ICYMI Glory Days: Gross" arm helped Deer Park to "77 title

ICYMI Glory Days: Gross" arm helped Deer Park to "77 title

ICYMI Glory Days: Gross’ arm helped Deer Park to ’77 title

Glory Days: Gross' arm helped Deer Park to '77 title
Cincinnati Enquirer
By: Mark Schmetzer

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Almost 40 years later, his name still is there, second on the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s list of pitchers with the most wins in one season.

Deer Park right-hander Jim Gross finished the 1977 high school baseball season with 19 wins, win state championships – in Deer Park’s case, the only team state title in school history. Gross suffered just one loss and the Wildcats ended the season with a 20-game winning streak and 29-2 overall record, capping the roll with a 6-0 win over Coldwater in the Class AA state championship game on June 4 at Ohio State University in which junior third baseman Bob Boyce – a future first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Orioles – hit a three-run home runs and Gross pitched his third straight complete game and wrapped up his career with a 19-1 senior season on his way to being named the Enquirer’s player of the year.

To this day, Gross – who just finished his second season as Deer Park’s coach – will admit to only having problems getting loose for the championship game.

“I remember the old-timers in Deer Park saying the day of the game, ‘There’s no way Gross can pitch today,’ ” he recalled, sitting on the porch of the Finneytown home where he lives with his wife, Sarah, an avid distance runner who’s completed at least one marathon in each state. “I really didn’t know if I could pitch or not. When I started warming up, after the first couple of pitches, I told Frank Thorman, the catcher, ‘I’m not pitching today.’ Then I threw four or five more, and I said, ‘I’m good.’ It was fine. During the season, there was only one time my arm hurt, and that was after I’d pitched nine innings.”

Gross was bothered more by the pressure Deer Park felt going into the season. The Wildcats had reached the previous season’s state semifinals before suffering a bizarre 3-1 loss to Orrville, the home of Smucker’s jellies and jams, in which they had the bases loaded with one out in the last inning when the batter lifted a popup that was caught by an Orrville infielder. The Deer Park runner on third, having not heard the infield fly rule invoked by an umpire, took off for home and was thrown out to complete a game-ending double play.

“Our coach (Hank Estes) was so upset that he got into his car and drove all the way to California,” Gross said. “He had to get away. Out there, he stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, and they brought him one of those baskets of jelly for his toast. It was Smuckers. He was like, ‘I still can’t get away from it.’

“We had everybody back. There was pressure. After we lost (in 1976), everybody was thinking, ‘Obviously, they’re going to win next year.’ ”

The Wildcats, who’d all grown up playing Knothole baseball with and against each other and knew their capabilities, opened the 1977 season with nine straight wins before losing, 8-7, to a Western Hills team that would go on to win the Class AAA state championship. After walloping Hughes, 23-2, Deer Park lost, 4-3, to Glen Este in an Eastern Hills League team.

That was the Wildcats’ last loss. They romped to EHL, sectional and district championships, and hammered Washington Court House, 13-0, in a regional semifinal before meeting in the regional final a Mason team led by right-handed pitcher Greg Richards, who would go on to pitch for two seasons in the Montreal Expos farm system before returning to Mason to teach and coach. George Connett had a double and a two-runs single, Jeff McNulty went 3-for-4 and Randy Grimes also drove in two runs while Gross allowed four hits and finished with eight strikeouts in Deer Park’s 7-1 win.

That win propelled Deer Park into a second consecutive state semifinal. The Enquirer’s game story described a dugout where “players voiced their opinions about the others’ poor fielding,” and “Thorman openly berated a teammate after a fielding blunder.” That was common, Gross recalled.

“If you messed up, you’d be chewed on – not by the coaches, but by the other players,” he said.

Two Deer Park fielding problems helped Medina Buckeye take a 2-0 lead after 1-1/2 innings, but the Wildcats responded with a five-run outburst in the bottom of second and Gross racked up nine strikeouts to help the Wildcats hang on for a 5-4 win.

They didn’t have to worry about overcoming similar issues in the final. Deer Park sent nine batters to the plate in a five-run bottom of the first and Gross struck out nine of the first 13 batters he faced and had a perfect game until the fourth. He ended up allowing just two hits.

“I don’t know how he does it,” Boyce told the Enquirer at the time. “He must have a bionic arm. He’ll probably go home and play catch in the backyard tonight.”

Boyce finished the season with nine home runs and a city-best 66 runs batted in while hitting a robust .525. Thorman hit .427 and McNulty .396 to lead Deer Park’s robust offense. Gross ended up with a 1.09 ERA before moving on to Miami, where he played shortstop well enough to be picked in the 35th round of the 1980 draft by the New York Yankees, who released him after one season.

Gross embarked on a career in sales and service that recently led to a job with hours flexible enough for him to return to Deer Park as the Wildcats’ coach. Ten years ago, in December 2006, the school retired his uniform number “16” during what was declared “Jim Gross Day” in Deer Park.

Glory Days is a regular feature of Enquirer Media celebrating key moments, personalities and teams in Cincinnati’s rich prep sports history. Send your story idea to mlaughman@enquirer.com.

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