Loyal readers of MetsToday know that I’m a catcher. Do you know why I’m a catcher? Because when I first became aware of baseball (thanks to WOR and WPIX), in the mid-1970s, my two favorite players were Thurman Munson and Jerry Grote — both catchers, both wore #15. Therefore, since there are 15 Days Until Pitchers And Catchers Report, we honor Jerry Grote.
Contemporary Mets fans most closely associate the number fifteen with Carlos Beltran, and that’s fine. To me, #15 on Beltran’s back is weird; it’s like seeing a single-digit number on a pitcher’s uniform, or #99 on a quarterback’s jersey. Because the number 15 (and 5, for that matter) is supposed to be a catcher’s number — but that’s my issue.
How did Jerry Grote grab my attention in my formative years? Because he was a bad ass (or a red ass, as some of his employers and teammates described him). His nasty character begins with his name — pronounced “grow-tee” — which sounds like the short name for grotesque, or gross. You didn’t need to meet him to know he was mean, you need only look at his baseball card — his grimace and threatening eyes burned through you. Grote was the catchers’ catcher, a throwback to another time. He caught with two hands, sans helmet, in a dirty uniform and with a menacing aggression.
John Strubel wrote a fitting, accurate profile of Grote earlier this winter; here is a snippet:
Grote’s desire to win led to unparalleled intensity on the field. During his 12-year career in New York, teammates labeled Grote surly, irascible, testy and moody. Then, there’s Koosman’s description: “If you looked up red-ass the dictionary, his picture would be in there. Jerry was the guy you wanted on your side, because he’d fight you tooth and nail ‘til death to win a ball game.”
Grote played with an anger and intensity that was, at times, intimidating to opponents, umpires, the media and teammates alike.
“When I came up I was scared to death of him,” said Jon Matlack, winner of the 1972 Rookie of the Year award. “If you bounced a curveball in the dirt, he’d get mad. I worried about him more than the hitter.”
Jerry Grote he had no fear, took crap from no one, and poured every last ounce of himself onto the field. Looking back at them now, his offensive numbers look underwhelming, but for the era his hitting was acceptable considering what he provided behind the plate. His first priority and main value was his ability to absolutely control the defense, call a ballgame, and properly handle a pitching staff — and his accurate, shotgun arm was lethal to would-be basestealers. In his heyday, he threw out 45-50% of basestealers and prevented many from taking off — important in the pitching-dominant NL in the late 1960s. Even into his early to mid-thirties, when his battered body was older than his age, he was able to gun down 30-35% of baserunners — which was still about average for the time.
How great was Grote behind the plate? Ask Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, both of whom included Grote in their Hall of Fame induction speeches. Intangibles may be immeasurable, but they can also be invaluable.
To this day, when I squat my creaking knees behind the dish, I channel my inner Grote — the ultimate bad ass.
Other #15s who you may remember include Claudell Washington, George Foster, Al Jackson, Rick Aguilera, Jose Vizcaino, Matt Franco, and Ron Darling (when he wasn’t wearing #12 or #44). Which #15 do you remember, and why? Post in the comments.
The countdown thus far:
#15 Jerry Grote
#16 Dwight Gooden
#17 Felix Millan
#18 Darryl Strawberry
#19 Anthony Young
#20 Howard Johnson
#21 Gary Rajsich
#22 Ray Knight
#23 Doug Flynn
#24 Kelvin Torve
#25 Willie Montanez (no link … sadly, didn’t have time to write a post)
#26 Dave Kingman
#27 Pete Harnisch
#28 John Milner
#29 Alex Trevino
#30 Jackson Todd