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Mudville: May 18, 2021 10:44 am PDT
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California Dreamin’

The Orioles gave Bobby Grich a choice in the spring of 1971. Stay in Baltimore and be a bench player or head to Rochester, N.Y. and play every day in the Triple-A International League.

Grich had spent part of 1970 with the Orioles, was used sparingly and didn’t have much success during the 30 games in which he appeared. Still, it was the Major Leagues. So when Baltimore third base coach Billy Hunter, who was the starting shortstop for the last St. Louis Browns team [1953] and the first Orioles team [1954] after they moved East, approached him in the spring of ’71 with that choice, the popular opinion was that Grich would opt for bench time in Baltimore and try to prove how valuable he could be to the parent club.

No one ever told Grich, 72, about the popular opinion, though. He made the mature decision and opted for Rochester and the rest, well, the rest is a spectacular 17-year-career which some consider Hall-of-Fame worthy. Whether Grich would have gone on to the success he enjoyed in Baltimore and later in California [Anaheim] had he not gone to Rochester is debatable.

What isn’t debatable is that he was one of the defensive wizards at second base in the 1970s and one of the core members of three California teams that reached the post-season throughout the latter part of the decade and into the 80s.

“Billy Hunter told me we’ll pay you an extra $500 if you go back to Rochester,” Grich told BallNine. “So instead of making $12,500 I’d make $13,000 to play Triple-A. I thought about my career and knew I needed the reps and that I wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Plus, if I did well and someone up there got injured, I could always get called up in June or July. I’d be more in tune and ready then if I had already been playing [in Rochester]. So I went back and had a tremendous year.”

That year proved to be one of many turning points for Grich, who would win four Gold Gloves with the Orioles and team with shortstop Mark Belanger to form one of the best double-play combos in Major League history.

It also helped put him on a path to Anaheim, where he had the opportunity to star for the team he followed while growing up in the 1960s.

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ OR CALIFORNIA NIGHTMARE

Grich grew up in Southern California, starring in both baseball and football at Woodrow Wilson High School. He had a cannon for an arm and signed a letter of intent to play football at UCLA but there was always the lure of baseball.

The Angels were one of Grich’s teams and he followed them religiously from the Dean Chance Dodger Stadium days until they moved into Anaheim Stadium in 1966. Once they switched parks, Grich was a fixture at the games.

“My goal as a kid was to play for the Angels,” Grich said. “I went to the Big A the first year it opened in 1966 as a junior in high school. I went that year and the next year until I got drafted. I watched all the guys, Jim Fregosi, Bobby Knoop. I would buy general admission tickets and sneak down by the fourth inning.

“I was playing American Legion ball and we went to Napa Valley for the State Championships between my junior and senior year when it started to look like I could play [professionally]. Our team came in second and a couple of scouts came up to me and told me they were going to follow me the next year. That’s when I thought I might have a chance to play minor league ball and that’s when I started going to Angels Stadium because I thought I could actually play there someday. My favorite overall team was the Red Sox because I loved Carl Yastrzemski so I was torn between two teams.”

His love of the Angels and the Sox was pushed aside, though, when Baltimore made him the 19th pick in the 1967 First-Year Player Draft. He was sent to Bluefield of the Rookie-Level Appalachian League, where he hit .254 with 26 RBI in 58 games. He “came home” in 1968 to play for Stockton of the Class-A California League and it was a rude awakening.

Grich was 19 and overmatched. He hit .228 and struck out 126 times in 426 at-bats. He was confused and wondering if he had made the correct choice to play baseball.

“There were many, many times that I thought about whether I should have played football,” Grich said. “In 1968 at Stockton, I’m hitting .230 and striking out and I was seriously thinking about what it would have been like had I played football instead. I thought my career was over and that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was a pull hitter in high school and a good fastball hitter but the guys in High-A threw a lot of sinkers and sliders and the occasional good curve. Their ball would sink down and in and away on the black and I really struggled. I got in a dark space and thought I made a big mistake.”

“To play 162 games and miss one grounder, I don’t think anyone will ever beat that record.”

