Talking with Johnny Grubb, Part II

JohnnyGrubb2.jpgThis is the second and final installment of my conversation with former Tigers outfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Johnny Grubb. You can find the first installment here.

Mike McClary: Heading into the 1984 season, was it a long off-season? It would seem like you would be chomping at the bit to get back on the field shortly after a little break. Was everyone coming into spring training raring to go?

Johnny Grubb: Yeah, I think so. I remember us getting Dave Bergman and Willie [Hernandez]. So they came over, and they fit right in with the team, too. I mean, we just had a good group of guys that got along, and Dave Bergman is a heck of a guy and so was Willie. So it worked out great.

MMc: Let’s talk about the ’84 season in general. Obviously, you got off to a great start, 9-0, and in the middle of that, Jack Morris throws a no-hitter. As you were getting older and becoming the seasoned veteran, were you really just enjoying about every moment of that season?

JG: Oh, gosh, yeah. It was fun to watch those guys play and every once in a while to jump in and do something myself. But it was a lot of fun watching Gibby and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Darrell [Evans] — and Lance did a great job. And Howard Johnson had the great season for us. I thought he did a great job. And Larry Herndon and all those guys really did well in the pitching.

So really what I remember most about it is that I never really felt like we were out of any ballgame. Any lead a team could get, we felt like we could have a big inning and jump right back in the game. And we had real good pitching, so if we had the lead, we had Willie and [Aurelio] Lopez coming in to shut the door on them. The pitchers did their job, and the hitters did their job. And we just felt like we could win any game.

That 35-5 start really helped a lot, too. But I think that pretty much was an indicator of how strong we were because that’s pretty phenomenal when you think about a 35-5 start in the major leagues. That’s pretty good.

MMc: Even today when you see teams get off to a good start, and then you look at the record and you think, That’s a good start, but that’s not 35-5.

JG: Yeah, that was awesome.

MMc: One moment of the ’84 season in particular I want to ask you about is the second game of the playoffs in Kansas City. Eleventh inning and you got the hit that drove in the go-ahead runs. That came off Dan Quisenberry. What do you remember about that at-bat? What were you looking for from him, and what did you get? Because you drove that ball deep.

JG: Actually, he got two strikes on me and (Royals catcher) John Wathan went out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. I guess he wanted to make sure that they were going to be on the same page.

We didn’t get the bunt down to get the runners over to second and third, so there were runners on first and second and one out. And he got two strikes on me, and I kind of was watching them when they were out there talking. I thought I could read their lips and I thought I saw them saying fastball.

And I said, well, I can’t trust that, but I’m going to be ready for it. And he threw a fastball, and I’m sure Willie Wilson was cheating in a little bit on me with two strikes on me. But I happened to get a hold of one and drove it over his head. So I’m glad I came through to help out. That was my turn I guess to do something to help the team.

MMc: Would you say that’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — hit of your career?

JG: Yeah, I’d say that was the biggest hit for me helping the ball club and everything. It came at a great time because he was a tough relief pitcher, and he’d gotten it to the eleventh inning. And being at their ballpark, sometimes it favors the home team when it starts going extra innings. But things worked out.

MMc: Did you have success against Quisenberry throughout your career?

JG: You’d have to check my record on him because I felt really good against him because he was a sinker ball pitcher, and I’m a good low ball hitter. And I felt like I hit the ball hard on him, but I don’t know how many hits. I can remember a lot of times coming back across the diamond going into the dugout thinking you lucky son-of-a-gun. It was like I hit the ball hard, but it’d be at the second baseman or right at the centerfielder.

So I don’t know if my batting average was that high against him. But it’s one of those pitchers where maybe my batting average wasn’t – I’m not sure. I don’t know what my batting average was against him. But I felt good facing him. I felt good hitting against him.

[Note: According to, Grubb had a .200 career batting average (3 for 15) against Quisenberry, with just one RBI. Before facing him in the A.L.C.S., Grubb had one plate appearance against the Royals’ submariner in 1984: a flyout to left on Aug. 3.]

MMc: After sweeping the Royals in the A.L.C.S., what was the confidence level heading into the World Series? It looked like it was going to be against the Cubs until the Padres came back to win the N.L. Pennant.

JG: Well, I remember watching the [N.L.C.S.] because we wanted to see who we were going to be playing. And you’re right, I thought it looked like it was going to be the Cubs, and then all of a sudden it turned out to be San Diego. And I don’t remember knowing that much about either team.

I knew more probably about the Cubs than we did about San Diego. But I think most of the guys, the way that team was with Detroit, I think we just felt like we’re going to play them, we’re going to take care of business with them. I don’t think it would have made any difference. I think we were destined to have a good year wherever we played it. We planned on going out there and taking care of business.

MMc: What was that like for you going back to San Diego where you started your career?

