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Remembering the Life of Jerry Grote

In the classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that yes, he might be able to beat some guy in a gunfight, but maybe not since every year we get older, and our skills diminish. It’s a law, says Butch. It is a law of nature. I see it in the now white face of my aging dog. I feel it in my bones on cold mornings. And I see it in the performance of aging ballplayers. Funny thing about professional athletics. An athlete in their mid-30’s is considered ancient, an old man or woman. Over the hill. Nothing left in the tank. In real life, a person in their mid-30’s is still a just kid, one just entering the prime of their career and life. Such is the distorted and cruel nature of professional athletics.

The Royals, as do most small market, financially challenged teams, often fill holes in their roster with aging veterans. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, per se, if your expectations are in check. Aging vets rarely get better, unless they are chemically assisted. It’s a law.

Recently the Royals have signed or traded for several vets, such as Michael Wacha, Hunter Renfroe, Chris Stratton and Will Smith. I generally like these signings and believe that these players will make the Royals marginally better in 2024, but the reality remains that this group of vets is between ages 32-34 and will be entering their ninth (Renfroe and Stratton) and twelfth seasons (Wacha and Smith) respectively. Whether we (or they) like it or not, these guys are in the final stages of their careers. It’s a law.

In their early days the Royals kicked the tires on aging vets like Cookie Rojas, Vada Pinson and Harmon Killebrew. Rojas worked out great, coming to the Royals in his age-31 season. He enjoyed a late career revival and made four all-star teams as a Royal. Pinson came to the Royals in his age-35 season and had a couple of replacement level years playing rightfield for the Royals. Killebrew came to the Royals at age 39, in what was his 22nd year in the league. Unfortunately, had nothing left in the tank.

In the summer of 1974, beset by injuries, the team signed future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to be their designated hitter. Cepeda, a once prolific hitter with notoriously bad knees, was already 36. He briefly turned back the clock, recording 12 RBIs in his first six games while hitting a robust .333. I was only 13 that summer and didn’t quite understand the law of aging yet (what 13-year-old does?), and Cepeda’s hot streak had me jacked. Father time made an appearance shortly after and Cepeda ended the last 33 games of his career by hitting .215. He stroked the last of his 379 career home runs in his tenth game with the Royals, then it was pretty much all downhill, as he went into an 8-for-52 skid. In a nice touch, he stroked a two-out, ninth inning RBI single off Rollie Fingers to send the game into extra innings in his final career at-bat, in a game eventually won by the Royals. A very nice way to end a fantastic career.

One of the more unusual career endings with the Royals was that of former all-star catcher Jerry Grote.

Grote was born and raised in San Antonio. At the age of ten, he survived an F-4 tornado, which killed his grandmother. He excelled as a catcher, pitcher and third baseman at Douglas McArthur High School, then played one season at Trinity University. In June of 1962, the Houston Colt 45’s signed Grote as a free agent. He didn’t spend much time in the minors, 121 games to be exact, before he made his major league debut for the Colt 45’s in 1963 at the age of 20.

Grote was traded to the Mets prior to the 1966 season and spent the next 12 years, 1,235 games, playing for New York. He was a two-time all-star and a World Series champ in that span. He was the primary catcher on the 1969 Miricle Mets, handling a pitching staff that included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw.

His best year came in 1975, at the age of 32, when he hit .295. Never much of a power hitter, Grote only stroked 39 home runs in 4,339 career at-bats. He was however very solid with the glove, recording a .991 career fielding percentage behind the dish. In 1970, he set a major league record with 20 putouts in a game being the catcher of Tom Seaver’s 19 strikeout game against the Padres.

He also had a strong arm which made life difficult for potential base stealers. Lou Brock, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, said that Grote was the toughest catcher for him to steal on. Johnny Bench, generally recognized as one of the top catchers ever, paid Grote the ultimate compliment when he said, “if Jerry and I had played on the same team, I’d have been a third baseman”. Grote made just 78 errors in 1,348 career games behind the plate.

The Mets traded Grote to the Dodgers late in the 1977 season, and after one more year in LA, he retired at the age of 35.

Just before the 1981 season kicked off, the Royals were in dire need of catching depth. They reached out to Grote, out of baseball for two seasons, and signed him to a free agent contract. Considering he hadn’t seen a live pitch in two years, Grote acquitted himself quite well. He appeared in 22 games and hit a very respectable .304. His last day in the sun was one to remember.

In a June 3 game against the Mariners at Kauffman Stadium, Grote went 3-for-4 with a then club record seven RBIs, which was also a single game career high for Grote. That game was the middle game of a five-game revival that saw Grote slap ten hits in fifteen at bats. Much like Orlando Cepeda before him, Grote had people thinking he’d found the fountain of youth. Royal fans very briefly thought they’d found their catcher of the future.

The night before his big game, Grote had also gone 3-for-4, with a double. He got the start again the next evening, and batting ninth, grounded out in his first at-bat. He got his second at-bat in the fourth inning and stroked a two-run double. The floodgates opened in the bottom of the fifth, when Grote cranked a grand slam home run off the Mariners Ken Clay, to give the Royals an 11-to-5 lead. Remember those 39 career home runs? Yeah, this was #39. What a way to get your last one. In the bottom of the sixth, Grote stroked an RBI single to keep the Royals in front, 12-to-8. They held on to win by a score of 12-to-9, with Grote just a triple shy of hitting for the cycle. His seven RBIs stood as a club record until broken by Mike Moustakas’ monster nine RBI game in 2015.

Grote collected his last career hit on June 11, with a single off Dave Stieb in a game at Exhibition Stadium. Not a bad way to end things, as in those days Stieb was one of the best.

The Royals released Grote in early September. He caught on with the Dodgers and appeared in two more games, without a hit, before retiring once and for all.

Every dog has one last day in the sun, right? For Jerry Grote, the sun was shining on him on June 3, 1981.

Jerry Grote passed away on April 7, 2024, from respiratory failure after a heart procedure. From Royal Review, we pass our sincerest condolences to Cheryl Grote and the Grote family on the loss of Jerry.