Bobby Grich hopes to deliver in clutch at Baseball Winter Meetings

It was 10 years ago when I received a phone call from a guy identifying himself as Todd Cruz — and I said the only Todd Cruz I knew of was the third baseman for the 1983 World Champion Baltimore Orioles.

“That’s me!”

Todd Cruz said he was 52 years old and living in Bullhead City, Arizona, across the river from Laughlin, and that sometimes he signed autographs at Buffalo Wild Wings. He was hoping to sign autographs — hopefully for a small fee — in Las Vegas.

He had made more than $5 million playing baseball, but I sensed he was down on his luck.

A few weeks later, they found him dead at the bottom of the swimming pool at his apartment complex in Bullhead City of an apparent heart attack.

Based on our conversations, he seemed a proud man — not the type who would ask for a handout. But after speaking to Bobby Grich on the eve of the Baseball Winter Meetings at Mandalay Bay, I believe the Association of Professional Ball Players of America might have been able to help a guy such as Todd Cruz.

Impressive lineup

Bobby Grich arrived in Las Vegas as they still were hanging banners in the convention area. The six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove second baseman wants to raise awareness in the APBPA, of which he recently became president.

The organization was founded in 1924, and Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb were on the original board of directors. But like the ballplayers it serves, the APBPA has seen better days, and Grich wants to move it back into the middle of the lineup.

“We give out about $150,000 a year, about $100 to $500 a month to about 50 players,” Grich said. “We’re hoping to see that number grow to 150 to 200 players we can help on a monthly basis.”

The APBPA’s primary income source is membership dues from ballplayers. Major leaguers pay $150, minor leaguers, $50. Grich said about 75 percent of big league players contribute, but only five teams match what their players put it. He’d like to see all 30 clubs match. Which doesn’t seem to be asking much from an industry whose revenues exceeded $10 billion in 2017.

He’s not seeking Bryce Harper money to assist those who need it. The Cracker Jack concession from a midweek game in June probably would suffice.

Grich said he has a tireless executive director named Jennifer Madison, and a board that includes Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr., Dusty Baker, Mike Scioscia, Ryne Sandberg, Tony La Russa, Tommy Lasorda and Del Crandall committed to make it happen.

He also is working with a former teammate, relief pitcher Paul Hartzell, on teaching ballplayers trades on which they can fall back after they are moved to first base or into mop-up relief roles. Hartzell is a board member of Game Plan, a software firm that specializes in online education, mentorship and career services.

Fall-back plan

“We can present this to minor league players now — it’s all accessible over the internet,” Grich said. “They can start to train themselves while they are still playing, so when in four or five years they don’t make that $40 million contract and they’re out of baseball, they’ve already started to get into another career.”

It was all quiet at the Winter Meetings Sunday afternoon where workers were hanging a Louisville Slugger banner in a giant exhibition hall that will host the annual trade show. About a thousand chairs were set up in the working press room, and 998 were empty. There wasn’t so much as a rumor to report about a utility infielder being traded for a third-round draft choice and cash — most of the major league brass wouldn’t be arriving until Sunday night.

So it seemed what Grich is trying to do was a good story on this day. Or any day, really.

Had Todd Cruz known about the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, perhaps he wouldn’t have had to sit at a card table at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Bullhead City for hours on end, wearing his old No. 10 Orioles jersey, telling baseball stories and signing autograph for free, because it just wasn’t in him to ask for a donation.

“He’s the perfect example of the guy we want to help,” Bobby Grich said. “We don’t want the players who don’t make it to get lost. We want to help them find their way.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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