Kelly Gruber had no idea where Toronto was or that the Blue Jays were a team until the moment he was added to the roster. We caught up with the former third baseman 25 years after he won the World Series to talk about that big moment, the injuries that cut his career short, growing back his mane of blonde hair, and more.
Sportsnet: When was the first time you heard about the Toronto Blue Jays?
Gruber: On a bus in Colombia, after they picked me in the Rule 5 draft.
What? You grew up in Austin, Tex., dreaming of playing pro baseball and you didn’t come across the Jays before that?
Actually, no. I played everything. I ran track, tennis, football, basketball — the whole ball of wax. Baseball was my least favourite because it was just boring.
Yeah, boring and slow. I had too much time on my hands out there and I’m an ADD, ADHD guy and all the H’s and D’s in between. There’s a lot of dead time [on the baseball field] and you can hear everything, you can look around. I had to learn to stay focused, and that was tough. I signed to play football and baseball at the University of Texas. Then Cleveland drafted me in the first round, 10th in the nation, so that decision was made for me. I never really watched sports on TV. I never had a hero on sports teams growing up. I never knew the records. I just cared about playing. I was unorthodox compared to a lot of these guys that made it their life. I was just trying to pay attention. [Laughs.]
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It must have been shocking to hear about the Blue Jays.
I had no idea where Toronto was at. I was picturing the big map — the globe in my head from school or whatever — thinking I should have paid more attention. [Laughs.]
How did you find out the Blue Jays picked you?
It was the last year Major League Baseball allowed players from here to play their winter ball in Colombia. I was there and ready to come home after about three months. It kind of wears on you; you miss all the good holidays. It was pretty lonely, but it was another stepping stone. I looked at the newspaper on a bus when I was there — we usually got two, three, four-day old issues of the Miami Herald — it said that Cleveland had taken me off the 40-man roster. The wheels started turning, I was only two years out of high school, I thought, “I’m going back to school, I’m playing football, piss on this baseball stuff.” [Laughs.] I was ready to roll. “I’m gonna go see my grandmother, see my family, my friends, girlfriend, and I’m gonna play some football at the University of Texas.” That’s what I wanted to do in the first place.
Then along came the Blue Jays.
Yeah, they scooped me up. I went up to the front of the bus where Jose Martinez was, he was the first-base coach for the Kansas City Royals. I showed him the article. He just brushed it off. I’m thinking, “There’s some more salt in the wound.” I was fit to be tied. I said “That’s it, I’m outta here. I’m gonna get my passport and I’m gone.” He said, “No. Congratulations.” I was like, “What? I’m gone. Congratulate that!” He said, “No, you remember the Blue Jays scouts that were here?” I said, “Yeah, they had their chance for me back in 1980 [at the MLB draft], so what?” Then he explained they got me as a Rule 5.
Yeah, it changed the whole mood. I went from being mad to anxious and thinking, “Holy cow, do I belong there, man?” I became scared. I finished out the season there in Colombia. What’s crazy is when we were in Colombia, Pablo Escobar was running hot. And we had to go from Bogota, any of those places inland, so we’d have to go across the mountain pass. It’s all dirt roads, you’re on a school bus that doesn’t have any AC. Two-and-a-half weeks after the season, Escobar closed the mountain pass down, one we would have to take going down to Cartagena, where we’d play a couple teams on the coast. He was taking hostages, shooting white people, Americans — missed it by two-and-a-half weeks. Now that’s crazy.
No kidding. Were you nervous about coming to Toronto?
A big city always makes me nervous. And not only that, but I’m going to the big leagues. But Toronto was great. The Blue Jays were born in ’77 and I was there in ’84, so they weren’t around long. The education level of baseball fans in Toronto was not very good. You could make a lot of errors and they didn’t get on you. [Laughs.] It was a lot easier, because in New York or California or any other place they would boo you, throw stuff at you, because they were educated baseball fans. It was easier for me with that in mind. You’d hear things from the stands like, “Okay boys, let’s go! Let’s get two outs!” And there was already two outs. [Laughs.]
