New to the Blue Jays, but not to baseball, veteran reliever Jason Grilli reflects on his past, rejoices in the present and ruminates on the future
*As Chief Features Writer for Pirates Breakdown, an independent media organization that covers all aspects of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their affiliates, I write a regular series called Famalee Forever. Riffing on the hashtag the team is using this season, which harkens back to the popular “We Are Famalee” days of the World Series-winning 1979 Pirates (and the popular Sister Sledge song adopted by that team), the series revisits former members of the Pirates family – be they players, announcers, front office staff, etc.
I was fortunate to be able to feature Jason Grilli in my latest Famalee Forever article, which we ran Wednesday, August 31. In this link, you can read that article to learn more about Jason’s Pirates Days and the road he traveled to get to Toronto.
As a writer, you have to make decisions about what information you add to your stories, and what you toss aside. It’s a constant process of asking, what is relevant to the narrative? I went into the interview with Jason Grilli intending to write about his time with the Pirates. But what I came out with was so much more than that. He had just as much to say about his new team, and the city of Toronto and the fans in Canada. And while in the “olden days” the story would clearly belong to one entity – now, in the time of new media, writers are more able to share the information they gather with other outlets and agencies. I trust that you’ll agree when you read the excerpts below, there was a lot of great stuff worth sharing.
As often happens in the sports world – one small rumor, timed perfectly, can grow into a wildfire of speculation and prognosticating in almost an instant. That’s what happened in late May when a whisper was set aloft in the wind that Jason Grilli might be joining the Toronto Blue Jays. But of course, this rumor was true. And everyone was ecstatic.
“I always wanted to come to Toronto – the Blue Jays were my team growing up,” Grilli said.
His move from Atlanta to Toronto puts both him and the Blue Jays in a very good position – the right-handed reliever gets a chance to play for a contender and the Jays get a reliable veteran who understands what it’s like to play under the pressure of the post-season.
It’s somewhat similar, he pointed out, to what was happening in Pittsburgh when he joined the Pirates in 2011. “It’s ironic to be having this conversation since, it’s been over 20 years since [the Blue Jays] won a world series, too,” he said. “They had a lot of success last year – and now with these guys here, it’s like we’re going to do the same thing. The fight’s the same, it’s just a different city.”
The “these guys” he referred to are starting pitcher Francisco Liriano and catcher Russell Martin, who were Grilli’s teammates on that 2013 Pirates team that finally got to the post-season after 21 years. He was elated to reconnect with Martin, and said both men were pleased when Liriano came aboard at the July trade deadline. “We were excited about Liriano coming because we know what kind of pitcher he is,” he said.
He said that Martin, who caught Grilli from 2012 until his June 2014 departure from the Pirates, had some influence on getting him to the Blue Jays. As batterymates once again, they were able to pick up where they left off. “It’s just a good bond,” he said. “He’s one of the best catchers I’ve ever thrown to and he just makes it so easy because we’re always on the same page, we think a lot alike, we work well together, we have history, and we have confidence in each other.”
Grilli has seen his fair share of sold out stadiums and pitched before enthusiastic crowds, but nothing compares to what he’s experienced in the Rogers Centre the past two months.
“It’s like a rock show up here, isn’t it,” he laughed. “The Blue Jays have such a tremendous following throughout the country – it’s amazing just to see.”
Not only is it great to see, but it’s motivating as well. The self-described adrenaline-junkie is known for his fist-pumping celebrations after saving a game or getting a key out. The crowd filling the Skydome every night, celebrating right along with him, only makes it better.
“People ask me if the cheering here gets me fired up and it does,” he said. “This is what makes me tick. I fit right into this atmosphere. These people want to win and so do I.”
He plays with such enthusiasm that sometimes people assume it’s not real.
“People will ask me how I can get so jacked up – even my teammates are like, ‘are you really that excited?’ Yeah. This isn’t an act. I’m just doing the best me possible,” he said. “I don’t sit here and try to create an image, or be somebody I’m not. I just try to be as genuine as I am and I think people sense that.”
He is realistic about the coming month’s competition and the grind of September baseball. “This division is like the heavyweights in fighting of baseball,” he said, while quick to add that he means no disrespect to other teams or players. “For some reason, when you get to the AL East, you’ve just got these powerhouse games, these slugfests, with knockdown intensity every night.”
That can only play in his, and his team’s favor, he said, noting that the tougher the games, the more excitement he feels from the fans and more swagger he picks up from his teammates.
“I just want to win in the worsest of ways,” he said. “I walk past the World Series trophies in the clubhouse every day and I just think, there’s got to be one more in there, those are getting a little tarnished-looking. I walk by them every day and they’re one of the big reasons why I play.”
And while having a competitive nature is almost a job requirement for professional athletes, he believes that the desire to win is something rooted inside everyone.
“I think we all want to be associated with success and winning, no matter what we do in life. We have to have a purpose and to be able to say, yeah, it’s working out, it’s happening like it should and I’m having a good time,” he said.
That attitude has kept him going through a career that’s had a lot of ups and downs.
“Everything in my career has been a process, a journey,” he said. He jokingly draws a parallel between his baseball career and the movie Rockstar starring Mark Wahlberg. In the film, Wahlberg’s character takes over as the lead singer for a famous heavy metal band, experiences fame and the pitfalls of the rock and roll life, then ultimately, hands the microphone over to another fan and retires to live a more sedate lifestyle.
“When I get everything I want out of this career, and I’ve fallen short of a few things, but overall, when I can say it was worth every ounce of my energy and effort – when I’m done with it, I’m gonna walk away – I’m gonna grieve, I’ll miss competing – but then, I’ll pass that baton on to the next guy and say, ‘alright kid, here it’s is, it’s yours now’,” he said. “Because this game isn’t mine. I’m just borrowing it.”
For now, though, his plan is to take the ball every night he’s given it and play for the team he cheered on as a child. “This is the ultimate dream,” he added. “It’s just funny how life is and how baseball can be.”
Jason Grilli Fun Facts:
- This past Christmas, Grilli’s family added Glover, a blue French Bulldog to their brood. Often seen in photos on Grilli’s Instagram feed, he recently lamented that Glover couldn’t make a family trip to Toronto in July. “He still hasn’t made it here yet,” the reliever said, citing his current living situation as the ultimate reason. “But if we win the World Series, Glover will be right there with me on the float.”
- Jason’s love for the Seattle-based grunge band Pearl Jam is well documented. He said that he and R.A. Dickey are probably the only guys on the team who listen to them. He caught a show recently at Madison Square Garden with some teammates when he was still playing for Atlanta. He considered going to their show August 22 at Wrigley Stadium because it lined up with an off day, but felt it was more important to support his team instead. “I passed on that, I wanted to be a good teammate and support Josh Donaldson, who had a fundraiser instead.” He reasoned that Pearl Jam “will be out there playing long after I retire.”
- His nickname, Grill Cheese, is not his own. “My dad is the original cheese man from Gene Lamont, they were teammates in the Detroit system when he was coming up. They used to call my dad the cheese man and so it kinda stuck to me – grill cheese,” he said. “Plus, who doesn’t like grilled cheese? I think there’s maybe a handful of people on earth who don’t like a good grilled cheese sandwich.” He adopted the name as his twitter handle, and “then it just blew up into more stuff,” he said. What many people don’t know is that he has taken that moniker and turned it into a way to help feed the hungry, especially kids, through work with Feeding America and other charitable organizations. “I’ve been blessed with this platform to be able to do good with this nickname,” he said. “It’s just a small way, but it can have a huge impact. You just don’t realize that until you get involved. If I can raise awareness about hunger, that’s what I want to do.” He said he and his team constantly brainstorm ways to creatively capitalize on the nickname to serve a higher purpose.
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