COLUMN: Grilli's success makes baseball more fun

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In general I find it to be a confusing, inaccurate cliché to degrade professional athletes as being unimportant because they are playing a "kid's game." I played the games as a kid, but mostly it was because I dreamt of playing the grown-up version of the game.

Kids picked dandelions in the outfield; grown-ups robbed home runs and smashed dingers. Playing is an interesting way to pass time, but being bad isn't fun; greatness is the fun. Major Leaguers had fun.

That sentiment isn't always true (there are plenty of pros who don't have fun), but it was that belief that (at least to me) helped make playing little league baseball fun. I was an OK Little League player, but in a comparative ranking of everyone in the world who was playing ball at the time, I was in the lowest percentile. Playing baseball is a wonderful time.

Being bad at it is awful.

Which brings me to Jason Grilli.

Grilli was a top-five overall draft pick who (eventually) made his way up the ladder to become a middle reliever for the Detroit Tigers. He pitched for the team -- almost exclusively -- in low-stress situations and performed unremarkably.

Grilli was the guy you wanted on the mound when the team was down seven runs and didn't want your good relievers to waste innings, and he was merely OK at that job. His skill set and effectiveness made him one of the most replaceable players in baseball so when the Tiger traded him to Colorado in 2008 I was wholly apathetic.

I figured he'd be out of baseball by 2009, and he pretty much was. He didn't play in 2010.


My buddy and I went to the Tigers' spring training in 2011, showing up early for every game to soak in the warm weather and watch prospects mash a few dingers. Scott Thorman was a force for the Tigers in BP.

One of the games we saw was against the Phillies.

Joker Marchant Stadium (Spring Training home for the Tigers) has a lush grass berm beyond the leftfield wall. It's a great place to relax, watch a ball game, meet new people and get sunburned, and most days it's also a great place to catch batting practice home runs.

It was not a great place to catch home runs from the Phillies, however, because John Mayberry, Jr. and Domonic Brown hit balls clear over the berm. I didn't want to put my shoes on and run around on concrete trying to fight for balls in the concourse, so instead I watched the Phillies shagging balls in the outfield. One in particular seemed to be having more fun than everyone else.

With every clout, this slightly-withered, shaggy-haired man dressed in Major League uniform was dancing, hollering and generally behaving like a child who'd just picked the best dandelion in the whole darn outfield.

Then I noticed the name on the back of his jersey, "Grilli."

That can't be, I though. I looked closer and, sure enough, G-R-I-L-L-I. As a lark (still barefoot), I wandered over to the fence near the foul line and called for the most uninteresting player on the Tigers' 2006 American League championship team to come over. I realized I didn't have a plan for when he got there, but an autograph seemed reasonable.

He chatted with me for a bit, produced his own marker (it was like he was waiting for someone to finally(!) ask him for an autograph) and signed my ball. Mostly, he just brightened my whole sunshiny day.

He was an extreme long shot to make the Phillies roster, but he wasn't worried about that. He just liked playing baseball, being on the field, talking to fans, cracking jokes and shagging fly balls. Grilli, 34 at the time and 14 years into his pro career, was a little kid playing a grown-up game and he loved everything about it.

As he and everyone else expected, the Phillies sent him to the minors and later released him. His career ERA was 4.74. The next day he signed with Pittsburgh where he has a 2.74 ERA in three seasons. He made this year's All-Star game and closed Tuesday's playoff win.

There are a few Reds fans around here and I'm sure it wasn't great to get knocked out of the playoffs after one game, but having Grilli throw the final pitch against you is about as good as losing gets.

Kids can dream of making the majors, but they'll never dream of having as much fun as Grilli.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: