Taken from the Cleveland Indians organization by the Toronto Blue Jays in December 1983, Kelly Gruber spent time on the Jays’ bench during the 1984 season before being sent to the minors. He had brief stints with the major league club in 1985, and was soon expected to take the third base job from the aging platoon of Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg, but he had a disappointing season after minor injuries and was used mainly as a utility player. Primarily a third baseman, he made appearances at second base and shortstop and in the outfield as well.
When Mulliniks got injured in the first inning of the home opener against the New York Yankees, Gruber took over in dramatic fashion. He went 4-for-6, tagging two home runs and an RBI double, and from then on was the Blue Jays starting third sacker. He emerged as a key player for the Blue Jays that year, hitting .278 with 16 home runs and 81 RBI.
After toiling in the minors, Gruber had finally shown promise of becoming a fine all-around player, and was named to the 1989 AL All-Star team. 1990 was Gruber’s most productive offensive year, as he stroked 31 homers and 36 doubles, and drove in 118. On April 16, 1990, Gruber became the first Blue Jay to hit for the cycle, doing it against the Kansas City Royals in a 15-8 win. As reward for his feat, his teammates bought him a tricycle. By then it was thought that Gruber had joined the elite of baseball’s hot corner men.
In 1991, Gruber’s stats fell off considerably, and he showed an across-the-board decrease in all offensive categories. The club passed off the poor stats on his injured hand, which he broke in April and aggravated twice during the season.
It would be the 1992 season that would see Gruber’s fall from grace. He began the year well, hitting .300 after twenty games, helping lead the Blue Jays to a 15-5 record. But in late April, he took a swing and felt something pop. A bone spur had become rooted in his spinal cord, and the injury’s effects were immediate. By the end of the season, he had posted a miserable .229 batting average and .275 on-base percentage over 120 games. Halfway through the season, Gruber started hearing the fans’ complaints at SkyDome, particularly in the midst of his several slumps.
Once extremely popular in Toronto, the third baseman became the object of the fans’ scorn, with newspaper columnists and even club officials calling him “Mrs. Gruber.” With Toronto in the World Series that year, Gruber disappointed legions of Blue Jay fans by hitting just .105 against the Braves in October, despite slamming a key home run in Game Three.
Before the 1993 campaign, Gruber was traded to the California Angels for Luis Sojo. When it was discovered that the third baseman was still injured, the Angels tried to rescind the trade, but league president Bobby Brown rejected the complaint. Following a rehabilitation assignment in Triple-A for shoulder surgery in February 1993, Gruber temporarily replaced Gary Gaetti as the Angels third baseman. However, his neck injury resurfaced, and he lasted just 65 at-bats before being put back on the disabled list. After being released by the Angels in September 1993, Gruber called it quits.
By 1995, his bone spur was growing into the spinal cord, threatening Gruber with paralysis. The ex-All-Star finally underwent surgery to fix the injury that had started three years ago and had ruined his career. In April 1997, he attempted a comeback with the Baltimore Orioles, and while he impressed the coaches in his ability to jump back into the game, he was weathered, and couldn’t perform up to task. After hitting .250 over 38 games in Triple-A Rochester, he was given his unconditional release. Gruber then gave up baseball for good. He retired to Austin, eventually owning a limousine service, a florist shop, and a bar.