I am not ashamed to admit it. Kelly Gruber is my favourite position player for the Toronto Blue Jays of all time. According to my baseball card, Gruber was “hard nosed and a fine athlete.” Kelly was a 5 tool player who played 6 positions. The following is my profile on the Greatest Blue Jay Of All Time (and I don’t mean Scott Rolen!)
Kelly hails from Austin, Texas and comes from good lineage – his father is Claude King who was a running back with the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and Houston Oilers in the mid 60’s and finished off his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL. Kelly’s Mom is a former Miss Texas which is where he most likely got his pretty good looks from as you can see from the photo of his hot mama below. She married David Gruber shortly thereafter and David adopted Kelly.
The Jays originally scouted him as a SS out of (Westlake) High School in Austin. Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia said this:
“Gruber just stood out. You knew you were dealing with a tremendous athlete. The way he fielded. Nice soft hands. The arm. The way he hit. His stroke. It was all there and he was just a kid. First swing he took. I made a mental note to come and see him next year.”
LaMacchia kept his word and conducted a workout for Gruber the following season, accompanied by scouts John McLaren and Bob Zuk. They were not impressed from the get-go as Gruber had difficulty swinging the bat. Later, LaMacchia noticed the knuckles on Gruber’s hand were raw and swollen. The conversation went like this:
LaMacchia: What happened?
Gruber, sheepishly: A little disagreement at school. Had to straighten things out
Gruber: I pulled a dollar from my pocket at the corner store near school and some change fell out. A guy from a construction gang was there and he put his foot over a quarter. ‘My two bits,’ I told him. He asks me if it’s got my name on it. I ask him if it’s got his on it. Then I told him I’d give him 3 to change his mind. The guy goes, ‘1,2,3.’ That’s when I popped him.
“I didn’t need to see any more,” said LaMacchia. “We knew this was the type of guy we really liked.”
However, come draft day, the Jays passed up Gruber for Garry Harris, who was out of baseball 3 years later. Cleveland scooped Kelly up tenth overall and that summer he played in the New York-Penn for Batavia. (Incidentally, future Jays manager John Gibbons was taken 14 picks later by the Mets).
Things didn’t start off so well for Gruber. He hit only .217 with 21 errors in 61 games at SS. He was raw. Batavia coach Luis Isaac thought Gruber was too quick to be a shortstop and thought it would be prudent to move Gruber to 3B.
“As a third baseman you have to be quick – make a step, take a dive, catch the ball, come up throwing. But at shortstop you have a little more time to get to the ball. The errors he was making, they were because he was too quick to the ball. Not fluid. In my reports to the big club I wrote that he was more suited to be at third”
The next summer Gruber ended up in the Class A Midwest League, playing for the Waterloo Diamonds. Gruber hit .290 and 43 of his 133 hits were for extra bases. He still led the league in errors for SS but also had more put-outs and assists than any other at the position. Things were looking rosy for Gruber as he headed to AA Chattanooga but things were about to get rocky. Gruber struggled with fielding errors again and an unpredictable arm. He had a dismal .918 fielding percentage. What’s worse is he committed one of baseball’s cardinal sins: he took his problems in the field with him to the plate. His average plunged to .243 with 13 HR and 54 RBI.
In Gruber’s 4th season of professional ball, he was moved to third base after 5 games. This time he was at AAA Buffalo and played for a manager who treated him like he was “something the dog dragged home”. Bisons Manager Al Gallagher advised the Indians that Gruber had bottomed out as a prospect after he hit .263 with 15HR and 54 RBI. Gruber was at a crossroads after scuffling in the minors for 4 seasons. He began to doubt whether he would ever make it to the Show at all. As luck would have it, Gallagher’s scathing report on Gruber’s potential was responsible for the Indians brass leaving him exposed in the Rule 5.
Following Kelly’s selection by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft, a nervous Gruber arrived at Spring Training in Dunedin afraid he would be viewed as an intruder on his new team. He was relieved and surprised to find that platoon partners Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg tried hard to make Gruber feel a part of his new team. Mulliniks and Iorg went out of their way to introduce Gruber to people, to take extra grounders, provide advice, show him different techniques – things he would be using to beat them out of a job one day.
Of course, Gruber made the team out of Spring Training since the Jays did not want to return him to Cleveland. (One of the stipulations in the Rule 5 draft is that the claimed player must be put on the claimant’s 25 man roster for the entire major league season or be returned to the original team).
Kelly made his major league debut April 20, 1984 before 37, 231 fans at Exhibition Stadium. Little did the Jays know that at the end of the spring Gruber tried to impress Jays management by swiping a bag and dislocated his index finger on a headfirst slide. He was able to yank the finger back into its socket but could not make a throw or swing the bat without considerable pain. Not long after Gruber’s debut, he was sent down to Syracuse thanks to a deal worked out with Cleveland that sent catcher Geno Petralli to the Indians in exchange for the permission to demote Gruber.
