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Johnny Grubb

February 11, 2009

johnny-grubb-79

Somewhere I Lost Connection

(continued from Dan Spillner)

Chapter Seven

I ran out of time and money. The last of the money went to a plane ticket. I was sitting in Heathrow airport in London, waiting for a flight to New York City, when I was taken into custody.

I’d been roaming around Europe for a couple of months by then, the last of my dwindling courage to enact my plan to voyage deep beyond the Iron Curtain vanishing in Berlin, at which point I drifted back westward, to Holland, then London, then Scotland, and back to London. I hadn’t had a haircut in a long time, hadn’t shaved in days. I was wearing a grease-stained army jacket I’d bought years before for ten bucks at a surplus store. In other words, I looked to alert, seasoned British authorities like someone who might blow up a plane. Two large officers led me by the arms to a windowless interrogation room.

Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? Why?

***

According to the flat colored rectangles in my shoebox, only one of the Cardboard Gods whose path led through Lodi ever went on to become an All-Star, and only one of the Cardboard Gods whose path led through Lodi ever went on to play on a World Series championship team. In both cases, it was Johnny Grubb.

Grubb was an unusual denizen of Lodi in that he went there after being drafted in the first round of the amateur draft. He was seen, one would think, as a sure thing, not a maybe or a probably not. He didn’t disappoint in Lodi, hitting an even .300 with 12 home runs in 408 at-bats. By the end of the next year, which he mostly spent in Alexandria, he was in the major leagues as a late-season call-up, and the following season he established himself as a bonafide major leaguer by hitting .311 in 389 at-bats. In the middle of the year after that, Johnny Grubb appeared in the major league all-star game. Lodi was bound to vanish from the back of his card. It was only a matter of time. And by the time of the 1979 card shown here, that erasure had occurred. Johnny Grubb had never been stuck anywhere. Johnny Grub could flat-out hit.

And yet there was a certain itinerant element to Johnny Grubb’s career. This card shows him on the third of his four major league teams, the doctored photo reflecting the fact that Johnny Grubb was sometimes forced to move fast, in mid-season, forced to have the particulars of his life rearranged quickly and haphazardly.

He spent a while in Texas, just as he had in San Diego and Cleveland, but by 1983 it was looking as if it was time for him to be moving again. In a two-part interview with Grubb at Daily Fungo (part one and part two), Grubb described his frame of mind at that time, when the writing was on the wall that his time was coming to an end with a particular franchise once again.

“If you can hit,” he said, “they will find a place for you somewhere.”

***

The guts of my knapsack lay spilled across the tile floor of the interrogation room. Some dirty clothes. Two paperbacks, one by Dostoevsky, one by Kerouac. Two notebooks full of my ravings. One of the officers picked up one of the notebooks and leafed through it, squinting, as the other continued to grill me.

As I stammered answers back at the interrogator I stole glances at the officer looking through my writing. I had grown more and more inward in my writing as the trip had gone on, barely noticing the new worlds I was passing through as I invented descriptions of fictional characters and droned on about angels and concocted creepy erotic fantasies. The interrogation went on longer than it might have because although the officers could find nothing physically dangerous on my person or ideologically dangerous in my spoken responses, they couldn’t help notice the stench of something like shame emanating from my slumping figure.

“I’m nobody,” I said.

It was the answer to one of the questions and the answer to a question that hadn’t been asked. It was a plea of innocence and an admission of guilt.

