [mph] with a big-time slider, pounding the strike zone, and I asked someone else, 'This guy's a big leaguer; what's the story here?'"
The stats, between Salem of the Carolina League and Double-A Portland this year, include a 1.57 ERA, 57 1/3 innings, 88 strikeouts and 14 walks. That is one story. But the real story goes to the tune of "Don't Stop Believing" and is testament to an organization -- especially a man named Allard Baird, who never suspends belief -- that wants to spend like a top-five market and, in Baird's words, "work like a small-market team."
So here we are with a potential Major Leaguer who has been through Tommy John surgery, a release, the Japanese Minor Leagues and the death of his mother. He finally got signed because the indefatigable Baird saw him at a Golden West League tryout. All part of the story.
Olmsted was a month from his 20th birthday when the Mets drafted him in the ninth round out of Cypress Junior College. That summer, he pitched in 10 games for three low-level Minor League teams. In 2008, he pitched in the Gulf Coast, Appalachian and South Atlantic Leagues. But when he went to the Instructional League, Olmsted blew out his right elbow and needed surgery -- not uncommon. He rehabbed during the 2009 season, then reported to extended spring camp in 2010, only to be released.
"That was a shock, and it was very discouraging," said Olmsted, who went home, served as an assistant pitching coach at Cypress and went to Tom House's pitching school.
One time when Olmsted threw, there was a scout for a Japanese team, and soon thereafter he was headed to Japan to pitch in the Minors for the Softbank Hawks.
Now, the Japanese Minor Leagues meant that Olmsted was the only player who spoke English. He lived in a one-room suite. Food was either what he got and cooked at Costco or the Hard Rock Cafe at the park. Then, in July, he got word that his mother, who had cancer, had lapsed into and out of a coma.
So he flew home.
"She was in a coma, and I didn't know if I would ever talked to her again," said Olmsted. "But somehow, they induced her out of the coma to see and speak to me, and she lived 23 more days -- some of the most important days of my life."
To return to Japan at the end of the season required going to a remote instructional league team, with no one else who spoke English, so Olmsted asked for, and was granted, his release. He worked as a pitching coach at Cypress. He threw.
"But I thought my career was over," Olmsted said.
Then came the Golden League tryouts the next spring at a park next to the Rose Bowl outside Los Angeles.
"I'd been throwing at my alma mater; I was in decent shape and decided to give it one more try," Olmsted remembers.
Baird was there. He liked what he saw -- 89-92 mph, size, maybe some projection.
Baird talked to Olmsted and offered him a chance in the Boston organization.
Before the workouts, Jose and Ozzie Canseco, who were also trying out, approached Olmsted.
"You're a really big guy," said Jose.
"You're a pretty big fella yourself," Olmsted replied.
Baird was there listening and was taken by Olmsted's poise.
This is what general manager Ben Cherington, Baird, assistant GM Mike Hazen and the Red Sox would like to be -- big market/small market.
"When I scouted Mike, I thought he'd be 90-92 [mph], a worthwhile gamble," said Baird. "Little did I think he'd been throwing 97 a couple of years later."
"I touched 95 in the low Minors," says Olmsted, "but never regularly 97 like right now. It is amazing that the Red Sox gave me the chance. It's amazing, the work their pitching coaches have done with me."
If the Red Sox do not add Olmsted to their 40-man roster this winter, he can be a free agent. If they sign him to a Minor League free-agent deal, he can be taken in the Rule 5 Draft, which looks like a given.
Or Olmsted might be added to Boston's roster and at some point next season be at Fenway Park. Somewhere, somehow, Michael Olmsted's mother will be forever proud, because her son, like his mother, never gave in.