Philadelphia Inquirer - April 15, 1980

Gross know his job is not to hit homers


By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer


It certainly has been a routine, predictable decades for the Phillies so far.


Un-huh. Their first stolen base was swiped bv Greg (The Blur) Luzinski. Their first error was committed by Larry (Gold Glove) Bowa.  Their first walk was drawn by Garry (No-Take) Maddox.  


Next thing you know, Luis Aguayo will be the first Phillie to guest-host The Tonight Show, Bob Boone will be the first to support the owners' free-agent compensation proposals and Tug McGraw will be the first to strike out the side with the bases loaded.


Oh yeah, and Greg Gross surely will be the first to crush an 800-foot home run.


You remember Gross, the Phillies' least-visible $200,000-a-year free agent in history.  But anyone who remembers Gross’s last home run a free copy of the "Bobby Malkmus Story.”


Gross might have the shortest, most scientific swing of the Phillies. But Dave Kingman he isn't.


His career home run total is exactly six (in six-plus seasons). His longest lifetime stretch without a homer is a miniscule 1,635 consecutive at-bats. And George Foster has hit about 80 homers in just the time since Gross's last one (April 30, 1978 Chicago at Atlanta, first inning, off Tommy Boggs).


Gross recalls that last one well. Recalls all of them well. Recalls all of them as if they were hit 10 minutes ago, in fact.


"That's the one nice thing about not hitting too many," Gross said. "You can remember them. I bet Schmitty can't remember all the ones he hit."


Yeah, those sluggers never did have much of a memory. Gross, on the other hand, rattles off his homers like a computer printout:


"First one, off Don Stanhouse, left-center field in Chicago. We were down two runs. Mine was for three runs, put us ahead. Let's see. It was July 6 (1977), about 3:42 in the afternoon.


"Second one, off Eddie Solomon in Atlanta, seventh inning, down, 2-0. 1 tied it, 2-2.


Still talking


"Third, off Dick Ruthven, the next day, first time up, straightaway center field in Atlanta. Off a changeup. I'm still talking to him about that one.


"Fourth one, off Craig Swan in Chicago, two-run homer. We were down, 4-2. That made it 4-4. To right field.


"Fifth, off Jim Kaat, straightaway center in Chicago. (Bobby) Murcer and I hit them back-to-back."


And Tommy Boggs makes six. This doesn't leave Gross a whole lot of time to rip those 749 more he will need to catch Hank Aaron. But Gross gave up on catching Hank Aaron a long time ago. In fact, he has given up on catching Bowa (11 career homers).


"I can't say there's one time in my life I've ever gone up there looking to hit one out of the ballpark," Gross said. "Even when I hit the two in a row, I didn't change my swing. Usually, even if I hit the ball real hard, it's a line drive up the middle or I hit it, on the ground. My swing just isn't suited to hitting home runs, so I don't try to hit them."


What Gross does try to do is only those things he does well. He will inside-out those flares to left, stroke those grounders through the holes, always bat around .300 (career average: .298).


He will hit the ball someplace every time up there. (He didn't strike out last year after July 1 and averaged one strikeout every 41.2 plate appearances).


Some arm


He will catch everything he gets to (career fielding percentage: .980). And he will throw out a lot of guys who try to run on him. (In one spring training game this year, he threw out two runners from right field in the same inning.)


He is pretty close to the perfect bench guy. He knows his role in the Phillies' cosmos. He doesn't gripe about not playing. And it takes an awful lot of adversity to make him lose confidence in his abilities. Well, either adversity or Danny Ozark.


"I just felt like Danny didn't have any confidence in me. I don't know whether it came from my bad spring or where it came from. Nothing was ever said. But it's just tough to play when you have that feeling. Then you're trying to prove you're a good ball player every time out there. You start pressing. You get into bad habits. I'm glad that's over now."


Dallas Green isn't going to start Gross a lot, either. But at least he is going to use him. He will be the No. 1 make-contact left-handed pinch-hitter. He will be Greg Luzinski's defensive caddie in left. He will make a cameo appearance in center, take an occasional shot in right, maybe even show up at first base every once in a while.


Green asked him to work at first this spring, just in case. So, in the grand tradition of John Vukovich learning to catch and Aguayo learning to play the outfield, Gross tried it.


"It may help me in the long run," Gross said. "That's what Del (Unser) told me. Learning first helped him out, maybe helped lengthen his career. I'm willing to try almost anything. But I can only go so far. About the only other place they could put me now is out on the mound. And I don't expect them to try that."


Of course, if he should start hitting home runs, anything might be possible.

Phils victory in the cards?


The Phillies, smarting from their 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Montreal Expos in their last outing on Sunday, move into Busch Stadium in St. Louis tonight to meet the Cardinals, who are also smarting from three straight defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates.


One thing is certain – one of them will win tonight. If the fleet Greg Luzinski continues to steal bases to go along with his new-found power at the plate, it could be the Phils.


May the smarter team win.