Yesterday was Johnny Grubb‘s 60th birthday. Yes, 60th. I recently had the pleasure of talking with him while doing research for SABR’s book on the 1984 Tigers. (I’ve written the biographies of both Grubb and outfielder Rusty Kuntz.) We spoke about his entire career and focused a lot, of course, on the ’84 team.
In honor of Johnny Grubb’s birthday, here’s the first of two installments of the discussion. Beginning with the trade that brought him to the Tigers from the Rangers for reliever Dave Tobik.
Mike McClary: What was your mindset coming to Detroit in 1983?
Johnny Grubb: Well, [Rangers manager] Doug Rader called me in his office in spring training when I was with Texas and he told me that they had made a trade.
He used to call me Grubsteaks. He said, ‘Grubsteaks, youâ€™re going to like where youâ€™re going.’ I said, ‘whereâ€™s that?’ And he said, ‘Detroit.’
And, of course, if you get traded, that would be a good team to go to because we knew they were strong and getting better each year and right on the verge of being a real, real good ball club. So I was happy to go there.
MMc: Did you know anything about the team in terms of who your new teammates were going to be or Sparkyâ€™s reputation?
JG: I knew Sparkyâ€™s reputation as a manager from playing against him in the National League. And then, of course, they did have a boy on the team, Mike Ivie, that goes back to when I played minor league ball. He was a teammate of mine, and he was a player with Detroit then. So I was going into a ball club there that at least I knew one guy real well.
MMc: Anything in particular that you needed to do as a player to adjust with Opening Day around the corner?
JG: Actually, I hadnâ€™t had much playing time in spring training in Texas, so I knew something was going to happen. Either they were going to just release me or make a trade. And I didnâ€™t think they would just release me because I felt like I could still play. But I knew because of the lack of playing time in spring training that something was probably going to happen.
So when Doug called me into his office, I figured then this was it. When I went to Lakeland, I didnâ€™t feel like I had to prove anything because Sparky should have known me as a player and pretty much understood my role when I got there. If you can hit, they will find a place for you somewhere, and I felt like I could still swing the stick. So all I had to do is just show them that I was healthy and I could still swing the stick.
MMc: When you got to Lakeland, did Sparky call you in and talk about how he saw you fitting in with the team?
JG: He pretty much called me in and welcomed me to the ball club. He knew I was a veteran player, so you pretty much said the same thing. But I know youâ€™re going to be glad to be with this team. Itâ€™s a great bunch of guys, and weâ€™ve got a real good team, weâ€™re real close. So he made you feel good about being part of a team.
Sparky always had a good knack for doing that where he made you feel like he was picking good people that were going to get along together as teammates and always encouraged everybody to go out and work hard. He was a good motivator.
MMc: So that 1983 season, your first year in Detroit, you could probably see the makings of the â€™84 team. You had finished behind Baltimore that year. What was the mood of the team and your thoughts going into the off-season in â€™83?
JG: Well, I was thinking that we were right there. I mean, we were real close. And knowing the makeup of all your teammates, that first year you get to learn a little bit more about the guys.
So we had a couple guys that left, [John] Wockenfuss left and Glenn Wilson and some of those guys from the â€™83 team. But, I mean, my feeling was that we were so close and everybody on the team were hard workers that if we put our minds to it, we could win the whole thing. I think thatâ€™s the way most of the guys felt. We work hard, we could win it.
MMc: As a player in the â€™83 season finishing in second, was that about as close to first that you were in any point in your career? Obviously, when you got traded to Texas, they were still in the hunt. But was that kind of a first?
JG: Yeah, that was the first team in the major leagues that I played on that we were that close to going to playoffs or anything. San Diego, we never came close. Cleveland, no, and Texas we did that one year when I got traded over there. Of course, that was a month to go. Well, I take it back. I think there was one other team in Texas that we had a chance. And I think because of the strike, we ended up getting shortchanged that we lost a game to Milwaukee that kept us out of the playoffs. Had we won that game, I believe we would have been in the playoffs.
But we had a good team in Texas a couple years. But Detroit, I really sensed that we could get to the playoffs and do well. We had the right group of guys.
Tomorrow: Johnny Grubb talks about the 1984 season.