Connection to Blue Jays draws Grilli, dad closer
TORONTO -- Jason Grilli walked into the Blue Jays' dugout early morning on June 12 and looked at the seats down the first-base line, reflecting on some of his early childhood memories.
"I remember being right down in that section as a kid to see those great Blue Jays teams play," Grilli said. "My dad would just bring us here to watch baseball in front of a sold-out crowd, and I remember thinking, 'I want to be here one day. I want to be a part of this.'"
:: Father's Day 2016 ::
That dream came true for Grilli on May 31, when the former All-Star closer was acquired by the Blue Jays from the Atlanta Braves, serving as a momentous occasion for the Grilli family.
Jason's father, Steve Grilli, has always been an important role model in Jason's life, with the younger Grilli following in his dad's footsteps and pursuing a career in professional baseball.
"Father always knew best," Jason said. "My dad and I were very tight. He was the best man at my wedding when I married my lovely wife, Danielle. I tell people, 'I always wanted to be like my dad; it just happened that my dad was a baseball player.'"
Steve played pro baseball for 11 seasons, the majority of which came in the Tigers' organization, before spending parts of four years with the Syracuse Chiefs, then the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays. Primarily a reliever late in his career, Steve made his final Major League appearance with Toronto in 1979, when he threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox. Jason's trade to Toronto made the Grillis just the second father-son combo to play for the Blue Jays, joining John Mayberry and John Mayberry Jr.
"My dad always had a strong attachment to an organization he played for and the guys he played with," Jason said. "You're fraternity brothers, no matter what level of the game you played together. Hearing stories, they were a very good group of friends. My dad was good friends with Ernie Whitt and Buck Martinez, among others. Baseball is a small circle that way."
From his formative years, Jason always knew he wanted to be like his father, spending many days in the Chiefs' clubhouse and often waiting for the bus to arrive after road trips with his mother, Kathy, and sister, Stephanie. After his playing days, Steve worked multiple jobs in the Syracuse area, but he always made time to help Jason on his way to becoming a Major League ballplayer.
"I purposely became a coach when he was at the high school level because I wanted to keep a close eye on what was going on with him," said the elder Grilli, who noted that he would help throw batting practice in his suit and tie during Jason's Little League days. "I was the head coach for the junior varsity team and then the pitching coach for the varsity team. Watching him grow and become successful has been a fun ride. If this is the way it ends, what a way to end it. Not many fathers can say their son played for the teams they played with, and Jason had the chance to do so, first with the Tigers and now with the team he grew up loving."
Sixty-seven years old and running the Change of Pace sports bar in Syracuse, as well as providing color commentary on Chiefs broadcasts, Steve awaits the ideal opportunity to come to Toronto and see his son pitch live from the same bleachers in which they spent many summer afternoons. This time, Steve intends to come with his grandchildren, Jason's 8-year-old son, Jayse, and 3-year-old son, Jayden, as the Blue Jays compete for a World Series title.
"My family made me strong and helped me persevere throughout my career," Jason said. "The ultimate prize is a World Series banner next to those two up here, and I can't even tell you how it feels to be here every day. My family made the sacrifices to make this happen. At 39, going on 40, this is exactly what I need. I'm keeping my foot on the gas pedal, and I'm relishing every second in Toronto blue."