Friday, May 20, 2005

The Gentleman From Virginia: Johnny Grubb

A rare photo of Grubb -- a shy type

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

As far as opposing baseball players go, there was perhaps nobody I hated to see at the plate with men on base and the game on the line more than Dave Winfield or Eddie Murray. To me, there wasn't a more menacing vision than the image of Winfield or Murray glaring into the Tigers pitcher, bat waving slowly and ominously. It seemed like they batted .800 in those clutch situations.

But conversely, of all the Tigers players I've seen in the last 30 years or so, there weren't many more I enjoyed watching bat with ducks on the pond than Johnny Grubb, the Gentleman From Virginia, as Ernie Harwell used to call him.

The Tigers acquired Grubb in 1983, and I immediately fell in love with his lefthanded swing, which was as smooth as silk and free from fault of technique, as far as my untrained eye could see. I didn't know much of Grubb before the Tigers got him -- only that he'd been with the Padres and the Rangers. I think he was named to the all-rookie team in 1973 with San Diego, when he hit .311 in 389 at-bats. Anyhow, it didn't take me long to embrace Grubb, who simply went about his business and had an "Aw, shucks" attitude that endeared him to manager Sparky Anderson, who loved those types.

I am telling you, when he was ahead in the count, 2-0 or 3-1, there was nobody I'd rather see up there for the Tigers than Grubb. He could drive the ball up those gaps in Tiger Stadium as good as anyone, and while he wasn't a power hitter per se, that short porch in right field was a frequent destination for Grubb's shots. He wasn't all that much with the glove, with a below average arm and limited range, but he didn't drop too many, either. You could do far worse in the outfield, and the Tigers did over the years, believe me.

Grubb was mostly unemotional, but I remember him subtly clenching his fist in triumph during the 1984 ALCS after a clutch double in Kansas City. It was probably on a 3-1 pitch. Grubb was part of the conglomerate that roamed the outfield for the '84 club that steamrolled over everyone en route to the World Series title -- along with Ruppert Jones, Kirk Gibson and Chet Lemon. No doubt he was the quietest among that group, but also one of the most lethal to opposing pitchers.

Grubb found himself the center of attention in 1986 when he literally put the Tigers on his back and carried them during a second half charge as the team tried to catch the Boston Red Sox. They damn near did it, too, thanks to Grubb, who hit something like .380 in June and July. It was one of the most prolonged displays of hitting domination by a Tiger that I've ever seen. Grubb was white hot, even batting cleanup at times, as the Tigers kept closing the gap. Alas, Grubb and the team cooled in August, and it was a good effort ended sadly.

Grubb played one more season for the Tigers before retiring at age 39. He went quietly, just as he entered and stayed.

No comments: