Tyler Olander came home from Spain last winter with a fractured right foot, doubts about his future — and one whopper of an idea.
“I broke my other foot in college,” said Olander, who played on two NCAA championship basketball teams at UConn. “And I knew it took a long time for me to really be 100 percent. I don’t know, maybe some people heal differently than others. …”
And he wondered if, at age 23, it was time to move on. Olander had focused on basketball at E.O. Smith High, at UConn, and played professionally with his brother, Ryan, in Lithuania. He got hurt before playing for his new team in Spain, which wanted him to try to recover and return.
Instead, Olander sent an email to Andy Baylock, a longtime neighbor and family friend who had retired after 24 years as UConn baseball coach in 2003.
“He said, I’m only 23, but I don’t think I’m going back to basketball. I really want to give pitching a chance. Will you help me,'” Baylock said.
Olander told no one, not his friends at home, not the former UConn teammates he speaks to regularly, not even his family. He started meeting Baylock at the baseball practice facility in Storrs last December and, walking boot and all, began to learn how to pitch from the stitches out.
“When I want to do something, I’m extremely dedicated to it,” Olander said.
And here begins what could be, at worst, the coolest of spring adventures or, at best, one of those only-happens-in baseball tales that’s just crazy enough to be true. In four months, Olander has gotten from there, sitting in a chair and tossing 10 feet into a net, to Dunedin, Fla., where he is now working every day for the Toronto Blue Jays, aiming to debut as a professional reliever before the summer is out.
Oh, and except for a few games in the Greater Hartford Twilight League in 2014, he hasn’t pitched since eighth grade.
“He’s rediscovered his passion for baseball,” said Skip Olander, his father. “I always thought baseball was his best sport. Hey, if it works out, great. If not, he’s living a dream.”
— Hartford Courant (@hartfordcourant) April 26, 2016
At 6-foot-10, Olander, a lefty, grew up admiring the major league pitcher he most resembled — Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. He left baseball behind in high school and was recruited to UConn to play for Jim Calhoun, and later Kevin Ollie, on the 2011 and 2014 championship teams, averaging 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in 135 college games. He fractured his left foot late in his junior season.
In the summer of 2014, he gave pitching a whirl in the Twilight League, where Baylock went to watch. “Forget about it, it was just, put a uniform on, here’s a ball,” Baylock said.
When Olander and Baylock began working one-on-one, it would be more serious, given Baylock’s long history as a pitching instructor.
“Pitching is the sequential unlocking of bodily parts to get maximum hand speed at the point of release,” said Baylock, 77, still at UConn as director of community affairs and football alumni.
The unlocking began in a chair. Olander would sit and throw 10 feet into a net, using the grips and wrist action that Baylock was talking about. Then they’d talk strategy.
“When I saw how much he wanted this, I said, ‘I’m going to be right there with you.'” Baylock said.
In January, Olander was able to shed the walking boot and build up to throwing full bullpen sessions of 65 to 80 pitches, using a four-seam fastball with different grips to create different movements and changes of speed, and a straight changeup. Baylock began calling old friends in baseball and Olander let his family in on the secret. “He was fundamentally sound,” Baylock said.
Pete Walker, who pitched for Baylock at UConn and went on to a long career in the major leagues and is now the Blue Jays’ pitching coach, drove up from East Lyme to take a look before departing for spring training in early February.
“I was cautiously optimistic,” Walker said from Toronto this week. “Because I know Andy Baylock and have so much respect for his knowledge of pitching. And I knew Tyler had played for UConn, played for Jim Calhoun, the national championships, so I knew the work ethic would be there. I was curious.”
Said Olander: “I was nervous, but [Walker] told me, ‘Don’t try to throw 100 mph, the main thing I’m going to be looking for is your mechanics.’ “
Olander began throwing, watching Walker’s facial expressions out of the corner of his eye. He soon saw Walker taking out video equipment. “He said, ‘I didn’t know what I was coming to look at when Coach Baylock called me, but you’re much farther along than I thought you’d be,'” Olander recalled.
“What I saw was a very determined young man,” Walker said. “He threw about 65 pitches and he was very aggressive. On the foundation Andy had built — he’s 6-10, but he’s not an awkward 6-10, he didn’t pitch like he was 6-10, and I liked that.”
Walker sent the video, and a recommendation, for the Blue Jays’ player development people to evaluate and, in March, he called with the good news. The Jays wanted to sign him.
“When you look at his size,” said Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays’ assistant GM, “his athleticism, his competitiveness, the work-ethic, he has a fresh arm … it’s a baseball project we were interested in. It was a low-risk, no-brainer.”
Olander reported to Dunedin for extended spring training at the beginning of April. He has been working six days a week with Willie Collazo, a former major league lefty reliever. “Willie’s been awesome,” Olander said. “And he’s been very patient with me.”
He has thrown a bullpen session to use as a baseline, and has since been working on conditioning, weight training, long-tossing, and throwing a weighted ball. Sal Fasano, Toronto’s minor league pitching coordinator, has checked in to offer feedback.
“They want to go very slow, and take it step by step,” Olander said. “I don’t want to look too far ahead. I’m just very happy with the progress I’ve been making.”
Olander offers an arm that has never been abused and no embedded bad habits to break. He has been in the mid-80s with his fastball, and building; shown a feel for the slider, and of course, he is left-handed and much taller than the average pitcher. “And he throws downhill,” Baylock said.
All of that could spell uncomfortable at-bats for left-handed hitters. If Olander continues to progress, he could pitch at Bluefield in the Appalachian League, or Vancouver of the Pioneer League when short-season minor leagues begin in mid-June.
“It’s amazing to be where he is in this amount of time,” Walker said. “Certainly, he has some hurdles to overcome, but I’ve been checking in on him and he’s doing a great job.”