An Interview with Greg Gross

added 2/13/02 by Ray Kerby

Former Astro Greg Gross had a great rookie season for the team in 1974, but became a part-time player afterwards. A contact hitter, Gross sooned found himself in Philadelphia to help lead his new team over the Astros in the 1980 NLCS. After two World Series appearances, Gross retired after a brief return to Houston. Seemingly out of baseball, Gross joined the Colorado system as a hitting instructor and is now the batting coach of the Philadelphia Phillies.

(c) Houston Astros
Ray Kerby: I know you're from Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, and I'm guessing that the Phillies were your favorite team when you were growing up...

Greg Gross: Well actually, no. They weren't (laughs). My favorite team when I was growing up was the Atlanta Braves.

RK: Really? So who were some of your favorite players?

GG: Hank Aaron... I didn't follow the Phillies much at all except for in '64 when Dick Allen was a rookie. I can remember following him, plus they were in the race. I had friends that were guys that I hung out with that were Braves fans. So, just because I was hanging out with them, I was a Braves fan, too. I didn't follow any team that close.

RK: How old were you when you started playing baseball?

GG: Well, organized (baseball) I started when I was 6 or 7. But from the time I can remember I was hitting the ball, or throwing it, or something.

RK: So in Little League I guess you were the pitcher or shortstop...

GG: Yeah, most of the time I either pitched or I played the outfield.

RK: Your dad, at one time, signed a pro contract with the Cardinals. How much of an influence was he on you and baseball?

GG: When I was small, he was still playing in the adult leagues around where we grew up, and I was always following him around and watching him play. I guess he played up until the time I was maybe 8 or 9.

RK: You were drafted by Houston in the 4th round of the 1970 draft. How much contact did you have with the Astros up to that point, and how did you feel about going to Houston?

MS: I didn't meet anyone from Houston until right before the draft. Earl Rapp had asked if I would come down to Baltimore and work out for a group that was coming from Houston, to come up to New York for the draft. I said I would, so I went down there the next day to the city park in Baltimore and worked out for him and Pat Gillick and couple of guys whom I don't remember their names. I worked out in the City Park for them and then on Tuesday they called and said that they had drafted me fourth. After the draft was the first time they saw me play a game.

RK: What position were you playing at that time? Were you in the outfield?

GG: Yeah, I was a center fielder.

(c) Topps
RK: You came up in '74 after the Astros traded Jim Wynn and moved into right field...

GG: I played center field all the way through AA with Houston. When I went to AAA, Jay Schlueter was the center fielder so I played left field most of the AAA season. When the season was over, I got invited to winter ball and I played right field in the Dominican. So I had some experience in all three positions, but predominantly I played center field. But obviously with (Cesar) Cedeno there, I wasn't going to play center field for Houston.

RK: Yeah, he was a Gold Glover at the time. In '74 you had that great year, and was named "Rookie of the Year" by The Sporting News. That year, Bob Watson started calling you "Ty Williams".

GG: Yeah, I was on a streak then where it seemed like every ball I put in play, I got a base hit. I had a really good first month -- first six weeks -- which took a lot of the heat off myself because it helped you relax a little bit. By getting off to a good start, there wasn't this panic about being sent down, so that was the nickname he called me.

RK: Was there much of an adjustment in facing major league pitchers?

GG: No, not that much. Obviously, they had better control and I think that's why I got off to a good start. I was a contact hitter and they really didn't know how to play me, or know my weaknesses and things like that. As the year went on, they pitched me different, played me different. I slowed down in the second half somewhat, but still you have to make adjustments to the things that they were doing. That's all part of being a player. Once they figure out how to get you out, then you gotta figure out how to get them. But it was good first couple of years. It was a chance to play every day. At that time, Houston was a nice place to play... the ballpark was ideal for me because you didn't have to worry about home runs and I was a pretty good outfielder. It was a fun place to play.

RK: So are you saying that playing in the Astrodome didn't cost you any home runs?

GG: Oh, I'm sure it did (laughs).

RK: I know you didn't hit any homers for Houston, but a couple of years later you were traded to the Cubs and hit some for them. Were you privy to what led up to that trade?

GG: I just got a call from Bill Virdon. He said that they had traded me to the Cubs; that was the only conversation. I got traded for a AA second baseman, so it pretty much looked like they were weeding me out at the age of 24.

RK: In '79, did you sign as a free agent with the Phillies?

GG: No, I was traded to the Phillies.

RK: How did you feel about playing closer to your home town?

