In Annapolis and beyond, Joe Gross was larger than life

When you’re a rookie on the baseball beat, you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. You want to act the part, be professional and do your job - which is a little hard when you’re suddenly smack-dab in the middle of a major league clubhouse, chatting up the same players you previously cheered for from the stands. It’s wonderful to realize a lifelong dream - and more than a bit scary, too.

But back in 1993, when I made my first appearance on the Orioles beat as a freelancer for The Associated Press, I was fortunate to have crossed paths with longtime Annapolis Capital scribe and sports editor Joe Gross, who made a habit out of reaching out to newcomers to Camden Yards with a bit of fatherly advice.

Gross died early this morning of apparent cardiac arrest at his Annapolis home. He was 72, and had worked for The Capital for 34 years before retiring in 2007. Joe was larger than life - and not just because he tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds and had a voracious appetite for food, life and sports at the U.S. Naval Academy.

If you were lucky enough to be anywhere in Annapolis with Joe, it was like walking around Yankee Stadium standing next to Babe Ruth. Everyone seemed to know him - from the coaches and players he covered to the fans who read and either loved or hated his columns in The Capital. And Joe would stop and talk to each one of them - because he understood, unlike some in this business, that we work for them. The words and descriptions may be our creations, but the reason we exist on sidelines, in press boxes is because someone, somewhere wants to read about a game they couldn’t attend.

Back in 1992, I was understandably intimidated by the new arena in which I was working. My editor and still close friend, Dave Ginsburg, had me out to shadow him a few days before my first solo assignment, and I got the lay of the land. But that first game on my own, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights when I got to the press box, alternately excited and terrified.

I’d met Joe a few days before, when he extended his hand, introduced himself and told me to feel free to seek him out if I had any questions. When you’re the new kid in school, so to speak, it means the world when a veteran writer reaches out to you and makes you feel welcome. Joe did that - and more.

That afternoon, as we walked to the clubhouse, he cautioned me to be careful about how I acted because first impressions were lasting impressions. Ask appropriate questions, he said, but don’t be afraid to be seen and not heard for a while. It was sort of the code of the clubhouse, Joe explained. You earn your stripes in the eyes of your peers by doing a good job, not by calling attention to the job you’re doing. And the best way to do a good job - at least when you’re a rookie - is often to keep your mouth shut and your ears open.

I’ve repeated those words to a many young writers over the years, always crediting the stocky man with the impeccably coiffed handlebar mustache who first imparted them to me.

This morning, when news of his passing crossed my Facebook wall, I thought about my friend and the good times we shared. And there were many.

The spring training when Joe sat a little too long in the sand and sun of Miami Beach and wound up with lobster-red legs and feet, a sunburn that was so painful that it hurt to walk. But to his credit, he just used the malady as an icebreaker in interviews and promised it was a mistake he’d never make again.

At Ravens games, we sat next to one another in the enclosed M&T Bank Stadium press box. When temperatures dropped, Joe was at his mischievous best. He’d put pen to paper to make a sign reading, “Boy, it sure is warm in here,” then place it in the window facing the crowd. Shivering fans, many of whom hadn’t dressed warmly enough for the weather, would glare at Joe as he used the cardboard depth charts to fan himself and dabbed imaginary sweat from his brow. The gag never got old.

When I worked for AOL City Guide, writing descriptions of restaurants, Joe would gleefully email me with new openings in his beloved Annapolis. When I’d write about one, or tell him about a new place I’d visited and liked, he’d beam like a proud father.

And Joe was proud - of his work at The Capital, of the Midshipmen he covered, of his wife and children, of his sometimes unshakable opinions on sports, of his service to his country, of Annapolis.

Joe and I communicated mostly online the past few years, and the last time I saw him was a couple of summers ago when he ventured to Camden Yards to see Gavin Floyd of the White Sox, a kid from Severna Park he’d covered as a prep pitcher for Mt. St. Joe. Joe hadn’t been in the ballpark for a while, and a constant stream of friends and colleagues made a beeline to greet him.

That night, as I left the ballpark, he pulled up alongside of me on Russell Street, driving a sporty convertible. The top was down, Joe was grinning like the Cheshire cat and we chatted at a stop light. When the light turned green, he zoomed away into the warm, summer night with a hearty “See ya, Pete!” and a wave.

See ya, Joe. You were one of a kind, and you’ll be missed.

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