One in an occasional series on the 1980 Phillies’ unsung heroes
It was not an order from the dugout or a sign from the third-base coach. It was a thought that crossed Greg Gross’ mind as he walked toward home plate on that stomach-churning October night in Houston’s Astrodome.
After entering Game 5 of the 1980 National League Championship Series as part of a seventh-inning double switch, the greatest pinch-hitter in Phillies history stood in left field as the Astros scored three times to take a 5-2 lead.
Gloom and doom, those two emotions so familiar to Phillies fans of that and so many other eras, had resurfaced. A fourth playoff failure in five years appeared imminent. Remembrances of the infamous 1964 stretch-run collapse and the much more expedient Black Friday meltdown at Veterans Stadium came flooding back.
But then Larry Bowa opened the eighth inning with a single and Bob Boone followed with a grounder back at the mound that just eluded Nolan Ryan’s backhanded fielding attempt. Suddenly there were two on with nobody out.
Now, it was Gross’ first chance to face Houston’s future Hall of Fame pitcher. He had already provided a pinch-hit RBI single in the Phillies’ Game 1 victory at Veterans Stadium, and his lead-off pinch-hit single in the eighth inning of the Phillies’ do-or-die Game 4 victory started a two-run rally with Houston ahead, 2-0.
“With them leading by three and Nolan pitching, I knew I wasn’t going to hit a three-run homer to tie it up,” Gross said. “My thinking was if I could get on base to load the bases then we have the tying run on.”
Actually he was thinking a lot more than that. Gross, in the time it took him to walk from the on-deck circle to home plate, noticed that third baseman Enos Cabell was playing behind the bag. He also had another thought based on playing the first four seasons of his big-league career in Houston.
“From having played there, I knew, unlike a lot of AstroTurf fields, the playing surface there was level, so it didn’t have to be a perfect bunt,” Gross said.
It was, however, the most perfect bunt in franchise history. Gross pushed a Ryan fastball into no man’s land and by the time the pitcher fielded it, he had no place to throw.
Gross’ bunt can be seen at 2:16.55 of this YouTube video.
“It had to happen on the first pitch and I was notorious for taking the first pitch,” Gross said. “To this day I don’t know how hard Nolan threw that first pitch, but I know it was a strike. I think I surprised a lot of people. I know I surprised a lot of people on our own bench.”
Manager Dallas Green enthusiastically cheered the bunt from the Phillies dugout, but he later had a question for his super sub.
“He asked me, ‘What in God’s name made you think about bunting?’ ” Gross said. “I told him, ‘It just entered my mind as I was going to the plate.’”
By the end of the inning the Phillies had scored five times and chased Ryan from the game. The Phillies, of course, went on to win Game 5 in 10 innings before capturing the first World Series in franchise history in six games against the Kansas City Royals.
“I think about that series and that postseason every year when playoff time comes around,” Gross said. “I’m biased, but I still think it was one of the better playoff series that the game has ever had. There are a lot of good memories.”
That championship season was exactly why Gross had decided to stay in Philadelphia the winter after being traded to the team from the Chicago Cubs as part of the deal that brought second baseman Manny Trillo to the Phillies. Gross, at the age of 27, could have left as a free agent after the 1979 season.
He had considerably fewer at-bats in 1979 with the Phillies than he had in each of his previous five seasons with the Astros and Cubs and knew his role would continue to be as a reserve if he remained with Philadelphia. Nine teams selected Gross in the free-agent reentry draft that existed at the time, but he was interested in signing only with teams he felt had a chance to win a championship.
“Free agency was only about three years old at that time and I had a conversation with [Phillies owner] Ruly Carpenter and he basically said, ‘We want you back, but I have no idea what a player like you is worth,’ ” Gross said.
“My value was to a winning team. A lot of the offers I got were pretty similar as far as money and I went back to the Phillies and they gave me their offer. The only other possibility, and it was a very slim possibility, was Montreal because they were a very good team at that time.”
Gross signed for five years and $1 million and he ended up playing four more years in Philadelphia after that contract expired. He still holds the team record with 117 career pinch-hits and is fifth all-time in major-league history with 143.
“I never thought I’d stay in Philadelphia that long,” said Gross, who still resides in West Chester. “It all worked out well. I got to raise my kids here and I never had to move.”
Gross, 67, also spent a dozen seasons with the Phillies as either a minor-league or big-league coach from 2001 through 2012. He was not happy about his departure from the organization, but he has found peace and satisfaction as a minor-league coach with Arizona’s triple-A Reno affiliate since 2013.
“What happened with the Phillies happened and there is nothing I can do about it,” Gross said. “I didn’t think it was right, but I landed where I landed and [the Diamondbacks] have treated me well and I like what I’m doing. Reno is not a bad place to be in the summer, but here is still home.”