GG: At that time, I was being relegated to being a part-time player because the game had shifted to speed and basestealing, and I wasn't a basestealer or a home run hitter. I was more of an on-base and defensive guy, so I became the typical "extra guy" at that time. So if you're going to be an extra guy it was nice going to a team that had been in contention and had playoff years. It was more of going for that reason, than for being closer to home... because I was still two and a half hours away from home. It wasn't like I could go back and live and things like that. It was more of going to a contending club.

RK: It was obviously good timing for you. The Phillies went to the World Series in 1980 and played that grueling championship series against the Astros. Did you have any conflicting emotions at all while playing against Houston?

GG: No, not really -- that was going on four years later. If I had went to the Cubs and we had beaten the Astros, that might have been different that first year. I didn't think being traded was warranted at that time. I was disappointed, although once I got to Chicago, I enjoyed it and had a good time. But the initial trade -- I had just come off playing three years and hitting .300 for those three years, and then to get traded for a AA infielder (Julio Gonzalez) who wasn't even a prospect for the Cubs. That just looked like they traded just to get rid of me.

RK: How was your first World Series experience when the Phillies won in '80?

GG: Just the whole playoff experience... unless you go through it, you don't understand. Everybody says it's different, and it is. There's a different atmosphere, different feel in the air... electricity or whatever you want to call it, and there really was. It was totally different than the regular season and it was a good feeling. It was nice being there and winning was obviously a plus. You understand what everyone talks about, but until you go through a pennant race and get in the playoffs, you don't know. Up until that point, I had been on second-division clubs.

RK: I want to ask something that I earlier asked Larry Andersen, who also played on the '83 team. What did you think about Pete Rose as a player, on and off the field? What is your opinion on the "betting on baseball" charges?

GG: Well, Pete was a great teammate. When I was a little older and Pete started out, he was the first one that got a lot of publicity for a guy that was supposedly a singles hitter and an on-base guy. I followed him through high school and when I was playing, because that was the guy that you followed if you were that kind of a hitter. I had the opportunity to play with him and he was a great teammate. He was always supportive of everybody and he was fun to watch perform. Off the field, you didn't see Pete. Pete was pretty much a loner away from the field. In some rare times, he would go out to dinner, but you didn't see him away from the hotel too much. I never saw Pete drink or anything like that. That stuff that he allegedly did happened when he was in Cincinnati, and that was after he was done playing -- that was when he was a manager. I knew and everybody knew that Pete liked to go to track -- I mean, he always went to the dog track or the horse track. It's a shame that it happened. I refrain talking much about it because I've never read the Dowd Report to get both sides of story, and I've never really talked to Pete about the situation. For what he did as a player, I think I'd like to see him get his chance to be in the Hall of Fame, because it's a shame that he's not there with the accomplishments that he had.

RK: I kind of feel the same way as Larry Andersen -- it boggles the mind to imagine that a competitor like Pete Rose would ever jeopardize his team's chances of winning.

GG: Yeah, I don't know what the evidence is that they had, and I probably should have taken the time to read it since it's public knowledge. You would think that, for as long as this has gone on, there has to be some substance to it.

RK: Well, I just like to hear the opinions of the guys that actually played with him.

GG: He was a great teammate. Watching him play every day and playing against him, he's probably as close to anyone that I idolized when I was in high school and the minor leagues. It's sad when something keeps somebody from something that you thought they earned. But that's stuff that was off the field and you never know what goes on there. In all sports, there's things that you wouldn't think would happen to an athlete, that do.

RK: Early in your career, you had said that the toughest pitcher you've had to face was John Candelaria.

GG: Yeah, he was the toughest lefthander I faced, and Tom Seaver was the toughest righthander.

RK: What was it about them in particular?

GG: For Candelaria, it was just hard picking up the ball. I just had trouble with his delivery and had trouble picking up the ball with any kind of consistency. Seaver was just a power pitcher plus a control pitcher who could throw in the mid-90s and yet throw with control. He consistently put pitches where he wanted to, so even when you got hits off of him, at least for me, even when you got a hit or two against him it didn't seem like you had a good day. It was always a grind because he could throw something off-speed, then he could throw a pitch in the low or mid-90s. That's what made him tough.

RK: In '86 and '89, you were used as an emergency pitcher. How does a player get a reputation as the "go to" guy when a team needs an emergency pitcher?

