Several times during that miserable summer of 1968, Bobby Grich second-guessed his decision to pursue a professional baseball career rather than play quarterback at UCLA. And that was understandable, given his struggles. When you strike out 126 times in 113 games and commit 35 errors in the field, as Grich did with Stockton in the California League that season, you think about chucking your glove and your Louisville Sluggers into the Pacific Ocean. You think about finding another line of work.
“I was a skinny, 175-pound 19-year-old in his second year of pro ball, and I was overwhelmed and overmatched,” the Rochester Red Wing Hall-of-Famer said from his Southern California home Monday evening. “There were times, especially after those three-strikeout games when I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to make it in baseball.’”
Fortunately for Grich, his manager believed otherwise. On days following especially difficult outings, Joe Altobelli would call Grich into his office and give the Baltimore Orioles’ top draft pick pep talks. And following that season — at Altobelli’s strong urging — Grich received a surprise letter from the Orioles inviting him to their spring training big-league camp in 1969. It would mark a turning point in a marvelous baseball career that saw Grich club 224 home runs and make six American League All-Star teams in 17 major league seasons.
And it might not have happened had the man known as Alto not gone to bat for him.
“He really got me through that year,” said Grich, who will join former teammates Don Fazio, Jim Hutto and Bill Kirkpatrick for a celebration of the late Altobelli’s life at Friday’s Red Wings game at Frontier Field. “Had it been another manager, they easily could have given up on me after the horrible stats I put up.”
Given the way their relationship began the year before, with the Orioles’ rookie league team in Bluefield, W.Va., Grich never envisioned Alto would become his biggest booster. He managed Grich there, too, as he did in Rochester, and their first meeting remains indelible a half century later. Grich had signed his contract the night before and caught a red-eye from Los Angeles. Upon arriving groggily in Bluefield, he caught a cab to a rickety ballpark in the middle of nowhere.
“I walk into the clubhouse, and there’s this guy with the thickest five o’clock shadow I ever saw puffing on an unfiltered Camel,” Grich recalled, chuckling. “It was Alto, and, man, was he ever gruff and intimidating. He didn’t even bother shaking my hand. Between the puffs of smoke he was blowing in my face, he asked if I was ready to play some hard baseball. I said I was, and after I put on my uniform, he took me out in the 90-degree heat and hit me grounder after grounder until I was bathed in sweat. That was my introduction to Alto and professional baseball.”
And the start of a life-long friendship.
Alto quickly realized that the top draft pick wasn’t a prima donna, wasn’t afraid to take hundreds of extra grounders and swings in the batting cage, even on those steamy days when thermometers hit triple digits.
“I owe him so much,” Grich said. “He played a big role in my development, and in the development of many other players who came up in the Orioles farm system. Joe demanded a lot, and I think I earned his respect quickly because I had a really good work ethic.”
Grich’s fondest Alto moments occurred during that magical 1971 season when the Wings fielded one of the finest and zaniest teams in minor-league baseball history. That was the season when Grich came into his own; when he realized he had made the right career choice. He led the International League with 32 homers and a .336 batting average, and also scored 124 runs and drove in 83 more. During the post-season, he smashed five more home runs as the Wings won the Governors’ Cup and the Junior World Series by defeating the Denver Bears.
“We had a heck of a team,” he recalled. “We had guys, like Donnie Baylor, who would go on to star in the majors, but we also had great role players who really stepped up. People like pitcher Freddie Beene. Guy was about 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, but he had the heart of a giant.”
Grich had batted .383 for the Wings for a half-season in 1970 before being promoted to Baltimore, where he was used sparingly. When camp broke the following spring, he was given the option of riding the bench again with the big club or playing every day in Rochester. He opted to summer in the Flower City, and never regretted it.
“Absolutely loved playing there,” he said. “I love old ballparks, so I really enjoyed playing in Silver Stadium. The fans were right on top of the action, and I enjoyed that. You couldn’t beat the people there. So knowledgeable and passionate about the game. And they were so real, no airs about them. Salt of the earth.”
An injury to shortstop Mark Belanger prompted Baltimore to call up Grich right before the sixth game of the 1971 Junior World Series. When Alto broke the news, his star shortstop balked at leaving.
“We were up three games to two, and I knew we were something like 0-10 in the games I had missed that season while serving in the Marine reserves,” he said. “So, I begged Alto to let me stay one more day, so we could clinch the series. He just smiled and said, ‘Bobby, appreciate that, but you need to go.’”
And so Grich went, and two days later he was playing in the Bronx when he saw the Yankee Stadium scoreboard announcement that the Wings had beaten the Bears in Game Seven. Grich smiled. Rochester had finally won a game without him, and he couldn’t have been happier.
This Friday, the 72-year-old will be back, celebrating that moment in a city where he enjoyed some of the greatest summers of his life. It will be a bittersweet reunion because the man central to Grich’s early baseball development won’t be there.
“I’ve been back to Rochester a lot, but I think this will be the first time I’ve been back when Alto hasn’t been there,” he said. “But he’s definitely going to be there in spirit; on the minds of all of us.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.