Grilli Family Has Baseball — and the Detroit Tigers — in its Blood

When he threw his last pitch in his senior season at Gannon University in 1970, Steve Grilli thought his baseball career might be over. The tall, lanky right-hander was impressive on the mound for the small, private Catholic college in Erie, Pennsylvania, but he wasn’t on the radar for any big league scouts. After going undrafted, Grilli was signed to a non-guaranteed contract by a Detroit scout who saw him in  game where he was taking a peek at someone else. Grilli, who has always had baseball in his blood, made the most of the opportunity.

Grilli spent the next five years trying to prove himself to the Tigers. Every season he would dominate lower level leagues and every season he’d get a call up to a higher rung – making his way to AAA Toledo more than once. But when he’d struggle there he’d have to start all over again. To compound that challenge, the Tigers couldn’t seem to decide if he was a starter or a reliever. After watching several younger pitchers vault ahead of him – Vern Ruhle, Fernando Arroyo, Dave Lemanczyk, Mark Fidrych – Grilli finally earned a September call-up in 1975 and earned a bullpen spot the following spring.

Now 27 years old, Grilli was an old rookie and he watched “The Bird” have his magical season from the bullpen. He got into 36 games as a reliever and performed adequately, nabbing three saves. The following season he served in the same role for Ralph Houk before being sold to the Blue Jays during spring training in 1978. That transaction signaled the beginning of the end of Grilli’s big league career, but he was far from over as a ballplayer. Grilli pitched in just one game for Toronto, in 1979, before being relegated to the minor leagues. He was seen as being too old and his fastball wasn’t breaking any radar guns. He spent four seasons as an innings eater for Toronto’s top farm team in Syracuse.

It was with Baltimore’s top farm team in 1981 where Grilli etched his name in the record books when he pitched and lost the longest game in baseball history. Grilli entered the 33rd inning of a marathon affair between his Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Grilli faced three batters and did not record an out in that contest. The 32-year old retired following that season. He had pitched parts of four seasons in The Show, pitching in 70 games and falling one day short of qualifying for the major league pension plan. Once again, it seemed Grilli was done in baseball. But the love affair with baseball was far from over for Grilli.

Born a month after his father’s rookie season with the Tigers, Jason Grilli grew up to be taller, bigger, stronger, and more talented than his father. Jason was drafted by the Yankees out of high school but chose to attend Seton Hall University instead. In a college he once struck out 18 batters in a game, setting a Big East record. After his stellar collegiate career, the younger Grilli was drafted in the first round in 1997 by the San Francisco Giants. Two seasons later the young hurler was sent to the Marlins in a deal that brought Livan Hernandez to the Giants. Grilli quickly advanced through the minors with his formidable fastball and good command. He was one of the top pitching prospects in the Florida organization and one of the bright prospects in all of baseball. The righty was in the majors in 2000 at the age of 23, getting a spot start in May, winning his debut with 6 2/3 innings of work. But a few months later Grilli experienced arm pain and was shelved for the remainder of the year. In the off-season he underwent Tommy John surgery. Jason Grilli wasn’t sure he’d be a pitcher again, but like his father he persevered.

Jason made it back to the majors as a reliever, throwing a few miles slower after the surgery, but still exhibiting the pitching instincts he’d inherited from senior Grilli. Jason had stints with the White Sox, Rockies, and Rangers. But his four seasons with Detroit were special. It was there that Jason learned to be a big league pitcher, where he learned to come out of the bullpen, where he adjusted to not having a lights-out fastball. He also wore his father’s $49 on his uniform. The father and son are close, admitting that they talk after every game Jason pitches.

In 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Jason to a minor league contract. He’ll have a tough road to make it to the big league club, but when it comes to diligence, you shouldn’t count out a Grilli.