GG: It's probably the guy who, at that particular time, you're going to use the least (laughs). That's usually how it happens. In Philadelphia, at times when I wasn't playing that much, I had picked up coaches and threw batting practice. So that's sort of how it developed there. The one in Houston --- I don't know how that one... they might have just asked. Craig Reynolds had pitched an inning and had thrown a lot of pitches, so they didn't want him to go back out. I don't know if volunteered for that one because I had done it before.

RK: I was just curious because you hear about players that dabble with pitching on the side...

GG: No, I had just thrown batting practice and both times I was at points in the season where I was getting used very, very little. You know, it wasn't like you were going to waste someone that you were going to use off the bench. It was more that than probably anything else.

RK: You came back to Houston as a free agent in '89. What was your motivation for coming back to the Astros?

GG: Well, they gave me a chance to come to Spring Training. When the Phillies changed general managers, they didn't give me the opportunity to come as a non-roster player and it was hard to get a place to come, especially when you were 36, 37 years old. Houston was the one place that gave me the opportunity to go to Spring Training as a non-roster player with a chance to make the club. Unfortunately, that was at a time when Terry Puhl was winding down his career, and he wasn't playing every day. Craig Reynolds was doing the same thing, and they had been there for a while. They were both left-handed and then we had Louie Meadows, who was another left-handed hitter -- a younger guy. So, at any one time, we had four left-handers on the bench. Pretty much, I didn't have a whole lot of opportunity to do too much. If they rested an outfielder, Terry Puhl played. The couple of starts that I got, I filled in for Glenn Davis at first base. Obviously, they weren't going to rest him too much. The opportunity to play just wasn't there.

RK: What did you do from the time you left Houston until you became a bench coach for Philadelphia last year?

GG: In '91, I went back to San Diego for Spring Training -- they were looking for a left-handed bat off the bench. It then got down to the last two days before Spring Training and then the manager let me go. I was already in San Diego and I thought I was getting called in to sign a contract and they said they picked somebody up on waivers. At that time then, I was stuck. I had no place to go because all of the rosters were already taken, the minor-league rosters were already filled since it was the start of the season. It was kind of disappointing with the way that it ended. I felt that I had a good spring and I thought that I could play another year, and it just didn't happen. Expansion didn't take place until the following year. They picked up Mike Aldrete in Montreal. If Montreal hadn't put him on waivers, I had a shot at -- well, I would have been on that San Diego team. But it didn't work out so then I went home and didn't do much of anything that summer. I sold real estate for a while, coached high school baseball for three years, and then got a chance to go into the Rockies organization in '95. I was working in their minor-league system until last year.

RK: How did that opportunity with Colorado come about?

GG: Through Clint Hurdle. It was February and they were getting close to Spring Training. One of the guys that was going to be one of their coaches decided that he was going to hang it up. He wanted to spend more time with his family and they (the Rockies) were looking for somebody. Clint knew that I wanted to get back into baseball and he recommended to Dick Fowlerson, the minor-league director, about talking to me and that's how I got the job. From '95 through 2000, I was with the Rockies minor-league system. I was coaching and then, when Clint Hurdle got the major-league hitting job, I got the coordinating job for the hitters for the system during the last three years I was there.

RK: So how did you work you way back to Philadelphia as a bench coach?

GG: I interviewed to be part of a Larry's (Bowa) staff during the winter when he got the job. He asked if I would consider being his bench coach last year. Obviously, it was a chance to get back to the big leagues and it worked out well. I learned a lot watching him manage and now I have the opportunity to shift gears, and this year I'll be his hitting coach.

RK: How did it work out for Mike Schmidt to be your assistant?

GG: Well, no. He's just coming into Spring Training for about ten days. He's gonna come in February 24th and stay until about the 6th or 7th of March. But he's just going to be here for about 10 or 12 days.

RK: My mistake. I was under the impression his role was more permanent.

GG: I don't know if Mike would want to do that. I don't know if he'd want to be back and commit to that kind of time. He's enjoying his time -- he plays a lot of golf, he plays on the Celebrity Tour, and things like that. He has a lot of things going on. But even though he was a power hitter, he was always a good student of hitting and swings. I think it's going to be good to have someone who was that successful around these guys to sort of reinforce things what we're talking about. Mike was a guy who, after his first year or so, developed a pretty good stroke even though he was a home run hitter. He cut way down on his strikeouts and became very productive. It wasn't just home runs. And right now, all clubs strike out way too much where we just give away outs. I think having somebody who's hit over 500 home runs but, for the better half of his career, he struck out less than 100 times (a season). I think it would be good for these guys to have someone like that around -- impress them. Tug McGraw's coming down, he's doing the same thing with the pitchers for the first 10 or 12 days. I think it's just trying to bring some of the tradition of the Phillies from winning situations to talk about that. Mike retired in '89, so the guys that are here now were probably 10,12,13 years old when Mike was doing his thing. They will remember him. It's not like we're bringing back Dick Allen, or Johnny Callison or people like that -- guys that people would have to read about to know who they were. I think it's going to be a good thing. I don't see anything negative about it.