JG: It was real neat to go back. When they did the introductions, I remember they gave me a nice ovation. I wasn’t sure really what they might do. You’re not sure if fans are going to turn on you or not. But they were really, really nice. And I remember Ruppert Jones was with us, and they gave him a nice round of applause, too. So it was neat. And, of course, we had friends that still lived back there, and just going back where I started my career was a neat feeling being in that stadium.

MMc: Talk about the whole World Series experience for you as a player at that point in your career.

JG: Well, it was all new to me. I’d gone to College World Series, Junior College World Series, watched them on television. And I guess as a kid you put yourself in that position where you could just imagine and dream about being in the World Series. So it wasn’t like I was intimidated or I don’t think any player at that level are going to be intimidated. The big crowds and all the media and all that were a little different.

But as players you get focused on what you’ve got to get done. And you still just make it this same game. It’s still the same ball and the same bat and gloves, and you don’t try to make it any different than that and make the plays.

And all the hype and all the media and all that, that I guess can get to some players. But Sparky had pretty much told us not to talk too much to the media and just get focused on the game. He said, “Let me speak to the media” and that let us go out and do the work on the field. So I think that was good advice.

MMc: It seemed like it was a very focused group, but everyone assumed it was going to be a quick World Series with the Tigers coming out on top. Did the team self-police each other in terms of getting overconfident or did Sparky have to do that — or was that even an issue?

JG: I don’t think it was an issue. We had guys on the team like Gibby and Chet [Lemon] and, of course, you’ve got a veteran player like Darrell. And Lance was kind of quiet, so he didn’t do a lot of rah-rah stuff. But we just had a group of guys that all of us, we weren’t going to be intimidated, and we didn’t take anybody lightly.

We understood what it would take to win ballgames, and went out there and played hard every pitch. And we respected Sparky’s decisions. I know we had Marty Castillo starting at third base, and I’m sure, myself included, when we saw him starting at third, it was like, wow, I wonder why Howard is not starting at third? But that’s who he’s going to play. We’ll just go out there and take care of it with Marty at third, too, because he’s a good ballplayer as well. And darn it if he didn’t hit a home run (in Game 3). It was like Sparky made all the right calls.

MMc: I want to talk to you about your final season which was also, from a team perspective, a good one, the 1987 season. Heading into that season, did you have a sense it was your last year, or were you just going to kind of see how it played out?

JG: Well, I was close to 40, so I knew it was getting right down to the end. And I knew Sparky probably saw me as not going to have a whole lot of playing time, a guy off the bench. And he’d pretty much shown to some of the veteran players that he was starting to move a little bit more towards younger players (like) Scott Lusader. So I knew it was a good chance it might be my last year, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think that way. And I just had a poor season, but ended up having a good playoff for us. But I wish I’d have had a better season for us. I just didn’t do that well that year.

I know I was hoping that the team would do it again, and I’ve got two boys, so my little extra motivation was that I would have liked to have had two World Series rings so I could pass one down to each child. So it would have been nice.

But that was a heck of a ball club. We had a good team, and we had some new players that I believe Mike Heath was the catcher that year. And, of course, we had Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell, and it was a number of new faces, but real good ballplayers.

So we had a good team. We caught Minnesota when they were hot, and we had come off a real tough series against Toronto. So it just was one of those situations that you catch a team hot and maybe you’re not as hot as you’d like to be, and anything can happen. They won the whole thing that year, so I guess they were destined to win, too.

MMc: Were you surprised that you only got one World Series out of that collection of talent?

JG: Well, see, ’87 was my last year, so I don’t know how they did the following year. But that Eastern Division at that time was a tough division. And just to win the American League East, that in itself was saying a whole lot because Toronto, Baltimore, Yankees, Boston, there’s some good ball clubs, and just to win the American League East is tough. So it’s a shame we didn’t beat Minnesota, but they played better. They came with their fans with those whistles.

MMc: Yeah, their Homer Hankies.

JG: The Homer Hankies and all that. But they had a heck of a ball club, so you’ve got to give them credit. They were scrappers and they played hard. So they got the job done.

MMc: I understand that you’re involved with Tiger Fantasy Camps. Is that something you do every year?

JG: Yeah, I enjoy going there. That way, I get to see my old teammates and, of course, the people that do the fantasy camps are real nice people, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of them over the years. So it’s a great experience and look forward to going every year. Jim Price is one of the guys that helps along with Jerry Lewis. And, of course, the Tigers I think operate it and everything. It’s a fun time.

MMc: And do you stay in touch with a lot of your old teammates and follow the Tigers in general?

JG: I still follow the Tigers and get Christmas cards and stuff from the teammates. And I don’t talk to them as much as I’d like to, but I usually catch up with them at Tiger Fantasy Camp or some reunion that we might have. But it’s every time you see them, just like I saw Darrell Evans recently at the Tigers camp, Milt Wilcox, and those guys, it just seems like it was just yesterday that we were playing. So it’s great seeing them.

Shamless Plug: A complete biography of Johnny Grubb, written by yours truly, will be available in SABR’s upcoming book on the 1984 Tigers. The book should be available in the spring.

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