At Syracuse, Gruber heated up after his index finger healed. Thanks to the lessons learned by Jimy Williams & Cito Gaston at the major league level, Kelly went on to hit .269 with 21 HR and 55 RBI in only 97 games. He led the international league with a .500 slugging percentage.
Former teammate Mitch Webster had this to say about Kelly’s time at Syracuse:
Every once in a while he’d jolt one 420 feet. Then he’d go 15 feet in the hole behind third, field a ball and toss the runner out by 10 feet. He surprised a few people, me included. Far as being a white guy, he was super-quick laterally. Powerful too. Shoot, he hit 21 HR one year in no time at all. You knew he was going to be some kind of player.
Thanks to the strong finish, Gruber was a late September call up during the Jays’ road trip to Fenway. In Gruber’s first appearance, pinch hitting against Red Sox reliever Al Nipper, he collected his first major league hit in style. Nipper hung a slider and Gruber deposited it into the netting over the Green Monster for a HR. September 25, 1984.
Gruber bounced between Syracuse and a utility role from the next couple of seasons until Garth Iorg was released after hitting a dismal .210 in 1987. This opened the door for more playing time for Gruber and intensified the mentor-mentee relationship he had with Rance Mulliniks. Kelly turned the proverbial corner in 1988, hitting .278 with 16 HR and 81 RBI. On April 16th, 1989, Kelly Gruber was the first Blue Jay in history to hit for the cycle when he went 4 for 6 with 6 RBI and 4 runs scored. He also played in 158 of the club’s 162 games and played 6 positions: 3B, SS, 2B, CF, LF & DH. He had finally arrived. Gruber was nicknamed “Xanthos” by the media for his blonde hair and the ladies loved his luscious locks. He was voted Toronto’s most eligible bachelor by his legions of mostly female fans.
Kelly really peaked in the 1990 season. He led all third basemen with 31 HR, 118 RBI and had 14 steals to cap it off. He was second in the AL in total bases with 303 and extra base hits with 73. He was 4th in voting for the MVP award, was voted an All Star and won both the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove award based on his play at third base. He also won the 19th annual Super Stars Competition in Cancun, Mexico and was the first ever baseball player to do so. Because of this season, the Jays brass invested in a 3-year $11 million contract for Gruber.
Injuries then began to hamper Kelly beginning with the 1991 season. Gruber tore a ligament in his hand thanks to his ’all out’ style of play. He was only able to appear in 113 games and his power and average took a dip as well. In 1992 knee and ankle injuries plagued Kelly and his numbers took another nosedive. He only hit .229 in 120 games. During this time he was also beginning to experience neck pain which would later turn out to be a bone spur growing into his spinal cord.
The swing that changed everything for Kelly Gruber came late in April of 1992 in a game against Kansas City in the SkyDome. Ironically, the Jays’ best season would become Kelly Gruber’s worst. He was hitting .300 when he took that fateful swing, felt something pop in his neck and began his slow, painful decline.
“I had a bone spur embedded in my spinal cord. If the positioning was just right and I took the right jolt, that would sever my cord.”
After that pivotal swing in April 1992, he says, he kept playing but he knew something was terribly wrong.
“I remember when we played in Texas in ’92, my brother-in-law would cradle my head and neck as I got out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, I’d hold onto my head and put my it on top of my shoulders and sit there ’til I got some stability. It was that bad.
“And all I could get out of the team was that it was a muscle cramp. I kept telling them, ‘Look, I’m from Texas, I played football — broken ribs, broken thumbs — don’t tell me I can’t play this sport with a muscle cramp when I played football with broken ribs. Don’t tell me. I know that this is not a muscle spasm.’ And they left me that way ’til August.”
In early August, when the team went into Boston, Gruber says he told his agent: ” ‘Look, I’m blacking out. I push my batting helmet down and I see stars. My balance is all off. I look down and the ground starts spinning. And I’m out there trying to play.’ “
His agent sent him to a specialist for an MRI. It showed “disc abnormalities,” Gruber says. “My motor skills were starting to become affected because the bone spur that was growing into my spinal cord would actually pinch and crimp my cord every time I bent a certain way. And that bruise on the spinal cord was like a gel.”
However, 1992 was the Blue Jays’ first appearance in the World Series and Gruber rose to the occasion.
The 1992 World Series was a memorable one for Kelly Gruber for a few reasons. Gruber caught the final out in Game 2 to give the Jays a dramatic 5-4 victory and Gruber gave the Braves’ fans their own tomahawk chop after catching the ball. But Game 3 was perhaps the most memorable of all.
Gruber was involved in one of the most spectacular and controversial plays in history. The Blue Jays had appeared to have made only the second triple play in World Series history, when Gruber — a third baseman — appeared to tag Deion Sanders near second base.
The situation was as follows: the Braves’ David Justice at the plate, Sanders at second and Terry Pendleton at first base.
“Devon White (Blue Jay centrefielder) went back and made a catch that made Willie Mays’ catch look like child’s play,” Gruber said.
Meanwhile, Terry Pendleton, who was on first, took off thinking the ball was going to drop. He accidentally passed Sanders, who was trying to return to second.
“That is out No. 2, but that is never called,” Gruber explained. “Meanwhile, the ball comes in to (Roberto) Alomar who throws to (John) Olerud to get Pendleton for out No. 2 — so he is out twice in the inning. The ball comes across the diamond to me (at third base) and I chased Sanders down. I tagged him on the ankle for out No. 4.”
The umpire called Sanders safe. To which Gruber replied: “Are you crazy?”
Then something weird happened — the umpire was a nice guy.
“He told me ‘Kelly, you might have, but I saw daylight,’” Gruber said. “I was dumfounded. I was used to the American League umpires, who were quite confrontational.”
Little did Jays fans know that on the play, Gruber mangled his shoulder and tore his rotator cuff. He couldn’t lift his arm more than 6 inches off his side after the play. That didn’t stop him from hitting the game-tying home run in the eighth inning — after having the longest post-season hitting drought at zero for 28. The Jays went on to win Game 3, 3-2 and the World Series.
In 1993 Gruber’s bone spur became worse and affected his play a great deal. Kelly was traded for Luis Sojo and immediately he landed on the 60-day Disabled List. Later, upon discovering Gruber’s neck and shoulder problems, the Angels would protest that Toronto had sold them damaged goods. League president Bobby Brown investigated and rejected the complaint.
In 1995, Gruber recalls, “the doctors said, ‘If this continues, it could gel up permanently and it could affect every motor skill you have for the rest of your life.’
“The next day I was under the knife.”
Before the operation, the surgeon gave him no guarantees. “It was very risky,” Gruber says. “You make a mistake with the spine, and you’re done, man.”
During five hours of surgery in Los Angeles, Dr. Robert Watkins made no mistake as he fused a piece of bone from Gruber’s hip into his neck. It worked. Not only did Gruber have his life back; he also felt vindicated. Finally there was proof that he hadn’t been making it all up.
-excerpt from John Lott’s “Still Scarred, Gruber Tries to Rise again” July 15, 1997.
Although Gruber played briefly with the Angels in 1993, his neck problems sent him into retirement. He did not expect to play again. But each year, he says, major league clubs — including the Blue Jays — would call to inquire about a comeback. After the ’95 neck surgery that repaired his neck, he was simply relieved that he could look forward to “an active life after baseball.” But as he started to feel better, and the calls kept coming, the old urge returned. Finally, in December of 1996, he signed a minor-league contract with his old general manager, Pat Gillick, who at the time was in Baltimore.
The Orioles envisioned Kelly as their 2B, which is the position he played in spring (I wish I had some footage of Gruber turning two with Cal Ripken, it would have been magic!). He hit .238 in the spring, going 10 for 26 after a 0-for-16 beginning. He was the Orioles’ last cut in spring training. They said he needed 100 at-bats in Triple-A ball. After reaching the magic 100 number, Gruber was hitting .290. But Baltimore, a legitimate playoff contender, didn’t have a roster spot for him. Maybe, he thought hopefully, he’d be traded to team that did.
Then the old injury jinx struck again: a strained hip flexor and a strained right shoulder. When he went on the DL May 29, he was hitting .250 in 144 at-bats. Soon thereafter, he was sent to Baltimore’s minor-league complex in Florida for rehabilitation. There was no timetable for his return. A hip flexor injury is fairly common among athletes but is often difficult to heal; recovery can take six to 12 weeks.
Gruber’s rehab in Florida did not go well. Late in June, he went home to Texas to rest his injured hip flexor. “It’s just not healing the way we hoped,” Rochester manager Marv Foley said. On July 12, the Baltimore Orioles gave Gruber his unconditional release.
-excerpt from John Lott’s “Still Scarred, Gruber Tries to Rise again” July 15, 1997.
Since his retirement, Gruber has stayed involved with the game of baseball and kept in touch with the Blue Jays. Currently, Kelly is a coach on his son Kody’s senior baseball team, the Austin Black Wings. Last season he helped coach them to a National Championship. Kelly also stays in touch with the Jays by appearing at various “Flashback Fridays” promotions and participating in Jays Care Foundation events.
Below you will find some highlights of Kelly’s playing career. They include his homerun in the fog, hitting for the cycle, his 2-stolen-base performance at the all star game, highlights from his peak seaons & the standing ovation he received after breaking the 100 RBI plateau. All narrated by Tom Cheek. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
(My favourite part is at 1:06 when Gruber makes a diving grab and fires a bullet across the diamond to Fred McGriff to nail the speedy Rickey Henderson)
The slamming of Gruber’s face into the ground during the slide above could not have done much to help the bone spur growing into his neck, as you can see from the grimace on his face.
Photos from Kelly’s autobiography “At Home On Third,” baseball cards and Daylife media aggregator. Quotes from Kelly’s book and John Lott’s “Still Scarred, Gruber Tries to Rise again” July 15, 1997.