Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada on June 1, 1986 · Page 27
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Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada · Page 27

Reno, Nevada
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 1, 1986
Page 27
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Sunday, June 1, 1986 3B I ", Y f ' 1 ... Reno Gazette-Journal 'C : i v 1i n J f 14iT ir - . rJf Vc-v' iJV i ': . i ,,..;.. ,. .'. nm . . -"v;.'. .'.r' I'll J I :r",TJ?ai " ' hi a-1r- ft " ,,r. - "...----' .-.-r .J . . S' , h . s 0" v st A. Jean Dixon AiKln Gazette-Journal SAD STORY: Grba battles alcoholism. Alcohol: Grba's biggest foe From page 1B 47th birthday. He hasn't had a drink since July 31, 1981. He is a recovering alcoholic who began a second baseball career a second life, really in 1982 as a pitching coach for the Vancouver Canadians, the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple-A farm club. Grba, who will be 52 on Aug. 9, also met his wife, Marni, in Canada. Shake hands with Grba, feel your hand compress. At first meeting, feel a bit intimidated by this man who seems bigger than 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. He appears hard and is easily identified as a man who doesn't trust strangers. "He looks gruff, but he's not," said Reno Padres general manager Harry Piatt. "He's a caring guy with each ballplayer." Profanity often creeps into his speech, making a family newspaper resort to the label of (expletive deleted), but his profanity says more about nearly half a life spent in baseball than it does about the kind of person he is. Grba is a private man, a fellow who generally prefers that others initiate the conversation. It is out of character for him to reveal his most inner thoughts and to speak about where he has been. "I'm not speaking to gain publicity. I believe in anonymity. (But) how do you get your message across, if you don't speak out?" He believes in Alcholics Anonymous. But he discovered long ago when he said, "I'm Eli. I'm an alcoholic," that he would not be anonymous as long as there were He (Grba) looks gruff, but he's not. He's a caring guy with each ballplayer. 5 Harry Piatt serious followers of baseball. His powerful physique and his name are easy clues for any amateur sleuth. But what matters more to him than anonymity is the message he delivered, sitting in a box seat at Moana Stadium on a sunny afternoon some four hours before the Padres played a game that evening. "Thank God I can sit here and talk," Grba said. "If I hadn't (stopped drinking), I probably would be in jail or dead. I had violence m me. Alcohol brought it out." Such a time was the incident at the Oakland hockey game in 1969. He said his excuse that day for drinking was getting a baseball job. To celebrate becoming an A's scout, he started drinking early, about 7 a.m. "I got into a fight with four guys after the hockey game," Grba said. "It took four policemen to carry me out bodily. That's booze. They could've shot me. I wouldn't have known." In the melee, one of the officers tried to stop the charging Grba by slamming him across the knee with a billy club. Later, the officer asked Grba about his knee, and the former player said he hadn't felt it. Grba said he was sued by one of the men in the fight. "It cost me $400. 1 guess I hit him too hard in the ear." Throughout his drinking bouts, Grba suffered. Those closest to him, relatives and friends, suffered. Grba said he never had serious thoughts of suicide, but occasionally did consider ending the suffering. "It didn't last long. I would think about driving off a bridge, but then my (children) Stacy and Nicky would come to my mind." Maybe Grba tells his story because of a 13-year-old boy he met as a alcohol abuse counselor at St. Luke's Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1982 and 1983. The boy was drinking a pint of liquor a day, every day. Grba's hard, brown eyes soften when his thoughts turn to that teen-ager. Grba speaks about his drinking past because he believes it might plant a mustard seed in the minds of young people. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving plant the same seed, he says. Initially, the warnings against problem drinking might not reap a harvest. But later that person might seek help sooner. "I still believe if you put something in somebody's mind about alcoholism, drug addiction, maybe they'll think about it. "I'm lucky: I'm a lucky (expletive NOW, LISTEN UP: in the major leagues at Moana Municipal deleted) that way back there, I didn't kill somebody with a car. All those (expletive deleted) that drink and drive have gotten signs. They better read them. It's going to get them." For Grba, it's almost a responsibility, a duty to caution others there could be danger ahead. When the danger is evident, then he's there to help, if asked. "I have to help other people. I help here in a sense, visually." Most of the Reno players are aware of his background, although in his everyday actions he is not a latter-day, baseball Carry Nation. "Maybe some guy will have a problem and say, 'I can go talk to Grubs, Eli.' I can say, 'If you want to talk about it, I'll talk about it for hours.' " . With this ring . . . For Eli and Marni Grba, there were the customary wedding rings. But there was another ring that symbolizes their life together. It is the 1960 American League Championship ring. For his 50th birthday, she surprised her husband with a ring, ordered from the original manufacturer, to replace the one that was lost. In 1981, Grba borrowed $150 from a