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You can learn a lot about a baseball team from its locker room. The clubhouse is where relationships form, character is revealed and leaders speak out (or not). For the major league rookie, clubhouse real estate is valuable — sometimes priceless. Imagine being the rookie who spent eight months out of the year next to Sandy Koufax? Roberto Clemente? Lou Gehrig? Tom Seaver? These were model athletes, wise and humble men, who used their talent to teach.
Danny Frisella and Tug McGraw were in heated competition for fame and fortune from the outset of the 1972 season. The late Gil Hodges remembers both pitchers begging for their manager to pick them when he signaled to the bullpen. If Frisella was selected, and won the game, McGraw would give Frisella the “cold shoulder.” If McGraw got the nod (and won) Frisella would mimic the gesture.
There is no evidence whether or not the Mets clubhouse manager made an intentional effort to put Frisella and McGraw side-by-side in the locker room, but their adjoining lockers created more fun and competition. The two Mets pitchers would sometimes switch the locker nameplates to appear that the other won the game.
While Frisella and McGraw jockeyed for their manager’s affection, that same season a rookie named Jon Matlack was granted locker space between Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Matlack was named 1972 Rookie of the Year, winning 15 of his 32 starts. He compiled 244 innings pitched, eight complete games and a skinny 2.32 ERA. Coincidence? Possibly. Seaver will tell you, for certain, it meant nothing then and means nothing now.
“Where you lockered really wasn’t that important,” Seaver told the New York Times in 2008. “It didn’t make any difference. Just your own little space; it could have been anywhere.”
For Seaver, locker space was irrelevant. It was a place – and space – where he took out his frustrations after a poor start. “When I make a mistake and beat myself with a bad pitch, then I get kicking mad and go after stools and water buckets,” Seaver told People Magazine.
Other times, Seaver used his locker as a prop. After getting off to a slow start in 1974, a Mets beat writer asked him if he had lost his fastball. Seaver paused, then started rummaging in his locker muttering, “Where are you, fastball? Are you in there somewhere?”
Seaver didn’t need sabermetrics to figure out the 1975 New York Mets were in for a long year. The Mets, a team renowned for their pitching stock, found themselves lacking. That spring, Seaver sat on a stool in front of his locker and looked up at the adjoining lockers. SEAVER. KOOSMAN, MATLACK.
Who are the rest of these guys? Seaver thought.
“That’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Where are 4 and 5?”
He rolled his eyes in frustration.
He knew, if something doesn’t change (and it didn’t), the Mets would not compete. The Mets were within four games of the lead in the National League East on September 1, 1975; then the bottom fell out on the season. They finished in third place 10 ½ games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Seaver’s real estate at Shea Stadium was the site where many of the organizations proudest moments were celebrated. He sprayed champagne over the heads of his teammates in 1969 from that “little space.” Seaver helped the Mets win another National League title from thathole in the wall. He encouraged and mentored Matlack, Jackson Todd, Bob Myrick, George Stone and many others within earshot.
In one respect Seaver is right; a locker isn’t important. There’s nothing glamorous about an athlete’s locker. It’s literally a hole in the wall. For the common man, a locker is a lot like an office cubicle, a place to store your personal effects while you go take care of business. But, location is valuable, sometimes educational.
“I learned an awful lot from having my locker room stuck between Koosman and Seaver,” said Matlack. “”It was a very, very good location to be in.”
Seaver’s locker was physically unique, well, maybe for its modesty. Former Mets beat writer Marty Noble described the space this way: “there was no locker to the immediate left, just a three-foot-wide panel. A trash can was placed there.” Seaver’s “little space” was nondescript. Seaver, himself, was so Seaver was so impervious to his surroundings that, to this day, he is unsure whether he had the now famous locker space his rookie year of 1967.
Over time, Seaver’s locker took on a life of its own. After he we traded in June 1977, Bud Harrelson asked if he could move in. Not happening, said Mets equipment manager Herb Norman. The locker would be assigned to Seaver’s successor, Pat Zachry.