***

Johnny Grubb passed through Lodi, but instead of losing connection there or elsewhere he went on to find connection, eventually, because he could hit. Because he could hit, he found a place on the 1984 Detroit Tigers, one of the best teams of my lifetime, and quite possibly the best sum-is-greater-than-the-parts team in baseball history. Because of that aspect of the 1984 Tigers, the team is epitomized in my mind by Johnny Grubb. I’m sure most baseball fans (besides the journalist/Tigers fan who started a blog in Johnny Grubb’s name) think of someone other than Johnny Grubb when the subject of the mighty 1984 Detroit Tigers is raised. The team had two should-be Hall of Famers in Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, two of the more renowned “gritty winners” of the 1980s in Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris, an MVP-winning reliever in Willie Hernandez, and other longtime major league stalwarts such as Lance Parrish and Chet Lemon. But to me the team was defined by the bit players who surrounded the core guys mentioned above, such as Dave Bergman, Barbaro Garbey, Tom Brookens, and Ruppert Jones. All these guys played their bit parts well, teaming up with one or more of the other bit parts to create an excellent hybrid player at every position. It wasn’t the first time multiple platoons had been used to win a championship, but I would guess that it is the pinnacle of the use of that strategy. Sixteen players had over 100 at-bats, and twelve of those sixteen had over 200. More importantly, the great majority of that bat-wielding horde had what was for them a very good year. I imagine Johnny Grubb as the mythical captain of the bit-part players, because by 1984 he had already been a platoon player for over a decade. He turned 36 that season and had certainly given up thoughts, if he’d ever had them, of being a full-time superstar. He’d stopped seeking his fame and fortune, looking for a pot of gold. He seems to have been a guy who learned that you play your role, however small, and you play it well. Maybe that way you find connection.

***

I was released from custody in time to join the line of people waiting to board the plane to New York City. That line dissolves in my memory into another line, one I stood on the very next day, outside a UPS office in Hell’s Kitchen. A cold November wind was blowing off the Hudson. The rest of the people on the line were like me, a little shabby, shivering, jobless. All of us had seen a notice in the paper that UPS was hiring temporary holiday help.

College was over. My shot at a post-college adventure was over. I stood there in a line that stretched around the corner, still wearing my grease-stained 10-dollar army jacket, waiting for someone to open the door.

(to be continued)

15 comments

  1. Did anyone ever watch “Freaks and Geeks”? The female (Linda Cardellini) lead always wore and old Army jacket, that’s all I could picture.

    Johnny Grubb was a much more effective player than the way I remember him, even he was a platoon guy. I mostly remember a sense of irritation with him, as his name bothered me. Still does.

    (Josh, congratulations on resisting the urge to use “grubby” to describe yourself.)


  2. Yeah, I had the same kind of jacket as the one Lindsay Weir wore.

    Speaking of memorable names, Johnny Grubb did some of his platooning in ’84 with right-hand-hitting specialist Rusty Kuntz.


  3. Today is a holy day of obligation for those that worship here. Yes, Don Stanhouse turns 58 today.

    “Hey ladies, how you all feelin’ tonight?”


  4. Happy birthday, Don! We should all smoke a full pack in his honor.


  5. Freaks and Geeks was a GREAT show! I got a chance to work with Johnny Grubb in the Braves organization in the early 90’s when he was the minor league roving batting instructor. What a great guy. Very personable and down to earth. He could talk hitting for hours. I had to ask him about when Padres owner Ray Kroc got on the PA on opening night in 1974 and apologized to the fans for the Padres poor performance. Grubb’s recollection was hilarious. Give me 25 Johnny Grubb’s anyday on a MLB roster.


  6. I remember seeing Lodi on the back of a Rudy Law card. He seemed like a really cool guy, and I imagined Loadee would be full of guys just like him. My parents were big CCR fans, so I eventually figured out that Rudy Law’s minor league town was the same Low-die Fogerty was singing about.


  7. dw17: Thanks very much for the personal account on Grubb. I found his recollection of his big hit in the ’84 playoffs off Quiz (see part two of the interview with Grubb that I linked to above) really thoughtful and insightful; it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a good hitting coach.

    piehead: That’s a great bit of info. I believe that Lodi was a stop in the Padre chain in the early ’70s, part of the Oriole system in the mid-70s, and then it became a part of the Dodger organization, which is when Law (a Dodger draft pick)must have been there. There are probably more Lodi vets besides Grubb who went on to win championships, considering the ’81 and ’88 titles of the Dodgers. I’m not sure how long Lodi stayed a part of the Dodgers system, or if it still is a part of it, or part of some other organization’s chain.


