Emboldened by Pittsburgh's confidence in him, Jason Grilli ready to thrive in closer role

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – They don't play entrance songs for journeymen middle relievers, for set-up men whose job is to be neither seen nor heard.

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So when Jason Grilli stood Wednesday night at the bullpen gate at PNC Park, the ninth inning – his ninth inning – calling, he heard the familiar guitar licks, the heavy drum beat, the lyrics even before they burst into the nighttime air. He'd played them before, so many times, in his head.

"Don't need a helmet, got a hard, hard head.

Don't need a raincoat, I'm already wet.

Don't need a bandage, there's too much blood.

After a while, seems to roll right off."

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It's Pearl Jam, a song called "Whipping," released in 1994, a few years before Grilli was the fourth overall pick in the draft. Now it had been released again, out of his imagination and into a ballpark, announcing 36-year-old Jason Grilli and his dream job, that as closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The longer his career went, from one job to the next, one city to the next, the louder the music got. Maybe others heard it. But probably not. This was becoming the sound track of his professional life, him pushing, the game pushing back, neither budging.

"It says I'm still here," he said. "Alive and kicking."

Jason's father, Steve, was in the ballpark that night, like he'd been in so many ballparks on so many nights. He'd been a big leaguer, too; 70 precious appearances over parts of four seasons more than three decades ago, all but one of those appearances for the Detroit Tigers.

"Sometimes I look back at that and think, "Did I?" Steve said. "It seems like a wonderful dream."

He'd since become a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, and an insurance broker, and run a tavern on Grant Avenue in Syracuse called Change of Pace ("Everybody used to say if I had a better changeup I'd be in the big leagues," he said.), and been a television analyst for the Syracuse Chiefs. Mostly, much as he could, he'd been Jason's dad.

The ninth inning came, and it was Jason's. It had been since the Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan the day after Christmas, that coming two weeks after they'd signed Grilli to a two-year, $6.75-million contract, the first multi-year contract of Jason's career. Along came a three-run lead against the Chicago Cubs, three outs from a win, Grilli's to have and to hold.

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He chuckled to himself. Eight organizations. The elbow surgery, the knee surgery, the trades, the cuts, the demotions. Being a first-rounder, then living it down. Danielle, his wife. Their two boys. Dad in the box seats, mom beside him. The manager who believed in him. All the others who did, and some who didn't. The sacrifices. The rewards. The people, right here right now, who relied on him, just him, because this is Pittsburgh, these are the Pirates, and after two decades, wins are more important here than maybe any other place in the game.

"Don't need a helmet, got a hard, hard head…"

His song. Aloud, so everyone else could hear it too.

Steve smiled. Without knowing the words, he called it "head-banging music," which fit the song and, of course, fit his boy.


"I'm more a Tony Bennett guy."

Forever ago now, Jason Grilli was going to be a starter, somewhere at or near the top of somebody's rotation. Maybe the San Francisco Giants', who drafted him. Maybe the Florida Marlins', who traded Livan Hernandez for him. Maybe the Chicago White Sox's, who picked him up in a Rule 5 draft. Maybe the Tigers', who signed him after the White Sox gave up on him. In 2006, it seemed like it might actually happen, but the Tigers went with a kid, Justin Verlander, instead.

So maybe he wouldn't be a starter, but he could be a big-leaguer, a reliable pitcher, maybe a closer. He had the fastball. He had the breaking ball. Right? He kept taking the ball, in places such as Colorado and Texas and then Pittsburgh. He blew out body parts and took the ball. Recovered, and took the ball. Flew through his prime, turned 34, then 35, then 36, and just kept taking the ball.

"On the gravel roads," Jason Grilli called it.


"The shortcomings of what he envisioned of himself," Steve said. "The golden carrot is still out in front of him. He hasn't accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. That's to make it big."

Jason stood Friday afternoon in the visitor's locker room at Dodger Stadium, two days after that one-two-three ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs, the sixth save of his career, the first as an honest-to-goodness, somebody-believes-in-me closer. He'd grown his hair long. Raised the stubble on his chin. Big, strong, dark, he was, by God, going to look the part.

He was not going to be J.D. Drew, Troy Glaus or Vernon Wells, taken second, third and fifth in that '97 draft. He was not going to be somebody's ace.

"And I won't ever catch Mariano Rivera in saves," he said.

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But, if this was going to be his moment, stretched over a single night or another five years, then he was going to make it his, and play it for all the bad news along the way, and all the good news. He was going to play it for his dad, and his mom, and his wife, and his boys, and all the people in this locker room. He'd watch three hours of baseball, watch the other 24 guys strain to put the ball in his hand, and then he'd play his song.

"My career certainly is not a snapshot of what I thought it would be," he said. "It's more like a Polaroid, still developing.

"I came through all this and I was a pretty good major-league player who sticks with it. That to me is all the justification. Was he a bona fide big leaguer?"

When the last out against the Cubs came and the Pirates had won and he was the one who finished it, Grilli accepted the game ball. Then he handed it to his dad, who'd needed a hard, hard head himself over a dozen professional seasons, who'd put Jason on a mound and told him he could do it, who'd only a few years ago carried an injured Jason back and forth to the shower, hell, who'd traveled some of those same gravel roads.

"He's always been my jockey," Jason said.

Little changes, really. He takes the ball, he gets an out, then two, then another. He'd watched other guys do it seemingly forever. Now it's him.

The difference? Now everybody can hear the music.

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