Athletics

How Olson's success with A's was shaped by high school career

Athletics

Athletics first baseman Matt Olson posed next to the graphic that forever would cement him in Parkview High School baseball history after they retired his jersey number in February 2019. On the other side of the life-sized No. 21 Olson uniform stood Panthers manager Chan Brown.

Brown still is the manager at the high school, located in Lilburn, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta. Olson holds the school and Gwinnett County records with 28 wins and 168 RBI. He also batted .431 with the team, and his 45 career home runs are second behind only 12-year MLB veteran Jeff Francoeur, who graduated in 2002.

Sure, the numbers are eye-popping for a high school star, but it was Olson's makeup that stood out to Coach Brown.

“Going along with that, honestly, [Olson] was probably one of the best teammates around coming through because he wanted everyone to be successful and he also wanted to do anything for the team that would make us win,” Brown told NBC Sports California in a recent interview.  

Mind you, before Olson ever had put on a Panthers uniform, he already was a prospect. It started with his buttery swing, similar to the one he still has with the A's now. 

In the Parkview area, Brown was fortunate to have seen Olson’s swing during travel baseball before he reached high school. Olson was a three-year-old who was playing baseball with kids, who were seven.

“Obviously he was a guy, I knew him, to be the best player on our team no matter if he was playing first base or pitching or hitting, but he would never know that,” Brown said. “He had a core group of friends that he hung out with here and when they were together, it wasn’t about them, it was about them having a good time, playing basketball, competing at whatever it was they’re doing. The one thing that his group I think came through here, they built a sense of competition that has stayed within our program.”

 

It’s no different than the A’s team Olson is on now. The chemistry he has built with third baseman Matt Chapman was difficult for the first baseman to explain, but all you have to do was watch them. Olson knows exactly where Chapman’s throws would land. If he needs to pick it in the dirt, or come off the bag and tag the runner coming at first, Olson always tells his infield to throw it near him … and let him worry about the rest. He’ll catch it.

But Olson never has been boastful about it. 

He was prepared to go to college baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt, as the grades in the classroom reflected the additional hard work he was putting in. Zack, his brother, went to Harvard and pitched on the baseball team, adding to the impressive resume of the Olson family. But Matt also was a star in the classroom. 

“I think that comes from mom obviously, and dad,” Brown said. 

Olson’s mother, Lee, is an elementary school teacher in the Parkview area. While the educator in her was determined for Olson to take the Vandy route, she didn’t even think going straight to the majors was a possibility.

“I think that’s kind of his life motto per se and even in things that he does for charity, I think he goes at it 110 percent,” Brown said.

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Matt Olson and his fiance' Nicole on 2021 All-Star red carpet

There was a huge sense of pride for the Parkview community when Olson was selected to the 2021 All-Star Game. Brown even hosted a Home Run Derby watch party at his house. All the coaches, their families and some players attended.

“My son is a freshman at Parkview now,” Brown said. “So I have a 15-year-old and 12-year-old who has always looked up to Matt. They text him, and he texts them right back.

“More than that, a little special moment for me and him when they did ‘Stand up to Cancer,’ I just got done battling cancer. He did something for that with me.”

During a powerful moment where the All-Star selectees, fans and broadcasters all held up cards and wrote loved one's names down who have been impacted by cancer. On Olson’s card, he wrote “Chan Brown” in big capital letters.

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As a pitcher in high school, bits and pieces of Olson's determination and competitive nature would shine through when he would pitch backwards to hitters. He’d start against a batter with some of those secondary pitches, and later in the count, he wasn’t scared to surprise the hitter with a fastball on a breaking ball count.

 

For Olson's masterful performance on the mound, Brown credits his dad, Scott, and Olson’s older brother, Zack, who also pitched for the Parkview baseball team.

“He always was good at defense," Brown said. "I give our high school program credit for that, just from a standpoint. Our motto is ‘Great defense and great pitching and timely hitting,’ so we work on the defensive side quite a bit of just being able to throw and catch just day in and day out, you could watch him even at you’re level making unbelievable plays and throwing backdoor picks to people and things like that. He just has the knack of knowing where the ball’s going. 

“You could just tell he had a special future in front of him and even as a ninth-grader he hit like .500 with a three or four home runs within a high school season with limited action so he’s always been able to barrel balls up and take advantage of pitchers mistakes per say, but he’s always had that swing, he’s always had the knack of being in the moment, it seems like he obviously causes us to have a lot of special moments, the state championships, things like that and it just seemed like every time we needed him to come through, he did."

Olson's real impact started during his junior year at Parkview.

“I mean definitely, in the 2011 state championship, he hit a three-run home run to put us up and we actually score 13 runs that inning to win the state championship," Brown recalled. "That was the first one in a long time for us." 

That was Olson all the way through the playoffs -- every time. Always coming through.

He hit another three-run homer in the playoffs the next year, his senior season. 

Olson isn’t one for attention, so when it was time for him to head to Colorado to represent the A’s in the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby, Brown said it certainly was a humbling experience for him, but even during a really intense round hitting home runs, Olson appeared calm and collected.

“On a good day or bad day, it doesn’t go astray as far as his emotions," Brown said. "I think that’s more competitiveness and I think he just knows it’s a grind to play 162 games, there’s going to be some good days and some bad days. But as he goes through his career, being a Gold Glover and now an All-Star, you look at his numbers, what -- fourth in MVP right now? You look at the amazing things he does on the field, and off the field, he’s just the best person to be around.

 

“We always felt like he would be ready,” Brown said. “Just because of his makeup and how grounded he was, you just kind of knew he was going to be able to withstand the grind and the pressures that come along with playing Major League Baseball. 

RELATED: Olson gives back to fan who tumbled over railing during derby

From the very beginning, the Parkview community always felt as if Olson was going to be an MLB ballplayer

When Olson is in town, he’ll go hit at his old high school field, offering up high-fives to current kids and giving a quick, five-minute inspirational-type speech about doing your best. 

Brown used the term “humble” a few more times saying Olson never would “big-league you,” despite being employed by the A's.

“He’s just not that guy,” Brown. “I can remember when he won Player of the Year for our county and I put a quote in there saying, ‘Hopefully my kids could be half the person Matt was growing up, and I would know that they would be successful.’ ”