CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Texas twang on the other side of the phone line was unmistakingly Jerry Grote’s, even if the former Mets catcher himself has barely been heard from in more than 30 years.
I did not ask him what he’s been doing all these years or why it’s been so hard for anyone from his “former life” to get a hold of him because, as he said, “I’m here now, what do you want to know?” And there was a lot I wanted to know in regard to his memories from the Mets’ miracle 1969 season, of which he was so big a part, and his thoughts about Tom Seaver, who once called him the best catcher he’d ever had, including Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk.
“I heard the news about Tom,” Grote said from his home in Belton, Texas, of the statement from the Seaver family revealing the Mets’ “Franchise” pitcher was suffering from dementia. “I kinda knew it was coming. We’d all heard he was struggling. It’s still hard to believe. I don’t know if I ever knew a smarter player. I’d already had two years in the big leagues when Tom came up in 1967, and I felt I had established myself as a pretty good catcher. With Houston in ’64, Bob Bruce had the best season of his career (15-9, 2.76 ERA) and he gave me a lot of the credit for that.
“But Tom was something else. Even though he was a rookie, he was so far ahead of the hitters (mentally) it was unbelievable. It took me a long while to catch up with him. I’d put down the signs, knowing he was gonna shake me off and we’d just laugh.”
Jerry Grote opens up about the ’69 Mets for the first time in an interview with the News’ Bill Madden.
Jerry Grote opens up about the ’69 Mets for the first time in an interview with the News’ Bill Madden. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
During the course of the 1969 season, Grote caught all of Seaver’s significant games – the 5-0 shutout over Atlanta and Phil Niekro on May 21 that brought the Mets to .500 (18-18) the latest in their history; the 5-2 win over the Dodgers on June 3 that put them over .500 for the first time in their history; the 14 strikeout game on June 8 versus the Padres and seven of the eight complete games with which Seaver finished the season.
“There was a lot of celebrating when we went over .500 for the first time,” Grote said, “but Tom was not one who thought that way. He thought when you win, you win. You don’t celebrate (going over .500). Still, I have a picture somewhere here in my house of Tom and me at dinner talking about going over .500 and he’s got this big cigar in his mouth. That was about as far as it went. We were on to the next game.”
The game Seaver never forgot, of course, was his 4-0 shutout of the Cubs on June 9 in which he came within one out of a perfect game when light-hitting backup outfielder Jimmy Qualls singled to center.
Jerry Grote (r.) celebrates with Nolan Ryan after the Mets won the NL pennant over the Braves at Shea Stadium on October 6, 1969.
Jerry Grote (r.) celebrates with Nolan Ryan after the Mets won the NL pennant over the Braves at Shea Stadium on October 6, 1969. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
“The first two times up Qualls had hit the ball hard – a fly ball to right and a hard hit grounder to first,” Grote recalled. “So before we went out for the ninth, I said to Tom: ‘You want to stay low and away with Qualls?’ because that’s the we’d gone over him before the game and hadn’t been able do that in his first two times up. But once again, Tom just got the ball up, about waist high, and Jimmy just served it up to left-center.
“Tom was disappointed, but he didn’t show any real emotion after because it didn’t matter to him as long as he got the win.”
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If there was one word to describe the ’69 Mets it was ‘unsung’. Other than Seaver and Jerry Koosman, there were no stars on the team, just a bunch of over-achieving blue collar players who didn’t know what pennant race pressure was. Grote may have been the most unsung of them all. His six homers and 40 RBI were career highs, but defensively he had a .991 fielding percentage while his 56.3 caught stealing percentage was second among National League catchers. And in the World Series, with Grote calling all the pitches, the Mets pitchers held the heavily-favored Orioles to a collective .146 batting average.
Jerry Grote (Jared Wickerham / Getty Images)
“One thing about that 1969 season a lot of people overlooked was that we had three guys on our club, Rod Gaspar, Bobby Pfeil and Jack DiLauro that didn’t have five years in the big leagues but the Cubs had three guys on their team – Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo that probably had over 50 years and never got to a World Series,” Grote said. “But our three guys all got rings and they earned them. Bobby Pfeil, our utility man, came in to pinch hit one night in Montreal (July 20) with two out and a runner on third in the 10th inning, and with two strikes on him he drops down a bunt to bring home the winning run. Bobby did it on his own. (Mets manager) Gil (Hodges) didn’t call it. That was just the way we kept winning games.
“And Gaspar made one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen to help win a game against the Giants in San Francisco (August 30). The score was tied 2-2 in the ninth and (Bob) Burda, not a particularly fast runner, singled for them with one out. Willie McCovey, next up, hit a rocket off the left field wall which Gaspar played off the carom and then made a perfect throw – on the fly! – to me at the plate and Burda was out.
“I was so flustered because I couldn’t believe he got the ball to me so easily, I tossed it back to the mound. Just as I released it, I said: ‘Oh crap! There’s only two outs! I took off after the ball but (Donn) Clendenon raced in from first, grabbed the ball and threw McCovey out at third base. It was one of the darndest double plays you’ll ever see. But that was the way our season went.”
“It was one of the darndest double plays you’ll ever see. But that was the way our season went.”
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The longer we talked, the more worked up I could see Grote was getting, reminiscing about that miracle season 50 years ago. I got the feeling he welcomed being “found” even though he was never the most media-friendly ballplayer. And before we hung up, there was one more thing he wanted to say about the Mets today. All spring, his friends back in Texas have apparently been ragging him about the Mets giving his old number 15 to Tim Tebow – a football player!
“For days, I just let them go on and said nothing,” Grote said. “But then I let them know how I really feel. I’ve followed Tebow’s career. I know what a good Christian he is and I couldn’t be more tickled that he’s wearing my old uniform. I just hope he’ll wear it in the big leagues sometime this season.”