Grich, however, had the good fortune of playing for Joe Altobelli in Stockton. It would mark the beginning of a long relationship between the two, one that continued right until Altobelli died earlier this year.

“Altobelli became like my second father,” Grich said. “He could see I was struggling with my game and mentally and he kept pushing me to keep working. He had confidence in me. He must have had me in his office five different times that season after games to keep my spirits up. He just kept pushing me to work with extra hitting and fielding. I think I made 30 [35 actually] errors at shortstop that year. It was pretty ugly but he just kept pushing me.”

Altobelli went far in his support of Grich, urging the Orioles to invite him to Major League Spring Training as a non-roster invitee in 1969. The club obliged and Grich said it was one of many turning points.

“He wanted me to get exposure and see how the guys did it at the big-league level,” Grich said. “I was there for about two weeks and it was invaluable to meet guys like Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Jim Palmer and Mark Belanger. They were all great guys.

“Jimmy Frey was the batting instructor and I talked with him and he pointed out that I needed to go to all fields, that I couldn’t pull a slider away like Harmon Killebrew. Frank Robinson could hit a BB to right field and Brooks Robinson hit the other way all the time. And if they played the shift on Boog Powell the way they do today, he’d hit .400 because he could hit the ball the other way whenever he wanted.”

Altobelli moved on to Dallas-Forth Worth of the Double-A Texas League in 1969 and Grich, along with a renewed sense of purpose, went with him. Grich, determined to reward Altobelli for his faith, took what Frey said to heart. He concentrated on going on the other way, sacrificing power for average and the results were impressive.

Grich hit .310 with 50 RBI while cutting down his strikeouts from 126 to 79. He hit only two homers but was thrilled with his year.

“I just figured it out,” Grich said. “Altobelli saw that I could make the adjustments and told me I could do something. That spring I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything but hit the ball to right field. I choked up an inch and a half on the bat and got close to the plate. I closed my stance with a little bit of a crouch so I wouldn’t swing at the high fastball that I was swinging at in Stockton.

“I was standing very close to the plate and if they were going to try and throw me inside, I decided that I was just going to take it. If they threw a perfect strike on the inside corner to get me on one at-bat, I’ll go sit down. But no one can do that every pitch. They are going to miss one and I’m going to get some pitches to hit. I told myself I wasn’t going to hit home runs and it worked for me. My defense improved, too, and that catapulted my career. What I did from Stockton to Dallas made me a prospect.”

Grich and teammate Larry Johnson, who led the league in hitting [.337], were named co-Texas League MVPs. It wasn’t just that Grich had a big year and shared that award, though, that helped transform him. That winter he joined the Marine Corps reserves in order to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His time at boot camp proved to be transformational as well and set the stage for two memorable seasons in Rochester.

I LOVE NEW YORK

Marine Corps boot camp was held in San Diego and Grich couldn’t have fared better. He went in at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds and came out 10 weeks later at 6-foot-2, 192 pounds. The weight he added was pure muscle and it helped him earn the honor of being the soldier in his unit to win the Marine Corps dress blue uniform awarded to the top recruit.

Grich also finished up boot camp in time for Spring Training and arrived in Florida in the best shape of his life.

“Everything that happened to me in boot camp I wish every single American kid could go through,” Grich said. “It was the best experience for me. When I showed up for Spring Training, everyone wanted to know what happened to me. Now I had power. I could pop with the bat and run. It was phenomenal for me. We’re running and doing calisthenics and I’m laughing because everyone else is winded.

“I go to Rochester fit as a fiddle, hitting to right field and everything is strong. I continued my right field approach and by July I’m hitting .383 and leading the International League by 50 points. That’s when I got called up. It was my path to the big leagues.”

While Grich moved up to Baltimore he admits that he wasn’t ready despite his Triple-A success. He was intimidated by the superstars on the rosters, the club had been to the World Series the year before and would go back again in 1970, this time winning. Belanger and Davey Johnson were playing well up the middle so he didn’t get into many games and when he did, he didn’t fare well, hitting .211 with eight RBI in 95 at-bats.

“I felt like a fish out of water,” Grich said.