Seaver returned home, and to his “little space” in 1983, then, Ron Darling assumed the space from 1984-1991, followed by David Cone (July 1991-August 1992), John Franco (1992-2003), Steve Trachsel (2004-2006) and Aaron Heilman (2007).
“That locker did have history; more than any other in that place,” said Franco. “Nobody made the kind of history here that Tom Seaver made. It doesn’t matter how long anyone had it, it was always Seaver’s.”
“It doesn’t matter [who preceded Seaver],” added Darling. “It’s his.”
In some ballparks, because of some professional athletes, lockers can become hallowed ground. When Lou Gehrig died, his locker was sealed and sent to Cooperstown. Before Shea Stadium was demolished after the 2008 season, Seaver’s locker was preserved and put on the block for a cool $41,000.
That’s some valuable real estate.
In 1984, the New York Mets were on the rise. Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk anchored the Mets bullpen on the field, roommates off the field and lived out of adjoining lockers during the team’s championship run in the 80s.
“We’re just a couple of ordinary guys who get along, and have no professional jealousy,” said Sisk. “We’re both fairly serious, but we have different personalities. But we’re not rivals. You can’t be rivals. It won’t work.”
When it does work, the team benefits – at least that’s what Mets manager Terry Collins had in mind when he placed Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey side-by-side in Port St. Lucie. Collins told the media he intentionally put Harvey and Wheeler at adjoining lockers to give Wheeler the opportunity to ask questions and “soak up” the experience like Harvey did last season.
“Having lockers next to each other, we’re both baseball players who have the same mindset,” said Harvey. “Getting along, I don’t think, is going to be very tough.”
Wheeler had prime real estate in Port St. Lucie. Like Harvey in 2012, he will receive a valuable education a lot by watching and listening. Harvey described the experience as “eye-opening.” watching veterans Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey prepare for a major league baseball season.
“That’s something that I’ve never seen,” Harvey told ESPN.com. “Watching the preparation that those guys had in order to throw 200 innings … Sometimes it’s stepping back and realizing, ‘Hey, this is a long process. Throwing until the end of September is a long time from now.’”
Spring Training is always an intriguing place for reporters to take stock in how and where players are positioned. The nameplates begin to disappear as February turns to March and the minor league players are dispatched for reassignment. The last days of March mark the time for final cuts. The veteran invited to spring training is playing his heart out and biting their nails in one corner of the clubhouse while the fresh-faced 20-something is bouncing off the walls hoping this will be his year.
As Opening Day creeps closer, locker room real estate values will increase.
In 1976, Bob Myrick found out the hard way how Jerry Grote felt about losing when the Mets rookie pitcher beat his catcher in a game of Backgammon, causing Grote to explode and sending the board and its pieces across the room with a single swing of the arm.
“I just sat there staring at him – hard,” remembered Myrick. “He got up and picked up all the pieces, and we never had a cross word.”
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 Jerry 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.”
“He could be trouble if you didn’t do what he said,” added former Met Craig Swan. “He wanted you to throw the pitches he called. He made it very simple. I would shake him off now and then, and he would shake his head back at me. If a guy hit a home run off of me, he wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”
Grote had a special way of letting his pitchers know he wasn’t pleased with a pitch. “Jerry had such a great arm. He could throw with great control and handcuff you in front of your belt buckle,” remembers Koosman.
Grote would get incensed when Jim McAndrew was on the mound.
“McAndrew would never challenge hitters according to where Grote wanted the ball; so Grote kept firing it back and handcuffing him in front of the belt buckle, and we would laugh, because we knew what Grote was doing,” said Koosman.
The tactic didn’t go over so well when Koosman pitched. During a game when Koosman was struggling to find his control, Grote began firing the ball at his pitcher’s belt buckle. Koosman called Grote to the mound.
