Bobby Grich can now laugh about the time—Valentine's Day 1977, to be exact—he tried to get into the Guinness Book of World Records in the category "most yards covered by a Yugoslavian second baseman carrying a heavy air-conditioning unit." It wasn't so funny then; Grich injured his back after carrying it up a stairway, eventually underwent surgery to remove a herniated disk, missed most of the 1977 season and was not too effective last year.
Now Grich's back is back, which is one good reason why the California Angels were battling for first place in the American League West last week. In 1978 Grich had less flexibility than a corseted dowager, but now he can actually touch his toes without bending his knees, just as he could during the years he was winning four Gold Gloves. Formerly the pain was so great that at times he had to ask Manager Jim Fregosi to scratch him from the starting lineup. Now Grich is reveling in the best first half of his nine-year major league career. Angels owner Gene Autry, who in 1976 signed him as a free agent to a five-year, $1.5 million contract, is at last getting some return on his investment. True Grich, you might say.
At week's end Grich was batting .306 (nearly 50 points above his lifetime average) and he had 55 RBIs. Friday night at Anaheim Stadium, he and teammate Don Baylor, who had climbed up together rung by rung in the Baltimore system, punished their old team. Baylor socked two homers, his eighth and ninth in nine days. Grich hit his 18th home run, one shy of his alltime season best. In addition. Grich was fielding almost as well as he did in 1973, when he committed only five errors for the Orioles in 162 games.
"He makes the pivot, the double play and the backhander going toward second as well as anybody," says Fregosi.
That Grich is fielding well isn't surprising, but his hitting is astonishing. Grich has become a slugger, so much so that Seattle Manager Darrell Johnson recently demanded that the umpires check his bat for cork. There are several reasons for the improvement besides a healthy spine, but none involves cork.
Grich, who is 30, is naturally muscular (his father, Tony, had a 4-0 record as a professional boxer), and he increased his strength in the off-season by swinging a lead-weighted bat and hoisting weights—barbells and dumbbells, not air conditioners. He interrupted his workouts only when he took a trip to Yugoslavia, his father's family homeland. Bobby lifted weights all winter and has continued to do so.
"We have a Nautilus room in the stadium, and after a game I work on my legs," he says. "Then when I get home, I'll do some more. I have a bench press and dumbbells and a lead bat. Sometimes you've really got to push. If I'm really exhausted, like I have been the past two weeks, I can't lift. But if I have any strength left at all, I'll go in there and push it a little bit."
For all his added strength, Grich grips his 32-ounce bat lightly, emulating that master hitter Rod Carew, who joined the Angels this season.
"I studied Rod this spring in the batting cage and in our exhibition games," says Grich. "I thought, 'What has been the key to his success? It must be something besides the natural talent for putting the bat on the ball.' He would get into the box and be so relaxed. His hands are always moving and seem very loose. The bat is so loose in his hands, it kind of just floats there. He hits ground balls that get through the infield, whereas another player hits that same ground ball and it just doesn't quite have that speed behind it."
Grich is also aping Carew's wrist action, rolling the bat so that at contact his right, or top, hand is often over the bat rather than behind it. This tactic produces top spin, so that a bounding ball gets through the infield more quickly. Grich has a new stance, too. He stands deep in the batter's box and holds his hands near his right ear, which he feels has eliminated his old uppercut swing that produced far too many strikeouts and fly balls.
Most of the season Fregosi has had Grich batting eighth, which is a bit unusual for such a hot hitter. But many of the Angels are hitting—notably Carew (before he was sidelined with a jammed right thumb six weeks ago), Baylor, Third Baseman Carney Lansford, First Baseman Willie Aikens, Catcher Brian Downing and Outfielder Dan Ford. They are all above .280. Besides, Grich likes it down there in the order.
"If you bat eighth you get to watch the first seven hitters," he says. "You study the pitcher and when you get up there, sometimes in the third inning, you feel like you have an idea of what he's going to throw, his speed, his pattern. I feel much more comfortable in eighth than I do in leadoff."
So there you have them, all the ingredients: more muscle, altered swing, bat control, sturdy backbone, eighth in the batting order, Carew-like wrist action. Oh, and one other thing. Grich's grandmother, of the Scottish-Irish side of the family, gave him a good-luck canary at the start of the season. Grich is divorced and lives alone in the Belmont Shores section of Long Beach with the bird, whose cheeps aren't likely to scare off burglars. But what the heck, he has that lead-weighted bat and new muscles.
Going to the Angels after six years in Baltimore was a homecoming of sorts for Grich, who grew up in Long Beach (about 18 miles from Anaheim Stadium) and starred at shortstop for Wilson High, also the alma mater of Bob Lemon, Bob Bailey, Jim Pagliaroni and Jeff Burroughs. Major league scouts were drooling over him, but so were college football coaches.
Grich was an outstanding quarterback and signed a letter of intent to attend UCLA, but the Orioles made him their first draft pick (Baylor was their second that year) and signed him for a $40,000 bonus. Tommy Prothro, then the UCLA coach and now vice-president in charge of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns, still frowns at the memory.
"We thought he was the best high school quarterback prospect we saw that year and were tickled when he signed a grant-in-aid with us," says Prothro. "Grich was a good passer and an excellent athlete. He did come to UCLA in the off-season from baseball. There he was playing intramural football, when we could have used him on the varsity. I'm sure he would have been a starter."
Grich now earns just under $2,000 a game from Autry's Angels, so he doesn't have many regrets about passing up football. He has had a 20-game hitting streak this season and he will likely be the American League's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game next Tuesday. But best of all, his back doesn't hurt anymore and baseball is fun again.