October 27, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
After completing his warm-up pitches, a nervous Dick Grapenthin peered in for the sign from future Hall of Famer Gary Carter.
Standing in the batter’s box to face him was none other than Atlanta Braves slugger Dale Murphy, the National League’s reigning MVP.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
Grapenthin had been called up by the Montreal Expos near the start of the season after Woodie Fryman was sidelined by an elbow injury, but he had withered in the bullpen for three weeks, waiting for the call from manager Bill Virdon, before he was pressed into emergency duty at Olympic Stadium on May 3, 1983.
Expos starter Scott Sanderson had been spiked in the right foot by Claudell Washington on a play at first base while recording the final out of the first inning and could not continue.
So Grapenthin, who now lives just north of Atlanta, was summoned from the bullpen to start the second inning. He would walk Murphy, but Carter promptly threw the Braves all-star out trying to steal second base. This allowed the then 25-year-old right-hander to escape his first big league inning without allowing a run.
“I see Dale Murphy around here a lot,” said Grapenthin in a recent phone interview. “He’s the nicest guy in the world. And I always go, ‘Hey Murph, you won’t remember this, but you were the first guy I ever pitched to in the major leagues.’ And he laughs. But I might still be out there pitching if Carter hadn’t thrown him out because I was really nervous.”
Grapenthin would toss three scoreless innings that game, but he was roughed up for four runs in the fourth. His four-inning debut would be the second longest of his 19 big league appearances.
These days, more than 37 years after his final major league game, Grapenthin seems to enjoy reminiscing about his big league career. He feels blessed that it happened, but he wishes he was more confident at the time.
“I think I was always kind of in awe of things when I was in the big leagues,” reflected Grapenthin. “And good players aren’t in awe. I always felt like I wasn’t there long enough and that I didn’t pitch well enough to feel like I belonged. But that’s part of guys playing in the big leagues and being really good, it’s that confidence they have. They know, for sure, that they belong . . . I would’ve been a better player if I had more of that attitude, which I had at every level until I got to the big leagues.”
But when you learn more about Grapenthin, it’s almost a miracle that he made it to the big leagues at all.
Born on April 16, 1958 in Linn Grove, Iowa, a tiny town with a population of around 350 at the time, Grapenthin grew up on a farm with his dad, Everett, and mom, Elayne, and two older sisters.
“My mom and dad lived on that farm for 50-some years,” said Grapenthin. “My grandparents owned it before them and we had cattle and hogs . . . Linn Grove was a great place to grow up. It was full of really good people with great values. They were hard workers. I loved growing up there.”
Grapenthin’s father was a good athlete who introduced him to baseball.
“My dad went to college with [former Expos manager and executive] Jim Fanning in a really small college called Buena Vista in Storm Lake, Iowa,” said Grapenthin.
For its size, Linn Grove had a surprisingly strong Little League team and Grapenthin was a four-sport athlete at Sioux Valley High School, starring in baseball, basketball, football and track.
“Keep in mind there were only about 18 boys in my class,” Grapenthin pointed out with a chuckle. “I mean I played in the band. There were so few kids that we had to do everything and really, looking back it was a great experience because kids can’t do that now, because there are 4,000 kids in a high school.”
A shortstop and pitcher on his high school squad, Grapenthin used to travel down to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where he found himself cheering for Arizona State.
He ended up attending Mesa Community College (near Arizona State) for two years after high school, but he barely pitched. After his second year, he came back to Linn Grove and took part in a tryout camp where a scout recommended him to Indiana State, a Division 1 school.
When he got to Indiana State, the right-hander played under Hall of Fame coach Bob Warn and topped the Sycamores with 45 strikeouts in 1979 and helped them win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. He was even better the following season when he led the Sycamores in wins (9), strikeouts (53) and innings pitched (76).
As the 1980 MLB draft approached, Grapenthin was hoping to be selected, but his name wasn’t called. So, he headed home and pitched for Storm Lake in the Northwest Iowa League, which Grapenthin describes as a local “beer league.” He dominated in that circuit and was encouraged to go to an Expos tryout in Mankato, Minn.
At the tryout, his fastball – which registered in the mid-to-high 80s – impressed Bob Gebhard, then an Expos roving minor league pitching coach, and scout Bob Oldis and they signed him.
“They were cutting a couple of guys in [class-A Short-Season] Jamestown and I think they wanted an organizational pitcher kind of guy,” said Grapenthin.
Within two days of being signed, he reported to Jamestown. He settled into a relief role there and posted a 5.67 ERA in seven appearances.
He was promoted to class-A West Palm Beach in 1981 where he registered a 4.50 ERA in 31 games, but he would enjoy his breakout campaign with the Expos’ class-A affiliate in San Jose in 1982.
“The Expos played the Giants and it was real close to where we played in San Jose, so we all went up to see that game and I was watching Bill Gullickson and Charlie Lea throw on the side before the game,” recalled Grapenthin. “And I noticed how much they were turning, like almost turning their back to the catcher. And I said, ‘I’m going to try that.’ And I did that and all of a sudden, I went from 87 to 91 [mph] overnight. It was just that one mechanical change.”