Whatever Grich was feeling in the summer of 1970 and the following spring, it was gone by the time the weather turned warm in upstate New York in 1971. Grich and Don Baylor were teaming to form the most potent duo in the minor leagues as Rochester was putting together one of the best seasons in the history of the International League under Altobelli.

Grich hit .336 with 32 homers and 83 RBI with a .439 on-base percentage. Baylor hit .313 with 20 homers and 95 RBIs a .422 OBP in leading the Red Wings to the International League title. Rochester then squared off with Denver of the Triple-A American Association in the Junior World Series. The Wings were holding a 3-2 series advantage when Grich was called up to Baltimore.

“[Baltimore manager Earl] Weaver called and said I need him now,” Grich said. “They were kind of faltering. They weren’t playing well and Johnson and Belanger weren’t playing much. I left after five games and met them in Detroit. I got three hits my first game [and was 5-for-9 with three RBI in two games] and played a lot those last few weeks. Merv Rettenmund came up to me after the season and told me I did a good job, that I had sparked them. I felt good about that.

“Rochester lost the sixth game and went on to win in seven. Baylor was a stud. He was just a good guy. We roomed together in 1971 and again in 1972. I think we were the first black and white roommates in Major League history.”

BACK TO BALTIMORE … FOR GOOD

Grich’s big September in ‘71, which included his first career homer [Sept. 22 at Yankee Stadium off Stan Bahnsen], changed his frame of mind from earlier experiences with the parent club. He had .300 with six RBIs in 30 at-bats and now felt as if he belonged.

He had a foundation on which he could build in the spring of 1972. Too bad Weaver didn’t see it that way, at least not at first. Grich had one at-bat and appeared in only one game prior to April 29. He got a pair of starts on the 29th and 30th against the Angels [going 1-for-7] and then didn’t see the field again until May 11. It wasn’t until May 23rd that Grich cracked the starting lineup and stayed there for the rest of the season.

“I didn’t pinch-run, I didn’t play defense, I sat on the bench for 30 games,” Grich said. “I don’t know why. Earl Weaver never even talked to me. To this day, I don’t quite get it. He sort of had this thing where he was loyal to his players who won for him. Belanger and Davey Johnson took him to the World Series so they were going to have to lose their jobs. He wasn’t going to give them away no matter what I did in the minors.”

Johnson hit .221 in 1972 and Belanger spent most of the season on the Interstate, hitting .186. It got to a point where Weaver had to make a change.

“Writers every day were ripping them saying why not give Grich a shot,” noted Grich. “That started in April and for a few weeks the papers were screaming. Finally I started and I played the next 368 consecutive games. I was not going to get hurt or let him take me out of the lineup.”

Grich, who finished 14th in the MVP voting, hit .278 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in ’72 though Baltimore’s streak of reaching the World Series for three consecutive series had been snapped. Johnson was traded to Atlanta in the off-season and Grich moved to a permanent role at second base where he would have a season in 1973 that would secure his place as one of the decade’s defensive wizards.

Detroit’s Hall-of-Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer has the most seasons with 900 or more total chances at second base [six], according to BaseballAlmanac.com. Fellow Hall-of-Famers Billy Herman and Bill Mazeroski are next up with five apiece. Grich would have the first of three consecutive 900-chance seasons in 1973, handling 945 chances while playing 162 games.

Though he committed five errors, he maintains that only one was a fielding error. His first error occurred on May 18 and he didn’t have another until July 11.

“I missed one ground ball,” Grich said. “To play 162 games and miss one grounder, I don’t think anyone will ever beat that record. [Former Baltimore Sun beat writer] Ken Nigro came up to me at the end of the season and told me I had an incredible year. I didn’t realize that I had missed only one. He went over all five of my errors and pointed them out otherwise I wouldn’t have known that.

“I’ve never blown my horn about that but the more I think about it, it’s something I should be proud of. Someone would have to play 162 games and get more than 945 chances without an error to break that. Roberto Alomar used to get between 680 and 720 chances a year and he got the Gold Glove every year and he was a rose bush. You have to get to some balls. I could have gotten to 700 and never had a throwing error. Nine hundred shows your range and anticipation and being able to turn double plays consistently.”

