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.

Continue reading “Talking with Johnny Grubb, Part II”

Talking with Johnny Grubb – Part I

GrubbSteaks.jpgYesterday 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, you’re going to like where you’re going.’ I said, ‘where’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 Sparky’s reputation?

JG: I knew Sparky’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.

Continue reading “Talking with Johnny Grubb – Part I”

Vance Wilson's St. Patrick's (Birth)Day Celebration

Catcher.jpgThree quick hits:

  1. This past weekend my wife and I traveled to Indian Wells, Calif., to watch the second round of the Pacific Life Open tennis tournament.

    When you take away the two-hour line to park and the gale-force winds, we had a great time watching some big-name players including Lindsay Davenport, Ana Ivanovic, Carlos Moya and defending champ Rafael Nadal.

    Between matches I pulled out my recent issue of Sports Illustrated and read about youngsters and teams making noise in big-league camps. The first snippet was on Tigers phenom Rick Porcello:

    Already Porcello, who has a repertoire of a mid-90s fastball, curve, slider and changeup is drawing comparisons to Josh Beckett (and even Jim Palmer) and stirring talk of a possible late-summer debut.

    Jim Palmer? No pressure there. Though, with all the young talent the Tigers have brought along — or traded — in the past few years, I find myself longing for the days of Sparky Anderson‘s predictions. Can you imagine what Sparky would have said about Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller and Porcello?

    And while I’m glad the Tigers are high on Porcello, why even toy with a post-Sept. 1 callup? What’s the rush?

  2. With a name like Michael Patrick McClary you can imagine that St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in my family. Yet, March 17 is probably a much bigger day for Tigers catcher Vance Wilson who happens to have the good fortune of a St. Patrick’s Day birthday. He’s 35 today.
  3. Did you happen to catch the Dontrelle Willis topic on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters on Sunday? It appeared that they needed a hook to talk about the Tigers and asked the panel if the D-Train would be running on time this year now that he’s with a better team. The consensus? A resounding “yeah, probably.”

Happy Birthday, Johnny B.

Wockenfuss.jpgThe first time my brother imitated the finger-waving batting stance of a Tigers player by the name of “Wockenfuss” I was convinced he made it up.

Not only did the name sound like a cartoon character, the flapping of the right hand on the bat was too much for my nine-year-old brain to process as a viable approach at the plate.

I soon learned that Johnny Bilton Wockenfuss was – and is – a real-life person.

Never a superstar, he was a Super Sub before the phrase existed. He played key roles for the Tigers and helped the club bridge the gap between emerging contender and World Series Champion.

‘Fuss was drafted by the Washington Senators in the 42nd round of the 1967 amateur draft. His road to Detroit wound through Arlington, Texas, after the Senators relocated following the 1971 season.

On June 6, 1973 he was traded by the Rangers with Mike Nagy to the Cardinals for Jim Bibby. Less than six months later – on Dec. 3 – St. Louis sent him to the Tigers for minor-leaguer Larry Elliott.

Ironically, Wockenfuss made his major league debut on Aug. 11, 1974 against the Rangers at Arlington Stadium – and faced the pitcher he was traded for a year earlier, Bibby.

He started at catcher, as he would 12 more times that season, and, batting ninth, went 0 for 2 with a walk. In his first big-league at bat (leading off the Tigers third) he popped out to shortstop Toby Harrah.

Wockenfuss’s first major league hit would come three days later at Tiger Stadium off Royals starter Steve Busby — an RBI single with two outs in the ninth (Jim Nettles, brother of Graig scored).

During the lean years of the mid-1970s, Johnny B. – wearing first #45 and then, from 1976 on, #14 – steadily gained playing time, primarily behind the plate for manager Ralph Houk. When Sparky Anderson was hired in 1979, ‘Fuss became more of a first baseman/outfielder/DH hybrid.

For the next four seasons, Wockenfuss had a .265 average. His best year at the plate for Detroit was in 1982 when hit batted .301 in 79 games.

In the spring of 1984, the buzz around Lakeland was of a team poised to make the leap to the postseason. Wockenfuss had been so valuable to the Tigers over his 10 seasons that no one suspected he wouldn’t be with Detroit on Opening Day.

But on March 24, 1984, roughly one week before the Tigers opened the season in Minnesota, ‘Fuss was traded with outfielder Glenn Wilson to the Phillies for Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman.

We know how that played out.

In Philadelphia that year, Wockenfuss played in 86 games, mostly at first base, batting .289. In 1985, he appeared in just 32 games, collecting six hits. When the Phillies released him on Aug. 19, 1985 – almost 11 years to the day of his debut – his career was over.

Two years later, though, he was back in the Tigers organization as the manager of Lakeland in the Florida State League. He appeared to be on a meteoric rise in the organization. In 1988 he led the Glens Falls Tigers of the Eastern League two a first-place finish. The next season he was promoted to manager of Toledo where the Mud Hens finished in sixth place. He lasted only 24 games of the 1990 season before he was fired on April 29.

And that was all she wrote for Johnny B. Wockenfuss as a member of the Tigers family.

I remember feeling bad in 1984 that Johnny B. wasn’t around to enjoy the Tigers World Series championship. Years later when the Pistons won their first NBA Title they had some of the old guard on hand for the celebration. Too bad Wockenfuss couldn’t have participated in a similar sort of revelry in October ’84.

Raise a glass today for Johnny B. Wockenfuss. He’s 59.