RK: You mentioned Tug McGraw and the pitching. It was kind of controversial when the Astros fired pitching coach Vern Ruhle, and the Phillies snapped him up pretty quickly. What are you thoughts on the job he's done in Philadelphia?

GG: I think just from a "work ethic" part of preparation, I think that's been Vern's strength that I've seen -- with what little that I know about pitching. He gets them out there, he works them hard. He wants them to develop a routine -- you know, you just don't show up and pitch. There's preparation days ahead, working up to the game and things like that. I think that, as the season went along, our starters especially started to see some real positive results from what they were doing. Obviously, there was some success there so that lends itself to people paying more attention to you. If they're not having success, then they're just going to be like everything else. They'll listen, but they'll be leery about trying anything. But I think he's built a pretty good rapport with pitchers. I think he's different than what they were used to, and we had good results. He puts in an awful lot of time. You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who works harder at trying to get players to be better or be as good as they can be. And he does it in a very low-key way. He tries to deal from the positive and I thought he did a good job.

RK: What do you think are the Phillies' chances this year?

GG: I think we're fine. We coming back with a lot of the same guys. Again, we're like everybody else -- we'll be as competitive as our pitching is. Jose Mesa had a tremendous year last year after two off-seasons. If he comes back and pitches close to that again then we're gonna be in pretty good shape. I think the starters... yeah, they're young and we're gonna go through some times where we struggle, but I think with the experience that a lot of them got in the pennant race last year is something to build on. We should be fine, and I just look for the offense to be a little better than it was last year. The talent's there, but I don't think anybody really had a consistent... we had some good numbers, but a lot of those numbers were either a really good first half or second half, and the other half wasn't so good. I think our most consistent hitter through the whole season was Marlon Anderson, our second baseman. There's some pretty good talent, so the guys should be more consistent. Guys like Rolen, Abreu, Travis Lee... guys with a few years experience now. Those kind of guys with those kind of tools should be a little more consistent than they were last year.

RK: Looking into the future, where would you like your baseball career to go from here?

GG: I think right now, I'm in a position where I'm doing what I really like doing, and that's working with hitters. I've coached and run clubs, but at this point in time I don't really have the aspirations to manage. I think that cycle of being a manager might have passed me by. Just for me to sit down and talk about hitting and talk to players and try to figure out each guy's strengths, what makes them tick, what they do when they go well and build up a rapport with them, and when things aren't going good to be able to help them a little bit and get them back on track... it's fun. It changes everyday, it might change from pitch to pitch, or at-bat to at-bat. It's always different; that's the neat part about it. The only thing that's the same is we play nine innings. Other than that, the pitchers are always different, the "stuff" of that pitcher is always different on that particular day, so there's a lot of things that go into it. It's fun trying to analyze that and work with guys to see if you can't help them be a little better or a little more consistent.

RK: At the end of the season, how will you look back and determine if you were successful?

GG: Well, I'm gonna look at run production -- how many runs we produced. Our situational hitting, like moving runners and scoring runners. I think, as a club, we struck out way too much last year. When you're striking out, you're putting absolutely no pressure on the defense. I know everybody's gonna strike out, but I think there's times when you striking out too much you're just giving away AB's and it doesn't help the club. I think our hitters are the type of hitters that shouldn't have those large numbers of strikeouts. We struck out over 100 times at every position, when you add it up. Marlon Anderson was the lowest at 74, but combined with guys who filled in and played second base too, we still struck out 100 times. And there's guys on this club that shouldn't be striking out too much, so that's one of the things that we'll talk about. The problem is when you're going in... this is gonna be their fourth hitting coach in four years. They've gone from Denis Menke to Hal McRae to Richie Hebner and now to me. There's not been a lot of stability, so hopefully maybe I can provide a little bit of stability and it's not just somebody else confusing them. I don't want to do that. They're the guys that make me, I don't make them.

RK: Mr. Gross, I really appreciate your time and your thoughtful answers!