Grich handled a career-high 957 chances in 1974 [20 errors] and 928 chances in 1975 [21 errors], winning the Gold Glove every year between 1973 and 1976, his last season in Baltimore.

THE HOMECOMING

Free agency had begun to take hold by the winter of 1976 and Grich, though he loved Baltimore, was looking to head home. He wanted to be an Angel. While he said it crossed his mind to stay in Baltimore, he wasn’t fond of old Memorial Stadium and playing for the Angels would afford his family a chance to see him play 81 times a year.

“I was thrilled to play for the Angels; it was a dream come true,” Grich said. “I gave the Orioles a chance to match the offer. Had they matched, I don’t even know if I would have stayed. They were offering probably 20 percent less and I had the chance to go home and play in front of my mom and dad.”

Before Grich could even get in a game with California, though, he herniated a disc in his back attempting to carry an air conditioner from his truck into his condominium. That happened on Valentine’s Day in 1977. He didn’t realize the severity of the injury at the time.

“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” he said. “For 10 days the pain wouldn’t go away. I drove to spring training and I had to stop and get out of the car because of the pain going down my leg. They [the Angels] tried everything. Ice, Jacuzzi, rub downs and it wasn’t getting better. They finally put me in traction and tried to stretch me out.”

Grich stayed in the hospital for a week. He left, though, and rejoined the Angels despite the pain and was able to resume playing, though gingerly, with the help of pain killers and anti-inflammatories. He played all of April but by May, he couldn’t sit in his truck long enough to drive himself to games. He put together a makeshift bed in the back and had his mother drive him to and from games.

His season came to a grinding halt on June 8. Grich blasted a game-winning homer in the bottom of the 13th off Toronto’s Tom Bruno. It would be his last at-bat of the season.

“When I was running and hit second base, the pain was like someone shot me,” Grich said. “I didn’t know what it was, there were no MRIs then. I came into the clubhouse and said that’s it. I went home and said if I woke up with the pain the next day I was done. I woke up with the pain and called in. I told them I don’t know what I have but I can’t play anymore.

“I went to the hospital again. They put this stuff in your blood that shows up in x-rays. They roll you around and upside down so it goes into all facets of the discs. It’s a brutal procedure. They showed me the picture and the doctor said you see how the fluid doesn’t go to that one. That means you have a herniated disc between the 4 and 5 lumbar. I was begging for surgery. The doctor took 80 percent of the disc out of the middle of my back and brought it to me in a shot glass. He told me I had a 50 percent chance of playing again and a no chance of being the player I was again. That was on July 3, 1977.”

Grich returned in 1978 but the doctor’s prediction seemed to be coming true. Though he played in 144 games, he hit only .251 with six homers and 42 RBIs. He began working out with weights after the season, though, putting on muscle and strengthening his upper body. He was chiseled by the time he arrived at spring training in 1979 and the difference was obvious from the outset.

That year would be the best of Grich’s career. He had career highs in homers [30], RBIs [101] and finished eighth in the MVP voting as the Angels won the American League West before losing to Baltimore in the ALCS. Grich also made the first of four consecutive All-Star appearances.

“The weight lifting turned my whole career around,” he said. “Otherwise my career was finished. I would have been done. I don’t know if I ever would have attacked the weights the way I did if I didn’t hurt my back. I think my numbers would have been more like what they were in Baltimore.

“I also improved because I was around Rod Carew [who signed with the Angels before the 1979 season]. He really helped me see the ball better and improved my hitting. Weights actually started coming in, too. Brian Dowling was using them and I saw the effect they had on him. So I probably would have used them eventually but my back took two years out of my career.”

Grich spent seven more largely productive years with the Angels, helping lead them to two more division titles [1982 and 86] before retiring. California never reached the World Series, though, and Grich puts some of the blame on himself.

“I didn’t have any playoffs where I shined,” he said. “I had two game-winning hits but I didn’t do enough in any of the playoffs. I needed to shine or star and if I did that in any of those playoffs, I could have made a big difference in our playoff fortunes. I guess probably every single player feels that way.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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