  8. The Baseball Cube has a list of Lodi alumni at http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/alumni/10952.shtml.

    There are a few pretty good names there, but most are from the pre-Padre (A’s) or post-Padre (Dodgers) Lodi years. I’m sure those teams had a lot more talent in their systems than the Padres did. I like that Fernando Valenzuela pitched three games for Lodi, and had a 1.13 ERA and a losing record.


  9. I found a link for the Lodi GrapeSox (grapesox.com) – some kind of semi-pro team. Their “history” states Lodi has been the minor league affiliate for 4 clubs, the Cubs, Padres, O’s, and Dodgers. They boast stars Vida Blue, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Buckner, and Dusty Baker as former Lodi players, but only Fernando seems like it would be a legitimate claim.


  10. Excellent job linking the travelougue and minor league franchise experience to the CCR song (by the way, that’s the small-time musician’s National Anthem. We have to rise and face Lodi with our hand over our heart when it plays).

    Cool link to the Grubb interview; it was interesting to see that he was also surprised by Marty Castillo playing third instead of Howard Johnson; I’ve often wondered about that, but there always seemed to be some tension between Sparky and HoJo. It seems like Johnson did have a tendency to not come through in stressful situations, but that just may be my memory of his time in Detroit. That team was a blast to watch; all those role players as likely to rise to the occasion as the stars, one of the best bullpens ever, quality starting pitching; all that AND Rusty Kuntz.


  11. piehead: Great link. The complete list of Lodi Masters. Awesome.

    sthek: Giving the game 3 starting nod to Castillo seems odd, but more to me (in retrospect) because it was over Brookens, not Johnson. Johnson was better against righties, and lefty Tim Lollar was on the mound. I think Brookens got the majority of starts against lefties that year, so I wonder why Castillo got the nod over him in game 3.


  12. hey Josh..what are the odds you might transfer the archives here with open comments?

    On my lazy Friday afternoon, I’m fairly certain I pinpointed Mario Guerrero’s card(11-30-06) as being photographed on June 3rd, 1979. The background looks like Oakland, it’s a day game(June 3rd was a Sunday), and it’s the only double play Guerrero was involved in that weekend that included SS to 1B. It was the Tigers’ only trip to Oakland that year.

    The game took 2 hours, 14 minutes..both starters went 9, giving up a combined 11 hits and K’ing 7 between them. Apocalyse Now, released in August of ’79, ran more than a half hour longer than this baseball game! :)


  13. redsoxeveryday: The odds are pretty good–it’s already happened! I haven’t gotten around to giving that particular card its own link in the sidebar, because adding the name of every god has proven to be an extremely tedious and time-consuming task. But I’m getting there. Only nine more goddamn teams to go. Anyway, the post I believe you are referring to, and that you did such a nice job of moment-pinpointing with–is here with all its old comments and the new comments open:

    Mario Guerrerro, 1980

    One thing I like about this new site is that when a comment like yours gets added to an old post it shows up in the “recent comments” list near the top of the page so everyone can have a look.


  14. If I read retrosheet correctly, that’s Mark Wagner in Guerrero’s card.


  15. No relation to the great band Railroad Earth’s preternaturally youthful stand-up bass player;
    both Johhny Grubbs being (literally) “stand-up” guys, contributing to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, both Southern Gentlemen known for occasionally stepping up, and into the spotlight, never letting the fans down…

    Josh – knowing your affinity for the loosely defined “Americana” genre of music: Woody Guthrie, The Stanley Brothers, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Gram Parsons, etc. I was wondering if you were familiar with the musical group in question (named after the Jack Kerouac poem)?



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