friend. Grba offered his ring as collateral. The friend said he didn't want the ring, but the former pitcher insisted that he take it. The friend, a collector of gold coins, reluctantly accepted the ring. When the friend's home was ransacked, his gold coins and Grba's ring were stolen. It had been the second time he secured a loan from a friend with the ring. The first time, it took him eight months to pay back the money. The second time, the ring was gone. A week later, Grba, who had stopped drinking at times but always went back to it, began his five years of sobriety. He said the loss of the ring didn't make him stop drinking. A religious experience was responsible for that. "Something hit me. I'm not lying. I said, 'God, if you're there, take me. I'm nothing.' Tears came out of me. I sobbed an an hour." He was living at the Wayne Fanning Alcohol Education Program facility in El Monte, Calif., but had continued to drink even when he was in the program. But on Aug. 1, the day after his religious experience, he was offered a job as a front desk counselor at the facility, working from midnight to 7 a.m. He is convinced the job offer was not a coincidence, and was an integral part of the experience. "When I tell people how I quit, I point up there. They say, 'No, you did it. I say, why do you (expletive deleted) ask me if you don't want to hear?' " It sounds abrasive. But mustard seed planting can be that way. Grba, however, does not include the ring as part of the religious experience. He says the loss of the ring didn't make him quit drinking. He said it's only important for an angle-seeking reporter. The ring was a little thing, Grba said. But life might be a procession of little things that gain some importance. His wife saw some importance in it. "One time he told me, 'If I hadn't been drinking, I wouldn't have lost the ring,' " she said. "It's very important to me that he doesn't drink. "Once he quit drinking, he realized how stupid it was to give up the ring for $150. Liquor blew his career. The ring was part Q I got into a fight with four guys after the hockey game. It took four policemen to carry me out bodily. That's booze. They could've shot me. I wouldn't have known. 5 Eli Grba of his career. When you blow a career, like he did, it becomes the important issue. He lost everything through alcohol. I could replace the ring. This shows we're on the way back again." They live in a three-level home in North Vancouver, British Columbia. She has three daughters, ages 22 to 16, and two grandchildren. Grba's daughter, Stacy, 21, and son, Nick, 19, are both in the U.S. Air Force. Eli and Marni Grba balance their life 1 together around separate careers She is Jean Dixon Aikln Gszene Journal Reno Padres pitching coach Eli Grba, who pitched Bauer, in his second season of minor league ball, listens to Grba's for five seasons, turns the bullpen into a classroom advice. Grba often seems gruff, but deep down he's a big softie, Stadium after a workout last week. Pitcher Eric ' according to Harry Piatt, Reno Padres general manager. 'i ". ' . j k- W - fit ! 'in h i i ss . I ,J) T ( ' I ,""V-- "' '" ' T-.. ' T., , .. -r - V - , ; ..,. .... . , - TARGET PRACTICE: Padres pitching Keeps an eagie eye on a puui unuwii uy Nieporte. Catching is Scott Rainey. a hairdresser and operates a beauty salon out of the lowest level of their home. Although they are separated much of the time between March and September, she comes to Reno for a week once a month. "He really, truly loves baseball. I don't think it's a job for him," she said. "I'm like that with hairdressing. I could eat, sleep and drink it. "Because he's had a second chance, gotten off the booze, he's thankful he can do what he really wants to do. What's he going to do around here, sell insurance and be miserable?" Both say they couldn't be happier. He says his wife helps him cope with everyday life that once terrified him in his periods of sobriety. He still must cope with life, and he says she helps him cope. "Marni is very instrumental in keeping me balanced. She doesn't realize that she does that." But she understands about her husband learning to cope. "We've had ups and downs in everyday living, eh. Before, he would grab a bottle and get sloshed for a couple of weeks. Now, when something happens, it's not that big of a thing." His wife doesn't drink. "I just don't like the stuff. I don't drink for the same reasons Eli doesn't drink. I have allergies. I get sick." Before meeting him, she had decided not to marry a man who drank. "When I'd go out for a dinner with a guy, he would order wine and end up drinking the whole bottle and getting drunk." In their home, there's a fully stocked liquor cabinet for friends who drink. "We're not against it. I just can't stand to see a person ruin their life with it." What's in a name? Grba, who had a 28-33 record in his big league career from 1959 to 1963, asks himself that all the time. The most recent came when friends told him they had seen his name in Sports Illustrated. "Why do they pick on Eli Grba?" he asked. "What's this guy's name? He's not old enough to have seen Wrigley Field (in Los Angeles). I don't understand. This is the second guy in a new breed of sports-writers who has used my name in a negative way." t Jean Dixon Aikin Gazette-Journal coach Eli Grba plays like an umpire as he cnu dciuci uumiy pidoiioe. ocuuny ia oay Eight other pitchers allowed more home runs in 1961 than Grba, whose 26 was 13 behind league-leader Minnesota's Pedro Ramos. Grba pitched 212 innings, more than two of the eight ahead of him in homers allowed, Boston's