Did you know you’d become the team’s everyday third baseman?
You have to learn to be a baseball player. Athleticism got me [to the majors], and it wasn’t until three or four years after playing in Toronto that I became a baseball player. It was rocky the first three or four seasons, because that’s the big leagues, man, they ain’t messin’ around up there. I had to learn how to formulate my game plan, looking for certain pitches, certain zones, envisioning plays happening out on the field before they happened, what to do with the ball if I bobble it on the right side versus down the line, things of that nature, and my mind wasn’t that way. There weren’t very many people that could outrun me, out-throw me, out-anything me, but that wasn’t gonna be good enough to keep me there. Thank goodness I had great coaches in Cito Gaston and Jimy Williams and Gene Tenace and Mike Squires — they’d been there, they’d done it. It took me a little while; I was never a brain child. I had to crank the mind, and they led the way. I’ll tell ya, it changed me from great athlete to, I think, a good baseball player.
Your best season statistically was 1990. Did you feel your best then?
Yes, and the main reason was that I was injury-free. That was one year for some reason that everything was clicking mentally, physically, and there were no injuries. Every other year I played there was always something that was hampering me or pushing me back, taking from my success.
You were hurt for most of that championship season.
In playoffs, I was 0-for-whatever, and I was done but didn’t know it. My career was blown out and I played the whole year and of course I didn’t wanna talk about it. I didn’t want the other team to know [about the injury] so they could pound me harder. I kept it quiet because I knew what kind of team we had. I knew that I wanted to be on that field when we won that title. If they kept putting me out there, I was gonna keep going no matter how I felt, and ultimately that’s what ran it into the ground. At 30 years old I was done with baseball, which, man, I was just getting started.
You had a great start to that season.
I remember it just like it was yesterday. I had like three home runs, 11 RBI — I was leading the league, just on fire, about three-and-a-half weeks in. I knew the team we had, I was gonna have one heck of a year. Then April 25th, I took a swing and I felt something pop. I stepped out of the batter’s box. Now the adrenaline is cookin’, it’s flowing big time, so I don’t feel anything. I get back in the box and I go to look at the pitcher and I can’t lift my chin off my chest. I remember the umpire and the catcher said, “Grubes, you alright?” I should have come out with no balls and one strike on me, but I couldn’t push myself to that point — to make somebody go out and take over my at-bat with already a strike against them. I got back in there and I squatted down, bent my legs almost like I was sitting down, and swung at the next two pitches, just waved the bat through the zone — strike three. I went and sat down, put my bat down, and that’s when we started dealing with it.
That couldn’t have been fun to play through all season.
I remember before games going out and taking BP and feeling tremendous pain. I remember going back to the clubhouse and laying on the training table, getting whatever I could get done to me to help. And I remember crying like a little baby. I was so frustrated, not being able to live up to my billing, live up to my expectations. It really hit me hard, wondering, “How am I gonna get up off this table to get on third base?”
Then in Game 3 of the World Series you tore your rotator cuff.
I blew up my whole left shoulder. By then I’d lost all my strength in my left side from my neck injury in April. That’s why I slid into home during that series and my face hit the ground and kinda knocked me out. My left shoulder couldn’t hold me up, so that’s why I kissed the ground. Then I dove for [Deion] Sanders to make the triple-play and tore the rotator cuff from the inside out. I stretched all the ligaments and tendons.
How did you hit that huge home run in the bottom of that inning?
