Nearly two decades later, Grilli's hard work pays off
Playing for ninth ballclub, former first-round pick a perfect fit as Pirates' closer
PITTSBURGH -- A gravel path runs beneath a railroad track near downtown, separating an apartment complex from a small cluster of restaurants and shops. Old factories, emblematic of the rugged city, line the surrounding streets.
A black SUV pulls into the parking lot of the housing structure and out steps a tall man and his wife. Pittsburgh Pirates closer Jason Grilli, clutching two grocery bags in each hand, heads up to his apartment, where he will make a cold cut sandwich for his son, Jayse.
Grilli does everything in haste, his long, brown hair -- which he says needs cutting -- blowing to the direction of the stern wind. His afternoon will be filled with interviews, get-togethers, a short drive to the ballpark, batting practice and autograph signings. Eventually, maybe, he'll get into the game in the ninth inning.
These are busy, restless times for Grilli. He's been dreaming about them for years.
"It's a lot different," Grilli says. "I'm handling it well, though."
Sixteen years into his professional career, Grilli -- tied for the Major League lead in saves with 26 -- has found a home. He knows it when he watches his son peering out the third-story window, mesmerized by the trains that zoom by, or when servers at Osteria 2350, an Italian restaurant, across the street recognize him.
The fans know it when Grilli unleashes his fist pump, a ritual executed each time he seals a Pirates victory. But Grilli cautions that there is more to that motion than most realize. Therein lies the tale of a former first-round Draft pick who has bounced around nine Major League organizations, rifled through four different agents and suffered what his doctor labeled "the worst knee" injury he had ever seen, only to ultimately showcase the ability he knew he possessed all along.
"It's not just, 'Yes, I'm excited to win the game," Grilli says, his eyes welling up. "I'm throwing every pitch as if it's my last. I can sit there and cry about it because it's that intense for me. It really is."
When Grilli peers into the mirror, he sees a 36-year-old man with no complaints. He and his wife, Danielle, are parents to a pair of healthy children. He inked a two-year, $6.75 million contract with the Pirates in December. His ERA sits at a microscopic 1.82. He has converted all but one of his 27 save chances. His ballclub boasts the second-best record in baseball.
Three years ago, when Grilli gazed at his reflection, he nearly ripped the sink out of the wall in the bathroom of his Best Western hotel room in Goodyear, Ariz.
"It was like an Incredible Hulk moment when I looked into my eyes," Grilli says. "I'll never forget it. It took me 20 minutes just to get out of the bed and go to the bathroom. I was so [ticked] off, like, 'Why is this happening to me?'"
While with the Indians during Spring Training in 2010, Grilli took a step during a running drill, and moments later, he "was screaming for my mom." His kneecap shifted to the side and a bone chip about two thumbnails thick sliced his right quadriceps muscle, leaving the area a mangled, shredded mess.
"I remember sitting in the pool with all of the blood," Grilli says. "They couldn't operate because there was a pumpkin on my leg. It was the size of a basketball. Some guys couldn't even look at it."
Adding to the pain, the Indians had told Grilli that "short of tripping over a baseball," he was bound to make the big league squad. Now he had to recover.
Grilli's father, Steve, who pitched in the big leagues from 1975-79, took a month off from work and flew from his home in upstate New York. He drove his son to doctor appointments and helped him get in the shower.
For some time, Grilli said, he felt defeated. Then, one day, as he waited to commence his rehabilitation, a bright-eyed blonde girl limped into the room, hopped up onto an adjacent table, unbuttoned her snap pants and removed her prosthetic left leg.
Overwhelmed by emotion and perspective, Grilli cried so hard, he had to pull his hat down over his blue eyes.
Bree McMahon had a scholarship to play soccer, but during a car wash fundraiser, her friend mistakenly nudged the gas pedal instead of the brake and pinned her against a wall. She wouldn't be denied -- she's a goalie at Brevard College in North Carolina. And she has inspired Grilli, who struck up a friendship with the her at that Orlando, Fla., rehab facility. When their schedules permit, they meet for lunch. Last April, McMahon watched him pitch at PNC Park for the first time.
"It's all about perspective," Grilli says. "Getting three outs is sometimes the easiest thing I have to do all day."
Grilli's eyes sag as he conducts a radio interview over the phone at a table across the street from his residence.
For much of the previous night, Grilli kept his son company during a boisterous summer storm. Grilli won't bemoan the lack of sleep; he cherishes any time he can spend with his family.
Not long ago, Grilli felt alone, isolated. While rehabbing from his leg injury, his agents became distant, rarely checking on his progress or mental state.
A mutual friend connected Grilli with his former Tigers teammate, Gary Sheffield, who had established a management group. Grilli and Sheffield met in Orlando, where the longtime slugger told the lost soul he wanted to hear his heart, see his drive and look into his eyes. Grilli became the firm's first Major League client.
"The idea was, 'OK, this is a guy that we can really facilitate his career, get him back into the league and hopefully put him in a position to make a lot of money,'" says Sheffield's partner, New York-based attorney Xavier James. "He was the perfect person in that regard, because a lot of agents wouldn't pay a whole lot of attention to Jason, given where he was. We would, given where we were as a company."
However, there were still hurdles.
Recovered from the leg injury in the summer of 2011, Grilli fashioned a 1.93 ERA in 28 appearances while pitching for the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate in Lehigh Valley. However, Philadelphia conveyed no interest in promoting him to the Major League club.
Grilli had an offer to pitch in Korea and didn't know what to do. So he approached his roommate and teammate Tagg Bozied in a cramped laundry room.
Grilli was plenty familiar with not being wanted. He pitched in long and middle relief from 2005-08 for the Tigers, whose crowds routinely showered him with boos, despite a respectable 4.31 ERA in 120 outings.
"You hate to see guys get booed like that, especially guys that are good people," said Ryan Raburn, who elicited a similar response from fans in his final days in Detroit last year. "But that's the nature of the beast. Sometimes when you get out of a certain spot, it helps."
It took Bozied all of 30 seconds to convince Grilli to maintain his pursuit of another big league opportunity. Grilli exercised an out-clause in his Phillies contract and reached out to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, for whom he played in Colorado from 2008-09. A day later, Grilli joined Pittsburgh's bullpen.
He hasn't afforded himself a chance to look back.
Here Grilli is two years later, toeing the rubber during the final, often-decisive inning of contests critical to the Pirates' postseason aspirations.
"He found a little niche here," said Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. "He's been absolutely terrific."
On the grayest of Pittsburgh days, with intermittent drizzle sprinkling the outfield grass at PNC Park, Grilli joyfully pens his signature on every last ball, photo and hat handed to him.
He meets two fourth-grade boys, who confess their preference for Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen. That doesn't bother Grilli, who signs his name and the words "Grilli Cheese" across the vast, white sweet spot of each of their baseballs.
Grilli's recent fruition has resonated beyond the nearby Roberto Clemente Bridge, too.
"I don't think you could find anyone in baseball who wouldn't be happy for him," said infielder John McDonald, who played with Grilli in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Grilli harkens back to a save against the Tigers at Comerica Park on May 28, when he punched out Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in succession to preserve a 1-0 win. He considers whether the final strike -- a 95-mph fastball at the letters that zipped past Fielder -- is the crowning moment of his career. Grilli admits how rewarding it felt to extinguish his former team, in front of fans who helped usher him out of their city limits.
He recalls his dad's enthusiasm during that series. Steve Grilli couldn't sleep, couldn't stop watching the replay of his son's ninth-inning mastery, couldn't keep from bragging to his buddies.
Grilli takes a deep breath. He would prefer to wait until his career closes before he reflects too much on what he has accomplished. Grilli knows how quickly circumstances can change. So he'll bask in the present, in the place where he has thrived.
He had more lucrative offers last winter from a handful of teams, including the Cubs and Blue Jays, but Grilli favored the comfort of the Steel City. He had a hunch the Pirates would shop closer Joel Hanrahan, and Grilli figured to be next in line for the role.
"He had the talent," said Pirates infielder Brandon Inge, who played with Grilli in Detroit from 2005-08. "It was a matter of getting his head and heart together and having an organization that believes in him. Here, he has all that."
Grilli has waited nearly two decades for this chance. The extra interviews and autograph signings, the heightened pressure -- it validates the struggles through which he has persisted. The transience, the pain, the constant uncertainty and anxiety -- it's all wrapped up in one fist pump.
To Grilli, the journey has been a bit bewildering, but it all makes sense.
"Isn't it crazy? You can't script this stuff," Grilli says. "How does that happen? I don't know. I just rode the gravel road that took me to here."