Gene Conley and Detroit's Paul Foytack. The Angels' team leader in home runs allowed was sinkerballer Ken McBride, who gave up 28 in 242 innings. "I'd like to confront him (Gammons) and ask him, 'Did you see me pitch?' I had good stuff. I wasn't a good starting pitcher. I know that." Grba said he will write a good-natured letter to Gammons about the item. But being good natured might be a strain. "That's getting to me. Sure, it's an odd name. But only if you're from a white, Anglo-Saxon background." It wouldn't do much good to tell Grba that Gammons' mention of him was a throwaway line, designed to get a chuckle. The writer probably never considered saying, "Without Ken McBride, no less." Grba can't fathom it, but his friend of 29 years, former Angels' outfielder Ken Hunt, understands. Hunt came up with Grba through the Yankees' farm system. He knows that even some of the most casual fans remember Grba because of the unusual name and the fact that he pitched for the Yankees. "If you're going to shoot at somebody, shoot at somebody with the biggest name," Hunt said. "In a way, he should be proud. They didn't shoot at any other guys on that (pitching) staff." Grba found himself in Yankee pinstripes in 1959 after a promotion from Richmond in the International League. He was face to face with a legendary figure, manager Casey Stengel. "Beautiful, beautiful man. They don't make them like him anymore," Grba said. "I don't think he knew my name. He called me, 'The guy with the funny name.' He'd say, 'The guy throwing dirters.' Dirters, that was his name for sinker balls." One time in August 1959, Grba said, he was working a crossword puzzle when third base coach Frankie Crosetti said Stengel wanted to speak to him. Grba said farewell to fellow Yankees' pitcher Duke Maas, believing that Stengel was sending him back to the minors. " 'Will the crossword help you to be a better pitcher?' he asked me. 'Why don't you read the sports page and see who's hitting for the Tigers?' " Another time, Grba heard a story that when he was pitching against the White Sox, pitching coach Eddie Lopat told Stengel in the dugout that the next batter should be pitched inside. "He (Stengel) said, 'You go out there. When I go out there, he yells at me.' I didn't think I yelled at him. I was always involved in the game. I was grumpy." Grba remembers with fondness what it was like to be a Yankee. For him, there was only one sour memory the 1960 World Series that the Pittsburgh Pirates took from the Yanks on Bill Mazeroski's seventh-game home run. Grba, who had a 6-4 record with a 3.67 earned-run average in 1960, made only one appearance in the Series as a pinch runner for catcher Elston Howard in the sixth game. "I'll never forgive him (Stengel) or Eddie Lopat for not pitching me in the World Series. I warmed up twice. That stuck in my craw. Every time I see a film of the 1960 Series it bothers me." Grba was nearly 25 years old when he was promoted to New York. His drinking problem, which he traces back to high school and accelerated in two years in the Army in 1957 and 1958, graduated to major league status. "I can think as far back as 1959 my priorities were screwed up. I got there (to the majors), I didn't know what you were supposed to do. It was starting to get the best of me. "There wasn't a (expletive deleted) day that went by that I didn't have six, seven beers. When you're in the big leagues, you graduate into the better stuff. You see what the other guys are doing." Grba can trace the development of his drinking problem, but he can't explain why it happened. Simply, he doesn't know. He says if there was a deep-seated emotional problem that led to his drinking, he's not aware of what it was. "I didn't have to have an excuse to drink. I loved it." He grew up in the Serbian community of South Chicago, but he resists thoughts that his environment led to his problems. "They're fun-loving people. (But) those people didn't have the problem. I had the prpblem. Maybe I was the one with the low metabolism that was right for the problem." But he acknowledges that his family had a history of alcoholism. His late father, Joe Grba, who left Chicago and the steel mills to later become baseball coach at Hardin-Simmons in Texas, was an alcoholic. "He was a bad drinker. He was in the same mold I was." Family background and psychological roots are secondary to the treatment of an individual's drinking problem, Grba said. "We get rhetorical. It gets to be that it's so hard," Grba said. ' "Hey, the guy has a All those that drink and drive have gotten signs. They better read them. It's going to get them. 5 Eli Grba problem. Let's conquer it.' "It's a disease. It's a bad disease because it's legal." He delivers a message that's common to Alcoholics Anonymous. But he never was anonymous or common . . . not with that most unforgettable name, Eli Grba. When he speaks out, he calls attention to himself. As a private man, he gives up what he values so much. But he says it must be done. Alcoholism should be recognized as the crippling disease it is, he said. The field went unplowed too long. But now the mustard seed must be planted. NEXT: Eli Grba's past, present and future blend in his role as the Reno Padres' pitching coach and a recovering alcholic. Grba, who once drank 13 screwdrivers, took an amphetamine and then went to the ballpark as a minor league pitcher, says baseball is right to crack down on drug abuse. Alcoholism took Grba on a tour of jails. Now it's his job to get pitchers to the major leagues.

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