Adrenaline. Hearing these stories about moms picking cars up off their babies and stuff by themselves — it’s adrenaline. I went to the bench after we made the third out. I was up, second or third batter that inning, the bottom of the eighth, we were down 2-1. I hit that home run to tie it up. And I’m gonna tell you what, I have no idea how I did that. When I went to the bat rack to pull my bat out, I reached out with my left arm and it separated from me and then it just collapsed — it would fall right back to my side. I thought, “Man, what is that?” Still, I didn’t feel any pain. [Steve] Avery threw me the pitch, I probably couldn’t hit any other pitch but the one he threw me, and I got enough on it to get it out and tie the game.
Three games later, you were World Series champions. What do you remember about that moment?
Wow, the world lifted off your shoulders. I didn’t play for the money, it was to win championships, and to have accomplished that — so many great players in this game played so much longer than I did and never, ever got a taste of that. That’s a blessing. The only bummer about it, there were two things: One, we were not at home. That would have made it extra special. And the first thing I thought of when we finally got back in the clubhouse and we started doing the interviews and the champagne, I thought about all the guys that I came up with — Ernie Whitt, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw — all these guys that weren’t there, that had such an integral part of building that team. They weren’t there to reap the benefits of it. I remember thinking that heavily.
Who were your closest friends on the team?
Mark Eichhorn was my best friend in baseball. A fantastic guy, always happy, always go-lucky, always ready to roll. And the respect I have for him — he was drafted as a shortstop and he went to the big leagues as a power pitcher. He blew his arm out, and how long did he wind up in the big leagues throwing that little Frisbee underneath, sidearm? Holy cow, that’s a chameleon, man! I’d hang out with [Todd] Stottlemyre, David Wells. I liked Boomer because Boomer was straight up — what you saw is what you got. If Boomer ever had a problem with anybody, you’re gonna hear about it face-to-face, the way it should be.
Why do you think you were such a popular player in Toronto?
I chalk it up to this: It’s not easy getting to the game, fighting all that traffic, paying those hefty prices for a ticket and for the concession, parking — it’s not cheap to come see us play. I had two guys tell me the same thing: Don Baylor, he played with Boston, and Rusty Staub, who played with the Mets. They said, “Kelly, if you’re so fortunate to play this game at the level that I play, just promise yourself that you’re gonna play every pitch like it’s your last, because one day it will be your last, and when you retire and you head to that front porch and you’re in that rocking chair rocking back-and-forth, you don’t wanna be in it going ‘Man, if I’d only done this, or I wish I’d done that.’” I just made it a vow, and I played every pitch like it was my last. I think that at the very least, the people who pay these kinds of prices to come watch you play, they respected me because I was the dirtiest one coming off the field. I gave it my all.
Did you enjoy the fame?
Give me the fortune all day long, but you can take the fame. [Laughs.] I always liked to roll under the radar.
There was a lot of talk about your hair.
I’m growin’ it back now. Whenever I go places, everybody’s like, “Man, you need the flow goin’.” This year it’s gonna be longer, probably more like when I was playing. But it’s a hassle, I’ll tell you, it gets in my eyes.
It’s worth it, though.
Right? Anything’s worth it for my fans.
You were traded after that ’92 season. Was it hard returning to Toronto after that?
I went 10 years, at least, without coming back to Toronto. I was a little upset with my injury and how things went down there. And then being traded after we won the World Series, I felt neglected, felt like I was dumped, and it just didn’t sit well with me.
You played only 18 more games with the Angels, and then your career was over, at 31.
It was somethin’ else, the whole experience of it all, blowing out early when I was just getting started. It was what I was created to do, and to have that lost is sobering. I didn’t know until I left Toronto that I was done. The California Angels called me up and said, “We want you to come out. We got your uniform, do some pictures, have a press conference.” I’m sitting at the table, I reach for my glass of water on the table and I lift up my left arm and I could just get it up to the height of the table and then, boom, it’d fall. It was pretty crazy, man.
That World Series win came at the perfect time.
That’s right. What a way to go, with a championship, with that ring. You need any consolation at all, there it is.
Can you believe it’s been 25 years?
I know, it’s unbelievable. What a memory.
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