Looking back at...
Greg Gross

Greg Spinning En-Grossing Astro Rookie Tale

(c) Houston Astros

by Joe Heiling
from The Sporting News, August 10, 1974

HOUSTON, Tex. - So Goldsboro, Pa. is no thriving metropolis.

It's always big on the weekends in the summer when the folks from the big cities drive down to go boating on the Susquehanna River.

There's a barbershop, a general store. Once there was a gasoline station, but it became a business fatality long before people knew about an energy crisis.

"The general store has the pump now," said Greg Gross, a quiet, unassuming, blue-eyed type who just might become Goldsboro's largest claim to fame.

One hundred games into the 1974 season, the Astros' right fielder is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. It embarrasses him to hear this. But it's nevertheless true.

Rather than dwell on a batting average that stayed above .330 for the better part of three months, Gross instead fills in the missing blanks about life in the hamlet of Goldsboro.

"It's always been written," said the 21-year-old who took over Jim Wynn's position in the field after his trade to the Dodgers, "that I'm from Etters. But Goldsboro has in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 and the mailing address for the whole area is Etters, and I guess that's where the confusion comes from."

"We used to have three small stores, now there's only one. Still, it's a pretty busy place in the summer. When I was growing up, we used to have a lot of boaters on the weekend."

Naturally, baseball was the game. There were several large yards and plenty of room to bat the old ball around throughout the day with only a lunch break to interfere.

Greg's father once was enough of a prospect to sign a professional contract with the Cardinals. His pro career was brief, but his name was known around his home locale.

He's a steelworker now, being employed in Harrisburg, some 10 miles away. "So I'm not that far out in the sticks," said the eldest son. There's also Cindy, a softball player, and Scott, 13, and Brent 4.

Modestly scouted as a schoolboy, Greg was the 90th player taken in the 1970 free-agent draft. He went in the fourth round and signed with the Astros' Earl Rapp and Pat Gillick after being passed over by the Phillies.

"I worked out for the Phillies in Connie Mack Stadium - at a clinic - the summer before my senior year," said Gross, a 5-10, 160 pounder. "They had a scout who lived in York and he saw me play a lot, but I never heard from him."

"Really, I never heard from any team. I knew the Phillies and the Cleveland Indians were interested in me. I didn't have any idea anybody else was until Houston entered the picture."

Rapp observed Gross at an invitational clinic in York. That night, he telephoned the youngster and his parents, suggesting a trip to Baltimore for a tryout. He readily agreed.

Present for the workout were Rapp, Gillick and scouts Paul Florence and Walt Matthews.

"It wasn't at the stadium there, just a city park," said Greg. "They had me take flyballs, had me throw and one of them (Rapp) threw and I took batting practice."

This memory and that of the signing lifts the moods of Gillick, the Astros' director of scouting, whenever he gets low.

"At the time," recalled Gillick, "we thought his baseball tools were outstanding. All phases were fine. The only place we thought he might be short in was power."

The Astros didn't have a clear road ahead. Greg had a scholarship to Florida State University and the father was pushing for a college education.

"I was certain Greg was going there and wouldn't sign," said Gillick. "His dad was a pitcher and had signed with the Cardinals. He went to spring training and got released within a week. The father felt the same thing might happen to Greg. That's why he was so strong for Florida State."

Those fears were dispersed and Greg advanced through the minor league system, finally getting his chance with the varsity after a .334 season at Denver, where he was the third-ranked hitter in the American Association.

This past spring, he just wanted to stick at the major league level. Gillick always pumped hard for him, saying, "He hits the ball a lot like Richie Ashburn used to, but he doesn't have Ashburn's speed."

Ashburn, a two-time batting champion, was one of the Phillies' Whiz Kids of the early 1905s, andhe's now in the team's broadcasting booth.

What Gross did do was make contact with the ball, seldom striking out. He won a starting job and went 3-for-4 in the season opener at San Francisco and 4-for-5 in his next start, two days later. Greg was on his way.

Before long, his teammates were praising Greg and his "magic wand" - his bat - and the way he kept finding the holes for safe hits.

The nickname of Ty Williams was stuck on Gross by outfielder Bob Watson. Ty Williams?

"That's right," explained Watson. "The Ty is for Ty Cobb and the Williams is for Ted Williams. He's got more concentration than any rookie I've ever seen. He's got an eye at the plate like Joe Morgan. He's got a great realization of the strike zone. You're not going to fool him. That's how it is with Ty Williams."

Don't laugh, the man is serious. So is Gene Mauch, the Expos' manager still searching out ways and means of defensing the sharp-eyed rookie.

"One night," said Fred Scherman, the Astros' reliever, "the Expos tried to pitch Greg every way possible and he kept getting hits. The last time he got on base, Mauch went to the top of the dugout steps and saluted him."

Watson verified this information, adding:
"They haven't figured out how to get him out yet. Every time Greg goes to the plate, Mauch takes off his cap and places it over his heart. Then Greg gets a hit and Mauch flips his cap into the air as if to give him the ultimate salute. I think he's driving Mauch crazy."

The slender Astro has tampered with the mental faculties of many a pitcher, too. He didn't run into the inevitable slump all hitters do until just before the All-Star Game, going 0-for-15, dropping his average t .312 after 97 games.

Although disappointed, Gross did not get down on himself.

"When things are going good," he said realistically, "they can reverse themselves and go in the opposite direction. If it happens, it happens."

"I take things as they come. The only way you play this game is day by day. As you go along, you have good days and bad days, and you just hope the good outweighs the bad. I try not to get too high on the good days or too low on the bad ones. I try to stay somewhere in the middle."

The quick lefthanded-hitting outfielder adopts a similar approach to home runs, which are few and far between for him. He's a popgun artist, not a big bopper. If he tags on this season, it'll be his first in three years.

Not since August 14, 1971, in Columbus, Ga., has Greg felt the sheer delight of overwhelming a pitcher. He hit a pair of homers in each of his first two years in pro ball, and none since. Three of them were inside-the-park jobs.

"When you can't do it," he said, "why bother? The only time I go for home runs is in batting practice. I know the best way I can help the team is by getting a lot of hits, walking a lot and getting in a position to score a lot of runs. That and play defense in the outfield, making a catch or a throw that might help us win a ball game."

His manager, Preston Gomez, felt Gross deserved serious consideration for the All-Star team, and he applauded the young man's dedication to the game. "He's never satisfied," the Astro skipper said, "and even though he's having a great year, he feels he can do better. This is the great thing about the boy."

The report on Gross was that he was a better-than-average outfielder, and although his arm isn't a shotgun, he is quick and accurate with his throws.

Those who have tested him have found this information to be true. He leads all outfielders in assists with seven and twice has nailed the Cardinals' Lou Brock at home plate. Once he made a mad dash for the plate from second base on a hit to right and was cut down. The other occasion was on a fly ball, and Lou attempted to score from third base.

Not long after, Brock approached Astros' utilityman Dave Campbell, who was standing alongside catcher Milt May.

"They've been asking me for years who is the toughest to run against in this league," Brock said to Campbell, glancing sideways at May, who suddenly became interested in the conversation.

"And you know who it is? It's Greg Gross."