Johnny GrubbFebruary 11, 2009
Somewhere I Lost Connection
(continued from Dan Spillner)
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)