“I told him, ‘If you throw the ball back at me like that one more time I am going to break your f—ing neck,’” Koosman told Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’. “I turned around and walked back to the mound, and he never threw it back at me again. We had great respect for each other after that.”
He took his frustration out on umpires too. Retired umpire Bruce Froemming claims Grote intentionally let a fastball get by him, nearly striking Froemming in the throat. Because they had spent the three previous innings in a non-stop argument, Froemming accused Grote of intentionally moving aside in hope that the pitch would hit the umpire.
“Are you going to throw me out?” snapped Grote.
“He made no attempt to stop that pitch,” Froemming thought. The home plate umpire fumed but realized he had no grounds to toss Grote from the game.
National League umpires were well aware of Grote, and his on-field demeanor. In fact, in 1975, the league was discussing physical contact between catchers and umpires. Jerry Crawford was queried about his unique style of resting a hand between a catcher’s hip and rib cage and he said, “I ask the catcher if it bothers him, and only Jerry Grote has complained.”
“The writers never respected Grote, but they guys who played with him could barely stand him,” said Ron Swoboda. “He loved to f— with people but who didn’t like anyone to f— with him. It was a one-way street. Grote is Grote, and we would not have been as good without him behind home plate.”
“Grote had a red-ass with the media, but he didn’t care,” added Koosman. “All he cared about was what he did on the field. If you didn’t get your story from what he did out there, you either talked to him nicely or he wasn’t going to give you any more story.”
Grote did not return calls or respond to multiple email requests for an interview for this story.
This is who Jerry Grote is – and the Mets knew it from the day they traded for him for a player to be named later in October 1965.
“When we got him, I don’t think anyone else had that big of an opinion of him,” said Bing Devine. “Jerry was withdrawn and had a negative personality, but he knew how to catch a ball game and how to handle pitchers, and maybe that very thing helped him to deal with the pitching staff. He was great. I know he surpassed our expectations.”
He was exactly what the Mets needed to manage a young, extremely talented pitching staff, but he was clearly a handful to manage too.
“If he ever learns to control himself, he might become the best catcher in baseball,” former Mets manager Wes Westrum told the media during Grote’s first season in New York.
Then, in 1968, Gil Hodges arrived. After being briefed on the Mets roster, Hodges said he “did not like some of the things I heard about Jerry. He had a habit of getting into too many arguments with umpires and getting on some of the older players on the club.”
Hodges, known for his firm but fair demeanor, took Grote into his office for an attitude adjustment. The Mets manager realized the importance of Grote’s talents and how it would affect the pitching staff. Hodges made his expectations clear.
“I hesitate to imagine where the New York Mets would have been the last few years without Jerry,” Hodges told Sports illustrated in 1971. “He is invaluable to us. He is intent and intense and he fights to get everything he can.”
Grote batted .256 in his 12 seasons in New York. He is a two-time All-Star (1968 and 1974). In 1969, Grote threw out 56% of baserunners. He ranks third on the Mets all-time list for games played (1235), 11th in hits (994), 15th in doubles and total bases (1413).
He fractured his wrist after getting hit by a pitch in May 1973. The Mets recorded three shutouts the first month with Grote behind the plate, four more shutouts over the next two months (May 12-August 11) without Grote behind the plate and eight more shutouts over the final six weeks of the season with Grote managing the staff.
He caught every inning of every playoff and World Series game in 1969 and 1973. Here’s a statistic for you: In the 20 post season games between ’69 and ’73, the Mets used 45 pitchers and one catcher. Those were the only two post season appearances the Mets made during Grote’s 12 years in New York.
“One of the advantages of playing for New York is that the big crowds at Shea Stadium help you tremendously,” Grote told Sports Illustrated. “They make you want to give 115% all the time. In other places it cannot be the same for the players. Like in Houston, nobody seems to applaud unless the hands on the scoreboard start to clap. Once those hands stop, so do all the others. Real enthusiasm.”
Grote loved playing in New York, and New York loved his gritty style.