In the late 1970s, when the Angels dipped into the free-agent market, the baseball Establishment nodded wisely at the names of Joe Rudi and Don Baylor. What widened their eyes was the selection of Bobby Grich.
“What do they want him in there for?” someone wanted to know.
“Maybe,” suggested the waggish Bill Rigney, “they wanted someone to drive the (armored) truck.”
The point was, Don Baylor was a certified seat-wrecker and power broker at the plate; Joe Rudi was a natural born doubles hitter and runs-batted-inner. Bobby Grich was . . . well, Grich was a second baseman. You didn’t go into free agentry for second basemen. You just send bus tickets to second basemen. They come with the territory.
Well, now it’s nine years later and of all the movable ballplayers the Angels have emptied the vault for over the years, who do you think has been the most productive? Robert Anthony Grich.
Grich has not only outlasted all those gaudy free agents, he has outperformed them. In fact, he has outperformed every Angel who ever played the game except one, Jim Fregosi. He has hit more home runs, 153, than any other California Angel and he is second to Fregosi in almost every other category from at-bats and games played to runs batted in, total bases, total hits, extra-base hits and runs.
Grich was a bargain. He was not the Grich who stole Christmas, he was the Grich who came bearing gifts.
It was not always so. Like so many of Gene Autry’s acquisitions, Bobby Grich spent his first year as an Angel in traction. He herniated a disk carrying an air-conditioning unit out of his apartment and played in only 52 games.
Two seasons later, he put his game in gear as the Angels won their first division title. He hit .294 with 30 home runs, 101 runs batted in, 30 doubles and 78 runs scored. In 1981, despite a broken finger--the fracture and healing coincided with the two-month strike--he tied for the league lead in home runs, batted .304 and drove in 61 runs in 99 games.
“I’m going to tell my kids some day I broke my hand one year and only missed four games,” says Grich, grinning. “I won’t tell them about the strike.”
In ’82, the Angels’ other title year, Grich hit 19 home runs and scored 74.
Despite this, Bobby Grich himself does not wonder why some people thought he came along only to drive the truck. “I don’t classify myself as a natural hitter,” he says, surprisingly. “I have to contrive, adjust, experiment. I constantly work out with weights to build up arm strength. I stand in front of the mirror in the hotel room, trying to get the proper swing down.
“You take a guy like Fred Lynn. He’s got this real rippling swing that stays the same for 10, 15 years. Mine changes from inning to inning. Pitch to pitch.”
Some years ago, golfer Jerry Barber, a self-made player, was addressing the problem of the golf swing. “Sam Snead fell out of bed one day with his,” he explained. “The rest of us have to work at it.”
Grich always figured he belonged with the rest of us. He fell out of bed with a swing that required a lot of work.
“I’ve had to dial in a swing to fit some situations,” he says. “You see, I’ve had these weak spots and they’re known throughout the league. If the pitcher makes his pitch to that exact spot, I can’t hit it.
“But everybody has those. I just have more of them. The trick is to get the pitch you can hit and hit it. As you know, concentration is hard work.”
An imposing physical specimen for a second baseman--or for a right fielder, for all of that--Grich looks like a lumber yard to an opposing pitcher. But he seldom overpowers a pitch on sheer strength. He rarely tries to. Bobby renders to pitchers the things that are pitchers’.
“First of all, I choke up on the bat,” he says. “I don’t always try to drive the ball. I try to play team baseball. You don’t always win games with a 2-for-5 day or a leadoff double. You can win games with two ground-outs to the right side. At the right time.”
Grich plays the same dogged unspectacular game in the field as he does at the plate. He made only two errors all last season in leading the league in glove percentage, .997. He handled 606 chances. In 1984, he made only eight errors. He has six this year.
“The art of second base is knowing where to play a hitter,” he says. “Once a guy has been in the league awhile, you know pretty much what he’s going to do with a curveball. We keep charts in the clubhouse, but the best place to keep it is in your head.”
All things considered, Autry’s Angels have gotten more out of Grich than any other import they’ve ever signed.
Among those surprised is Grich.
“If anyone ever told me at the start that I would start in the big leagues for 15 years and have the kind of numbers I’ve had, I would have asked him what mental hospital he escaped from,” he says. “My career has far exceeded my expectations. I just wanted to get to the big leagues. Now, I want to get to a World Series. I was in the one in 1970 but I just sat on the bench.”
If Grich and the Angels get into this year’s World Series--an even-money proposition--the trivia question may be: “Does anyone remember the other two guys the Angels got in the free-agent market the year they got Grich? The two truck drivers?”