BRADENTON -- Jason Grilli said he knows he isn’t huge in America.
The 35-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates reliever owns a 4.55 career earned-run average and is playing for his ninth organization in nine years.
But he still has his sense of humor and a light-hearted plan to make his mark.
Grilli recently trotted off a Pirate City practice field with Ryota Igarashi, a non-roster invitee. As they went to get some water, Grilli noticed a throng of Japanese cameramen trailing Igarashi.
Grilli didn’t miss a beat. He turned to the cameras, claiming he wanted to be a big-time star like “Iggy.”
The exchange drew laughs from the cameramen and some fans watching the action.
“I want to be a YouTube sensation. Iggy is, so I might as well be big somewhere,” Grilli said. “I’m not big here in the U.S., so I might as well be big in Japan.”
That’s the attitude Grilli showcases on a daily basis at Pirate City.
It lightens the mood in the clubhouse, but that’s not exactly why Grilli flashes his funny personality.
“I think I took things too seriously early on in my career,” the 35-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates reliever said before Wednesday’s workout at Pirate City. “And to really kind of have it taken away from me in 2010 and then come back in 2011 after everything I’ve been through, everything was potentially lost. I’m just enjoying every day. I’ve always been happy around spring training. Some of the greatest feelings for me is putting on my uniform pants and throwing on my shower shoes and joking around with guys.”
Grilli suffered a horrific injury to his right quad when he was with the Cleveland Indians in 2010. It stemmed from an injury during his grade school days.
Grilli said it was “pretty devastating” and “a freak thing.”
“I just had a bone chip that was from an old injury,” he said. “I was playing first base and a kid knocked knee-to-knee, and a piece of bone fragment came off. And I didn’t know this until I had the surgery, they were like, ‘This thing was in there for awhile.’ Their whole rationale and reasoning was because it was so smooth, it calcified over. So it was two thumbnails big and just got lodged in the right spot that it cut my quad tendon and everything went from there. So it was pretty bad.”
Grilli has a unique perspective on professional baseball.
The San Francisco Giants selected Grilli as the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft out of Seton Hall, meaning he can relate to the high expectations placed on players like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, who, the Pirates selected with the first and second overall picks in the 2011 and 2010 drafts, respectively.
Grilli is well-traveled, too.
His move to Pittsburgh in June last season marked his ninth organization. The others are the San Francisco Giants, Florida Marlins, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies.
Grilli said the running joke is that at each stop, with the exception of Detroit in 2006, he has missed a trip to the World Series by a year.
He was with the Marlins the year they won it all in 2003, but he didn’t get the call-up from the 40-man roster. Then he played for the White Sox in 2004 just before they cashed in on the world title in ’05. A move to Colorado in ’08 came one year after the Rockies fell to the Red Sox in the Fall Classic. And Grilli left the Rangers in 2009, one season prior to Texas reaching back-to-back World Series.
Along that winding road, Grilli played for Clint Hurdle with the Rockies and reunited with his former skipper last year just before Pittsburgh’s late-season swoon from first place in the National League Central after getting released from his minor league contract with Philadelphia.
Grilli moved to the bullpen from a starting pitcher’s role in Detroit, but he pointed to Hurdle as the main inspiration for him making the reliever’s role his own.
“When I first got there,” said Grilli about his stop in Colorado, “he asked me, ‘What do you want out of your career?’ And I was blown away that he even asked me that question. Because it was like not just, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you the ball and I’m going to tell you what you want.’ He actually took an interest in what I wanted and what I’ve been trying to get my whole career as a first-round pick. ... And I know he can relate, because he was a big prospect when he came out.”
Grilli’s career stat line doesn’t impress. But Grilli possesses a glamorous line with the one thing that is a top priority among relievers: stranding inherited runners.
“I took great pride in that, because I knew as a starting pitcher what it felt like to leave guys out there,” said Grilli, who allowed only two of 19 inherited runners to score last season. “And whether guys had a quality start or watching their ERA balloon up after a bad day, it gave me a sense to say, ‘Hey, your day wasn’t that bad. We’re going to need you in another five days.’ I knew that feeling, and I could relate to that. So I took great pride in that, and I still do, to come into situations and pick up your teammates. It’s probably one of the most rewarding things as a relief pitcher.”
But what makes Grilli an invaluable part of the clubhouse is his mellow personality.
“He’s laid back, just kind of lightens up the mood every day,” said pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes, a non-roster invitee. “You need that throughout the year. You can’t be serious the whole season, so it definitely helps. ... Having fun is the name of our game.”