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The Ultimate Closer

Grzenda Threw Last Pitch for Senators in Game That Ended With Forfeit

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page D01

GOULDSBORO, Pa. -- At 1 p.m. on Sept. 30, 1971, 6 1/2 hours before the Washington Senators were to play their last game, RFK Stadium looked as empty as it would every day for the next 33 years when baseball might have been played there. From the top step of the home dugout, not a single individual could be seen. Not anywhere. Wait! A lone figure sat high above home plate in the top row of the top deck, too distant to identify. It turned out to be Joe Grzenda, a 34-year-old left-handed relief pitcher for the Senators. He sat in the sunlight with his elbows on his knees, his chin cupped in his hands, surveying the terrain of his heart. He felt like someone watching a train pull away with a loved one aboard. Grzenda loved the Senators. He loved Washington.

"I don't want to leave this place," he said, looking down at all the seats, then painted green or tan. "This year has been the best I've had. It's been like a beginning for me."

Grzenda's son, Joe Jr., suggests the final ball used in a Senators game should be used for the ceremonial first pitch. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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As it happened, Grzenda's time with the Senators was not quite over. That evening, as the moment he dreaded approached when the franchise in Washington would die, fate -- and the managerial hand wave of Ted Williams -- thrust him from the bullpen's dark corner to the spotlight of the mound. He was called in to pitch the ninth inning and hold the Senators' 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees. Jogging in across the field, he felt buoyed not by his chance for a save but simply the opportunity to salvage a small satisfaction from the most heart-rending day of an itinerant professional career in which he played for 18 teams in 20 years.

He got Felipe Alou to ground out. Bobby Murcer hit a sharp one-hopper to the mound, and Grzenda threw him out. A fast worker, he shouted to Horace Clarke to step into the batter's box. "I hollered, 'C'mon, let's go, get in there.' " With that, hundreds from the stands rushed crazily onto the field. Grzenda turned and saw them coming. He had thrown the last pitch in Senators history.

As a big, bearded man barreled toward him, Grzenda grabbed his red cap and wondered what was going to happen to him. "Was he going to tackle me? I didn't know." But all the man did was run up to him and touch him on the shoulder, "touched me, just like that." In what looked from above like a kaleidoscope of chaos, players scurried to safety as people pulled up the bases and grass, and at least three jumped on big Frank Howard's back, and others ran aimlessly. The game was forfeited. The Senators' last season was over.

An hour or so later, Grzenda found his wife Ruth and two children, Joe Jr. and Donna Marie, and together they made their way to their car in the stadium parking lot. The 11-year-old boy, his favorite team taken from him, wept in the back seat. The father still felt his heart beating fast from a ninth inning he could never have imagined. Then, like leaving home for the last time, he pulled out of the lot and, sadly, silently, drove into the night in his Pontiac Bonneville.

Fast forward 33 years. Joe Grzenda's home now is where it was then, a modest split-level at the edge of the woods in the northern foothills of the Pocono Mountains.

Yes, he still had the ball, the last ball used in a Washington Senators game.

"Sure," he said, "I've got it in a drawer."

He went to his bedroom to get it. Grzenda was thin as a pitcher, 6 feet 3, 175 pounds. He had dark hair with sideburns typical of the time. At 67, he is heavier. He has thinning white hair. He returned to the living room with an 8x10 rumpled Manila envelope. "I don't know when I opened this last," he said as the ball rolled out of the bag and into the palm of his pitching hand. He smiled as he tossed it gently into the air. The ball felt good to him. It was in perfect condition, an artifact from a long gone era: an American League baseball carrying the signature of Joe Cronin, then league president, a Spaulding ball made in the USA.

"That's it," he said. "That's real. It's been in that drawer for 33 years."

'Mr. America'

During his best season, the Senators' final one, Grzenda had a 5-2 record in relief, a 1.92 earned run average and five saves for a team with a record of 63-96. "I liked pitching in Washington," he said. "The ball didn't travel real well there. It was always very humid. Heavy air. I liked the place." He wore uniform No. 31. He earned $22,000.

It wasn't much money, yet after finishing his big league days with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, he made far less in his final two seasons, with Syracuse and Richmond in the Class AAA International League. By then, he was almost 38. "But I could still throw good," he said. "It was a matter of making enough money to survive. That was the reason I got out. I couldn't afford to play."

Nor could he afford to accept an offer from the Yankees to be a minor league pitching coach in West Haven, Conn., because he found the cost of living there too high for the paltry sum they would pay him. And so he went back home to northeastern Pennsylvania, where he once had been a Moosic High School fastballer likened to Herb Score, and took a job as a security guard at a vacant building in Dunmore, Pa. When a company that made auto batteries eventually moved into the building, he went to work there starting at $4 an hour. He helped make batteries for 25 years, dropping off the baseball map.

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