Monday, August 18, 2008

Chris Gruler rights his ship

Just think, you're a No. 1 draft choice fresh out of high school with a $2.5 million signing bonus burning a hole in your pocket.

Barely four years, and three shoulder surgeries later, you're walking through Home Depot when your cell phone rings.

The caller says, "You're finished".

Chris Gruler's story is a true baseball tragedy. But, he no longer sees it that way.

By Jeff Wallner/Special to

CINCINNATI -- Chris Gruler was strolling through Home Depot one February afternoon in 2006 when his cell phone rang. The news wasn't good.

Gruler, a promising right-handed pitching prospect, had been drafted No. 1 (third overall) by the Reds in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. But after multiple shoulder surgeries and ill-fated comeback attempts, the Reds released him.

"It wasn't something I had planned for," Gruler said. "At first it was devastating. I felt like I let my family and friends down. I can't imagine how many hours my parents put into Little League and showcases."

At Liberty High School in Brentwood, Calif., Gruler wowed scouts with a 96-mph fastball and devastating overhand curve. As a senior, he went 4-3 with a 1.49 ERA in 11 games, including seven starts, striking out 135 batters in 66 innings.

The Reds rewarded Gruler with a $2.5 million signing bonus, amid much fanfare. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, working as a consultant to the Reds, compared Gruler to Hall of Fame hurler Tom Seaver, saying

Gruler had "a better changeup and breaking ball" than the storied Reds pitcher.

Barely four years later, Gruler was out of work.

"I had a hard time sleeping," he said. "Things were not good in my life."

Gruler, who never advanced past Class A, went 3-5 with a 5.08 ERA in 27 Minor League appearances. He struck out 71 and walked 57 in 92 2/3 innings between 2002 and 2006, sandwiched around three shoulder reconstruction surgeries.

Gruler used acupuncture and both weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing exercises to regain strength in his shoulder, but to no avail.

Following his release from the Reds, Gruler threw for a couple of teams in Tempe, Ariz., but his shoulder couldn't withstand the strain.

"I tried everything in the book," he said. "You tend to believe what you read about guys being overworked when they're young. But, you know, I wanted to pitch. I wanted to show my stuff. There's no right or wrong. I won't play the blame game. That's not me."

Gruler, who currently resides in Scottsdale, Ariz., channeled his disappointment into a new business venture.

He has teamed up with pal Erik Averill, a former big league pitcher, to form Protégé Branding, which helps professional athletes develop and strengthen their personal brand. Protégé lists ex-Major Leaguer Roberto Alomar among its clients.

Gruler had some advice for this year's No. 1 Draft choice Yonder Alonso, whom the Reds signed late Friday.

"You have to understand baseball is a business," Gruler said. "Appreciate the opportunity that's been given to you. I had to learn the hard way."

Gruler's in the process of writing a tell-all book about his experiences in the game, but says he harbors little bitterness resulting from his release.

"It would be easy for me to say the Reds could have done more," he said. "That would be selfish. A shoulder is such a complex surgery. They did as much as they could."


Mike Shaw said...

my name is Mike Shaw and I was Chris' catcher and best friend growing up, playing on many little league and all star teams together. One thing I could say about my memories of Chris was his love for the game at it's purist form and him wanting to be the best at it. I'm sure he will take that same attitude into whatever he does.

Anonymous said...

I always thought he was a better basketball player in High School. When you sell youself on one skill (pitching), your way out on a branch. He was too young for the number of pitches demanded of him and the Reds burned him out. Oh well he won a small lottery (2.5), probably bought himself an Escalade or a Navigator and if he was lucky, a NORMAL house. Now he can go to work like the rest of us. Sad that he won't be able to tell stories about going to the "bigs"...only his stiff shoulder and Dayton.

Buffy said...

I knew Chris in high school. And whatever you might say about others who've had this kind of break and squandered it, he was as straight up as you come. How many of his predecessors translated a heartbreaking story that he'll always think about whenever his shoulder hurts to something that will help other athletes? In a world that said, nope you don't cut it anymore, he said, ok, well I'm going to help your people make more money. Every day he goes to work, he'll basically be helping the guy who put him out of a job. He'll be helping the guys who made it when he couldn't. And he's doing it on his own time. And probably his own dime. He's going back to school for a degree. He's not drinking himself into oblivion. He's not beating a woman who stood by him. He's not staging dog fights to reconnect with his boys in the hood. He's becoming a productive member of a society that will always sneer at him, for what he could have been. Excuse me, if I choose to see him as he is.

Jeff Wallner said...

Buffy, couldn't agree more. I was impressed with Chris from the beginning. The Reds had a string of top draft choices that didn't work out for a variety of reasons, Chris among them. Chris' story is unfortunate, but certainly of no fault of his own. I think his story is important for all aspiring pro athletes to hear. Not just his success on the field, but his ability to turn his misfortunate into a positive and to the benefit of so many others.
I believe Chris is considering writing a book. I hope he does.

Anonymous said...

I played against chris and Mike shaw, I saw more passion for the game from Mike than I did Chris. Chris was a crybaby jerk. He threw at me in a game and I can remember him crying when one of our players threw at him. Just a spoiled punk.

Anonymous said...

I remember chris and mike playing kickball in elementary school. chris would kick the damn ball over the fence and we would all be mad because we couldn't play any more. chris was a natural and always had a love for sports. when I moved from tracy I remember watching high school sports focus looking for my own highlights and saw him being scouted by ASU lol. i am sorry this happened from what i remember he was a great kid..Jermaine foxx

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I worked out with Chris with NorCal team one when we were juniors in high school. Their head guy used to use the field at Ohlone Jr. College for show cases, practices, etc. Cris Carter (de la salle, Stanford) played on the same squad. Anyways, Chris was a cool guy, humble, obviously threw gas and worked harder than anyone. He was one of the only guys out there that didn't act like he was better than everyone else. I played at a small school (mountain view) that wasn't very good, like Chris's team. My career was also cut short by a torn shoulder. Once scouts and colleges found out about it, I only got offers from JC's. I was happy when I heard Chris got drafted so high and bummed when I heard he suffered from shoulder problems like I had. Glad to see he's found a career after ball.