With that uptick in velocity, Grapenthin recorded a 0.80 ERA in 27 appearances with San Jose and was promoted all the way up to triple-A Wichita at the end of the season.
His performance in 1982 opened the eyes of the Expos’ brass and he was invited to his first big league camp the following March, where he continued to impress, not allowing a run in 16 Grapefruit League innings. He was the final cut at the end of spring training, but he was recalled when Fryman was injured.
“I didn’t even play in triple-A, they called me up to the big leagues right away,” said Grapenthin. “To think, a year before that, I was pitching in A ball.”
Shortly after his big league debut on May 3, 1983, he was sent down to triple-A, where he posted a 3.84 ERA in 40 relief appearances under manager Felipe Alou.
Grapenthin began the 1984 season in triple-A again and was outstanding, registering a 3.07 ERA in 53 contests before being recalled by the Expos in early August. To his surprise, he’d make his first big league start against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on August 5, 1984.
The day before his promotion he had been told that he should join the team the next day in Chicago in time to catch the plane back to Montreal.
“So, I rented a car and I drove up there. I dropped off the car to the hotel and the team had already left the hotel,” recalled Grapenthin.
“I go to Wrigley and I walk in with my suitcase . . . and Galen Cisco, who was the pitching coach, came up to me and he says, ‘Hey, could you start today?’ And what am I going to say, ‘I was like, ‘Yeah let’s go.’”
The club needed a replacement for David Palmer who was placed on the disabled list.
“So, I go out and pitch and I do OK for a couple of innings and then Keith Moreland hits a [windblown] grand slam off me,” explained Grapenthin.
Grapenthin pitched three innings and the Expos lost 4-3.
About a week later, he started asking around among the Expos coaches about why Palmer couldn’t make the start.
“And they said he got a death threat in his hotel the night before the game. And I go, ‘Well, that’s great, but you threw me out there,’” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve just got to laugh at that one now.”
Grapenthin enjoyed his longest stretch with the Expos that season, posting a 3.52 ERA in 13 games. He also notched his first two major league saves and his first win. That came on September 10 when he pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Palmer in an 8-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium.
“I’ve got the ball from that game right here,” said Grapenthin during our phone conversation.
While he was in Montreal, Grapenthin stayed at a Holiday Inn not far from Olympic Stadium.
“We had a good time in Montreal,” said Grapenthin. “There was great music and jazz in that city. That was just a cool city. It was a lot of fun. People were really great to us. I was lucky to be there . . . I would love to go back.”
Just prior to spring training in 1985, Grapenthin got married to his wife, Cindy. The 6-foot-2 right-hander would spend the bulk of 1985 in triple-A Indianapolis, but he did make his final five big league appearances with the Expos.
Following that season, Grapenthin signed with the San Diego Padres and spent 1986 with their triple-A club in Las Vegas. He followed that up with two seasons in triple-A in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization and then split his final season between the New York Yankees’ and Detroit Tigers’ triple-A affiliates in Columbus and Toledo.
After hanging up his playing spikes, he coached at Indiana State and then spent two years as a pitching coach at Clemson.
“When I first started playing professional baseball, my goal was to put it down on my resume that I played, so I could coach in college – that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
He was coaching when his wife, Cindy, encouraged him to pursue his MBA. He was accepted into the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which is one of the most prestigious business schools in the U.S.
“That [MBA] allowed me to get into the baseball business,” said Grapenthin.
Over the years, he has worked in management positions for Easton, Mizuno USA and Hillerich & Bradsby Co.
These days, Grapenthin is focused on his baseball glove business called PBPro -The Proven Brand.
“We make custom gloves and training gloves,” he explained. “We’ve been doing really well. I’ve been lucky to work with [Atlanta Braves third base coach] Ron Washington. He’s my brand ambassador consultant.”
Numerous big leaguers are using his training gloves and he is also making headway with his customized gloves.
“It’s a fun business and it’s growing,” he said, “and I’m learning a lot.”
Grapenthin was elected to the Indiana State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016 and his glove business has allowed him to stay associated with baseball, a sport he still loves deeply.
“I’ve been so blessed. I mean I know this, when I look in the mirror and reflect on my playing career, I know I tried my best,” said Grapenthin. “I’m very happy with my whole [life] path.”
Grapenthin also shared his memories of some of his former Expos teammates:
Gary Carter – “He looked really big back there behind the plate. It’s not that he was much bigger than other guys, but the way he set up, his glove seemed to be wider open, the way he set a target . . . And he was a very positive personality which was always a good thing when you’re out there pitching.”
Andre Dawson – “I remember people would be chirping in the clubhouse and all of a sudden Dawson would say something and everybody would stop and be like, “Oh.” I mean it was just ultimate respect for that guy . . . I just had the ultimate respect for him.”
Tim Raines – “Raines was just such a happy-go-lucky guy and an interesting personality and such a great player. He was just a really nice guy.”
Pete Rose – “In spring training [in 1984], when I met him, he would talk to all of the guys like me. He would spend time with fringe type of guys and help us out . . . He would talk baseball to us . . . He was so nice to me and I’ll never forget that because guys like him don’t have to do that.”
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