Jerry Grote: A Country Boy’s Baseball World

Jerry Grote may not like the comparison, but he just might be to catching what Pete Rose was to hustling. He competed with a temperament of being “hated” by opposing players. Or so he recalls.

Grote, who played most of his 16-year career catching for the New York Mets, had a little habit that likely did nothing to curry favor among opposing teams. When an inning ended on a strikeout, Grote rolled the ball to the far side of the pitcher’s mound, the one closest to the Mets dugout.

Thus, the opposing pitcher had to walk farther from his own dugout to pick up the ball. Not nice.

This happened quite a bit as Grote caught quite a few pitchers known for strikeouts — Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, Burt Hooton and Dan Quisenberry. If that kind of lineup wasn’t tough enough on hitters, Grote’s own preparation made hitting against them more challenging.

He prepared for games unlike any other catcher, he told the Rogers Hornsby Chapter of SABR at the group’s Fifth Annual Winter Meeting at Texas State University.

“I took this game to a further level of catching than anyone,” Grote said. “ I planned every pitch and planned for every count. On game day, from 4 o’clock on, everyone left me alone. I was in another world. When a situation arose, I had already been there.”

He learned about defense by studying the offensive part of the game. The catcher learned about hitting from Nellie Fox, among others, who “talked hitting constantly.”

Grote filed away details as a way to calculate defensive strategies. “I learned that hitters look for different pitches if men are on base,” he said. “I have to know what you can hit and what you can’t. Setting up hitters is an unbelievable part of the game. I don’t want to see a .220 hitter coming up in the ninth inning who’s 0 for 3 or 0 for 4. He’s really going to try hard to get a hit. I want to face a guy who is (already) 1 for 3 (in the game) because he’s not going to work as hard. The guys at the top like hitting in pressure situations. I want to face five through nine (in the lineup).”

This mental part of the game only compounded his competitive nature. And when he got traded to Los Angeles for the 1977 season, he was greeted by players with “I hated playing against you,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re glad we’ve got you now, but we hated playing against you.’”

 

In the beginning

Grote started his career at age 21 with the Colt .45’s, with a sacrifice fly that scored Bob Aspromonte and ended it with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where at age 38 he went 3 for 4 with a grand slam home run, a double, a stolen base and seven RBIs. In between, he collected a slew of memories, starting with Yogi Berra.

“Yogi was quite a character,” he said, something everyone knows, even ducks. “A lot of those sayings happened while I was around him. When I got to the Mets in 1966, he was a coach. He left there in ’76. As a catcher, as you can imagine, we had a lot of time together. We were in spring training. I said, ‘Yogi what time is it?’ I needed to get my gear on. He said, ‘You mean now?’ No, an hour from now. ‘An hour from now it’s going to be 4:15.’”

Well, then, it was 3:15.

This became a team joke and Grote and others would regularly ask Yogi — and each other — the time.

Grote remembered another incident in which Yogi was trying to get in touch with his wife, Carmen. Carmen had left a message with someone else that she had gone to see a movie. “Did you get hold of Carmen?” Yogi was asked. He answered, “She said she went to see Dr. Zhivago. I said, ‘What’s wrong now?’”

 

He hearted New York

Grote said he loved playing in New York, but quickly acknowledged it’s not for everyone. It takes a special ability to survive the media and the fans. Playing in New York was another world,” he said. “My biggest thrill that did not involve an actual game came in New York. I was with the Dodgers in 1977. (Johnny) Oates was hurt, (Steve) Yeager hadn’t played. We were playing the Yankees and on the first night, everyone on the team is introduced. The fans booed (Tommy) Lasorda like you wouldn’t believe.

“They booed all of them. I’m cringing because we’re playing the Yankees and I played for the Mets. They introduced me and I got a standing ovation. It blew me away. It was the most thrilling experience for me. The fans in New York know their baseball. They knew they got 110 percent from me on that field everywhere. I loved playing in New York.”

Grote recalled numerous milestone moments. In 1964, with the Colt .45’s, Grote caught Ken Johnson’s complete game no-hitter in nine innings, but Houston lost to the Reds, 1-0. Rose hit a ground ball back to Johnson who overthrew Pete Runnels at first base. Rose went to second. Houston’s Nellie Fox booted a Vada Pinson grounder, allowing Rose to score the game’s only run.

“With all the great pitchers I caught, I caught one no-hitter and we lost,” he said.

Grote also set a major league record in 1970 when he recorded 20 putouts in a game in which Seaver tossed 19 strikeouts against the Padres.

The San Antonio, Texas, native said he like to think he was more than a catcher to his pitching staff.

In his words, he was a receiver. “You have to have soft hands to be a catcher,” he said. When he handled a staff composed of Seaver, Koosman, Ryan (who was his roommate in New York) and Tug McGraw, “we had seven guys who threw over 97. I wore out two gloves in those years. In one season with those guys, I had just five errors and one passed ball.”

He joked that that performance was attributed to good control by the pitchers but also self-defense. “If you didn’t catch the ball, you’d get killed.”

He’s also glad he didn’t have to face those pitchers too often, but when he did he fared fairly well. He recalls striking out against Seaver. It didn’t bother him, he said with a laugh. A lot of people struck out against him.

He said he was one for one against Ryan and Koosman. “Thankfully, I didn’t have to hit off of them for a career.”

 

Pitcher becomes a catcher

Grote was signed as a teen by scout Red Murph, who also signed Nolan Ryan and Mike Stanton. According to Grote, at least five dozen players he signed made it to the big leagues. “He was one of the best scouts there’s ever been,” he said. “There should be a place in the Hall of Fame for scouts.”

Murph scoured the Texas countryside to find Texas talent. Of course, Ryan was from Alvin, Texas. Stanton was discovered in Midland. Grote was from San Antonio. He lived in the country on 125 acres. His arm strength, proclaimed worthy of the majors as a ninth grader, was developed by throwing rocks at trees on the family property. “There wasn’t a tree that didn’t have a piece of bark knocked off it; and there wasn’t a rock there that I hadn’t thrown at least twice.”

When Murph scouted Grote he saw him play the field and pitch. Grote even threw a no-hitter in high school. The last time he caught was at age 12. Only when he joined the pro game seven years later, he became a catcher again.

He ended his 16-year major league career with a .991 fielding percentage, at the time of his retirement the eighth highest all-time among catchers.

Despite spending most of his career in baseball’s biggest cities, Grote never lost his country roots. He walks like he’s spent more time on a horse than on a subway. He belongs to a “cowboy church” in Salado, Texas. “I like two kinds of music,” he said. “Country and Western.”

And he wears a sunny, Roy Rogers smile when he talks baseball, which is about all the time. With spring baseball fast approaching, he’s back to preparing like a catcher as the color announcer for the AAA affiliate of the Texas Rangers in Round Rock.

 

 

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