BLUEFIELD — The Bluefield Orioles won the Appalachian League championship in 1967.

Fourty years later, Bobby Grich remembers it well.

“We had Donnie Baylor and myself, we were both here in 1967, and we won the championship that year,” said Grich, a six-time American League All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. “Of course, it had nothing to do with Donnie hitting .346.

“We had a good team and we had a lot of fun. It’s just great to be back.”

Fourty years ago, Grich arrived at Bluefield’s Bowen Field as an 18-year-old teenager from California ready to make his professional baseball debut. Fourty years later, Grich returned, and it’s almost like he never left.

“It’s the same old ball park, it’s the same place, it’s beautiful,” said Grich, who was back in Bluefield to help celebrate the Orioles’ 50th anniversary as an affiliate with the Baltimore Orioles. “It feels great to be back, it’s really like a time warp for me personally.

“I haven’t been here in 40 years. It was 1967 and now it’s 2007, can that be 40 years? I guess it is 40 years.”

Grich still remembers setting foot in Bowen Field for the first time. The 19th overall selection in the 1967 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, Grich chose baseball over a chance to play quarterback at UCLA.

“I can remember coming here when I was 18-years-old. I got off the airplane, showed up here, and I was in the starting lineup the first night,” said Grich, who played shortstop in Bluefield before moving to second base since slick-fielding Mark Belanger was blocking his chance at playing time. “I remember this ball park. I have fond memories.

“It was the old wood stadium when I was here. These are new concrete stands, but it’s the same field, and I recognize that mountain up there with all those trees.”

Grich, who now lives in Orange County in California — about 30 minutes from Angel Stadium at Anaheim — first heard about the anniversary celebration after receiving a letter from the Bluefield Orioles.

An avid golfer, Grich was in Dallas last weekend and had already planned a trip to play three courses in the Columbus, Ohio area earlier this week. That’s when he had a thought.

“I had that kind of lined up and I had a chance to do that and I thought, ‘Why don’t I give back to the Orioles in Bluefield and see if they would want me to come over here and do an appearance.’” Grich said.

A minor league instructor with the Angels for the last six years, Grich contacted Bluefield general manager George McGonagle and a plan was hatched. Not only would Grich make an appearance at Saturday’s game with the Danville Braves, but he would also run a baseball clinic that morning for area youth.

“I enjoy coaching and I enjoy instructing,” said Grich, who directed a clinic that drew 71 kids to Bowen Field on Saturday. “I have seen a lot of good minor league coaches and seen how they teach kids to catch a ground ball and things like that so I put on clinics every now and then.

“I thought it would be kind of fun to come back here and help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, run a little clinic and get to play some golf in Columbus and help defray some of the expenses that way.

“I just called George and made a proposition and he said that sounded like a good idea so that’s kind of how it all came down.”

Grich, who established himself as one of the league’s best second basemen during a 17-year career with the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels, played golf on Friday at Fincastle Country Club in Bluefield with local resident Buzzy Wilkinson.

“I loved it, it’s a great golf course and he gave me a history of the golf course,” Grich said. “I enjoyed spending the day with Buzz. We had a wonderful time over at Fincastle.”

When Grich sat foot back in Bowen Field, the memories came pouring back, from the appearance of the park before the 1973 fire that destroyed much of the seating area to the night when he mistook a moth for a baseball.

“The thing I remember about Bluefield, it was one of my first games here,” Grich said. “As it gets dark at night and the lights start to take effect, all the moths and the bats and everything that’s attracted to lights start coming out of the forest.

“I was playing shortstop one night and I was looking at the ball going across home plate, trying to pick it up off the bat and just as the ball got past home plate a big moth crossed home plate to my left.

“I went after the moth because the guy was swinging and the guy hit the ball right behind me and the ball was going in the other direction because the moth decoyed me. The fans were probably thinking who is that, what is he looking at, that is kind of an embarrassing moment I remember about Bluefield.”

Grich can still remember the wooden bleachers, but much of the facility hasn’t changed, especially the surrounding mountains and history that exudes from one of Minor League baseball’s oldest stadiums.

“It used to be wood and (the bleachers) kind of went down more about where the bases are, down near the end of the dugout, and I think it was a little bit closer,” Grich said. “I don’t remember that little hill behind home plate, I think it was closer, probably about where the gravel ends, I think that’s where the wood started so the fans were closer.

“The fence is identical, the outfield fence and scoreboard are the same, the lights are the same and I remember that mountain right there.

“What a great place to play ball, what a beautiful ball park. This is a trip, I can’t believe it has been 40 years, it seems like it may have been 15 years, but it’s 40. There are a lot of good memories.”

That even includes the bus trips that the Orioles were subjected to before Interstate 77 when getting to places like Johnson City, Tenn., and Salem and Covington in Virginia could be an adventure.

“We had a lot of bus rides, we took a trip to Wytheville over the mountains and we went to Salem and Johnson City and all those places,” Grich said. “Now I come back and it’s highway 77 just zipping down the freeway, that’s the way to travel now.”

Grich and Baylor, who enjoyed a 19-year career and a long managerial stint with several clubs, were the only players from that ‘67 title team to reach the big leagues.

It was the start of a long professional career for Grich. He remembers it well.

“It’s really a great experience for me to come back here and see this field again,” Grich said. “It’s a fun thing to do and this town has been great for baseball.

“They’ve been the Orioles for 50 years, which is just unheard of to have one town with the same organization for that long. That is something they should be very proud of.

“I know this organization and this team here has developed many players who have gone onto the big leagues.”

—Contact Brian Woodson


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