During the past four seasons in Reno, the Aces’ hitting coach Greg Gross has easily become the hitting sage of Greater Nevada Field.
When Reno players take the field during a game, Gross either sits quietly in the dugout or positions himself next to Aces’ skipper Phil Nevin to discuss strategy. Yet, on offense when a player stands in the batter’s box to take his swings, Gross maneuvers himself near the dugout’s railing with clipboard in hand, focusing on each pitch, examining each swing with focused eyes of a hawk. During his tenure as the Aces’ hitting coach, Gross’ sage advice has benefited hundreds of young ballplayers hoping to punch their tickets to the major leagues from Triple-A Reno.
Gross, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in York and still resides near Philadelphia, has made Reno his second home since 2013 when he became a coach under Brett Butler. Each season brings challenges to the 64-year-old Baby Boomer when he either inherits a team with many veterans or greets a new group moving up from the lower levels such as Double-A Mobile or Single-A Visalia.
“This year I have younger players needing to move along quicker,” said Gross, leaning back against the dugout wall after batting practice. “But that’s been a nice change. It’s been sort of fun watching their ups and downs and how they progress.”
Gross said it’s always interesting to see how his players adjust to opposing pitchers and how those same pitchers try to adjust to his batters.
It becomes a game of cat and mouse.
“It’s a challenge with younger players. Their tendency is wanting to do too much,” Gross explained. “They haven’t found that nice little routine and frame of mind to work and stay at it.”
BEST HITTING COACH
His rapport with Reno players is not lost on Nevin, who came to Reno in 2014 as manager. Their friendship is close both on and off the field. They’re good golfing buddies, although Gross admits Nevin has the better game, and they keep in contact during the offseason.
When Nevin first learned Gross was Reno’s hitting coach after becoming manager, he called other people in the profession, asking for their opinion about the former major league player.
“They swear by Greg Gross. He’s the best hitting coach. So I looked up all the information on him,” Nevin confessed. “As manager, I have a lot of priorities, a lot of things to cover. I’ll listen to GG and won‘t worry what he’s doing with the hitters.”
The proof is in Reno’s season-ending statistics for the Pacific Coast League. In his first year, 2013, the Aces finished fifth in team batting with a .283 average. The next year the Aces came in second at .286, and first last year with a .286 average. So far this season, the Aces are the third best hitting team in the PCL with a .283 average.
Gross spent more than 16 years in the majors with Houston, the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia and played in two World Series. In his first season in 1974, the Sporting News tabbed Gross as its National League Rookie of the Year. He also holds the Phillies’ record in career pinch hits with 117 and fifth overall with 143 among all major league players. During his career as both a player and coach, Gross has witnessed the career paths of many young players wanting to impress their managers and coaches. Gross, whose silver hair belies his youthful outlook and energy for the game, said players are content to have a good game, but if something goes awry, they want to change.
Likewise, the big leagues tend to gobble up players who try too hard.
“They get there and feel they need to try something to stay there, and that’s a problem,” Gross pointed out. “They don’t want to go back to Triple-A or Double-A.”
Yet, some players struggle to adjust to the faster-paced game with the Diamondbacks, while others settle into a routine and experience very few problems.
“Obviously, the league is better, and it’s faster,” Gross said, adding players see more experienced pitchers who have a better command of their pitches and who can expose a batter’s weakness.
Overall, though, Gross said he has been blessed for the past four years to work with good players in the Diamondbacks organization who listen to his years of advice, and although Gross is old enough to be a father — or even a grandfather — to many of the current and former Aces’ players, he knows a good relationship produces results.
That’s evidenced by their respect of calling him GG or just G. Nevin said Gross brings both experience and a father-figure approach to the team.
“A little bit of both,” Nevin said with a grin. “He’s been outstanding in what he has done for a long time. He gets respect even from players who have gone somewhere else, or others who send him videos (for feedback on their hitting).”
A SUNNY OUTLOOK
Gross radiates that sunny, optimistic disposition to the game, proclaiming anything is possible.
“I want to see them all get to the big leagues. I really do,” he insisted of Reno’s players. “At this level, the guys are one step away.”
Gross said if he had one dream or wish, that would be for all players to get their shot at the next level.
Nevin agrees. He said during the entire time they have been coaching together, several players opted to play overseas, while others are playing regularly for a major league team. There is one constant among all the players, said Nevin: “A lot of players credit Greg Gross for their success.”
Player respect comes easy. Gross’ players automatically look up to him as a trusted friend and instructor who has become one of the game’s elder statesmen.
“I have been there and know what it’s like up there. I’m like the players and would like a chance to go back (to the majors), but that’s not why I’m doing this. I could have quit a long time ago,” said Gross, who was the Phillies hitting coach before coming to Reno..
Outfielder Peter O’Brien has played for the Aces for two seasons and admires Gross’ approach.
“He’s one of those guys who watches you swing and then picks up on things. He’s not an overbearing coach who gives you a lot of information,” O’Brien explained. “He’ll come to you and suggest you do this or do that.”
O’Brien, who has maintained a batting average above .300 during both seasons, said Gross brings in the lessons he has learned from his previous playing and coaching days.
“He’s pretty humble. He played in the big leagues and learned a lot. He doesn’t talk about his time in the big leagues. It’s just something everyone knows,” O’Brien reasoned.
Players feel a sixth sense in knowing about Gross’ background and ability.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” O’Brien added.
Former Reno second baseman Mike Freeman, who now plays for the Mariners organization, learned a lot about hitting from Gross.
“He talks to you when the time is right,” Freeman said, adding Gross knows how to work a player to get a good swing on the ball.
Freeman, who has been a consistent .300 or better hitter, also had a 17-game hitting streak earlier in the season.
Outfielder Mitch Haniger bounced around Mobile and Visalia this season before moving up to Reno in early June where he’s batting just under. 400.
“When he talks to you, take it to heart because he knows,” Haniger said. “Definitely, anytime a guy has been around the game a long time, you listen to him.”
During the past two months, Haniger said he has improved his game, especially with the number of quality at bats. In that short amount of time, Haniger said his relationship with Gross has been “great.”
Even at the age of 64, Gross remains a student of the game and learns as much about a hitter as possible. When first baseman Kyle Jensen played for Oklahoma last year, Gross said he wanted to know everything about the infielder who signed with the Arizona organization this year.
“I remember Kyle playing with the Dodgers last year,” Gross said. “Franklin Stubbs was a coach in Oklahoma City last year and who is now in our organization. I went to him and asked him about Kyle. Having that background on Jensen helped.”
“He’s one of the big pieces of the puzzle for my success,” Jensen said. “He’s been around the game a long time, longer than the guys he played with. He can talk to you about anything, and it helps.”
When one hears the passion Gross still shows for the game, it’s easy to understand his desire to still be associated with baseball. He enjoys watching younger players improve during the season and savors batting practice. Gross cannot envision retiring from baseball.
“I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “I like this (baseball) and heath-wise, I want to be able to keep doing this.”