PITTSBURGH -- For well over a century, baseball has been the gift that keeps on giving between fathers and sons. Fathers take their sons to ballgames, and years later, they take their
sons; and so on, through the generations. The link has been comparably strong on the field, with numerous sons following in their father's Major League footsteps.
Yet even within this order, the relationship between Steve and Jason Grilli is likely unequaled. They have done what very few father-and-son combinations have, but that statistical distinction still is a very small part of their symbiosis.
The two right-handed relief pitchers, Steve of the mid-'70s Tigers and Jason of today's Pirates, are one of four fathers and sons with Major League saves. Not the meal ticket of either. In fact, last Sunday, when Jason pitched his 291st game in the middle of his 10th season and picked up his fourth career save, he passed his father's career total of three.
"I guess I finally have bragging rights," Jason said with a broad grin that is a regular feature of his face, like his nose or his bushy eyebrows. "You have to give back. Growing up, the running joke was always that he had more wins. That's just the way it goes. If my son winds up playing, I hope he shatters anything and everything my dad and I did together."
Interesting choice of words. Fathers are always there to support their sons. Usually, a vague and emotional concept. In the Grillis' case, however, it became quite literal when Jason was recovering from the traumatic torn quad above his right knee in spring 2010 that should've
ended his career. Like son, like father: Now they have something else in common, as Steve recovers from a blown-out left quad muscle, and Jason's inability to return the physical support torments him this Father's Day.
"He's joking that he's going to come back with a fastball better than ever because of what I've been doing," said Jason, who at 35 indeed has been racking up strikeouts as he never had before his injury. "His injury is not nearly as bad as mine; he just slipped down some steps in bad weather. I just feel bad that I can't be there for him, like he was there for me.
"He says he now can appreciate even more what I went through -- and he's not trying to make a comeback, just regain regular functionality."
In the spring of 2010, Jason was making another stop on his 11-year journey as a journeyman big league reliever. This one was with the Cleveland Indians, in Goodyear, Ariz. It was a light day, the kind of Spring Training day of which pitchers dream.
"Just do a little running. Done by 11 or 12, then hit-the-golf-course kind of day," Jason recalled. "I wasn't doing anything crazy, just decelerating from a sprint. And the knee gave out."
He had torn his right quadriceps muscle, the result, as it turned out, of a field mishap more than 20 years earlier that had chipped off a bone that progressively became more calcified.
"I was playing first base in the eighth grade," Jason recalled, "and had a knee-to-knee knock with a runner. After the surgery, they told me about the chip that was just lodged in there."
In no time, Steve Grilli was out of the family home in upstate New York and in Goodyear, to be his son's chauffeur, his crutch -- his anger.
"He was more upset about it than I was. He was driving me to and from Goodyear -- a 45-minute drive -- and I'm sitting in the back seat," Jason said, "and there were times he would pound the steering wheel and go, 'You don't deserve this! This is not how it's supposed to end for you!' And we kept passing cancer centers and Mayo Clinics and children's hospitals and I said, 'Dad, you know what? We got it pretty good.' And we had this unbelievable moment.
"So he was there for me physically, but I was there for him emotionally. Even though I was dying inside. Before he came out, when I was in the hotel room by myself, I had to make that decision. 'If you're gonna commit to coming back, that's not an easy thing to do.'
"He took a whole month out of his life to be with me. My leg wasn't attached, it was immobilized. I couldn't do anything without his help. My wife [Danielle] can't lift me up; I'm two, three times the size she is. Dad was helping me get across the room, to the car, into the shower."
... Back on the mound.
"Even now, he still gets choked up every day I talk to him," Jason said. "It's ironic ... I'm retracing his footsteps, and with the quad injury, he's able to retrace mine."
They came from different ends of the baseball spectrum. Steve was an undrafted free agent, out of Erie's Gannon University, who made it five years after the Tigers signed him. Jason was the No. 1 Draft choice -- the No. 4 overall selection -- of the San Francisco Giants in 1997, who has spent the majority of his career with the Tigers (2005-08). In the same No. 49 uniform his dad wore.
"Getting to wear my dad's number, especially with Detroit, was the best way I could honor him," said Jason, who found No. 49 on the back of Russ Ohlendorf when he joined the Pirates last summer.
So he switched to No. 39. The "3" is for the age of his son, Jayse, when he was going through his year-long rehab.
"He was a big motivating factor for me. It's a rite-of-passage thing, I guess," said Jason, an only child who has the responsibility of "carrying on the Grilli name and represent my family."
"It's been emotional, and pretty awesome," Grilli said. "As far as my father goes, I couldn't ask for a better one. I've been blessed. Now that I'm a father, I'm trying to follow his footsteps again. I've always said that if I'm half the man my dad is, I'm doing OK."
Years and miles do not weaken the bond. And shared memories only strengthen it. Last September, when Jason was already making his good impression with the Pirates, his parents visited to root for him, and to see him off on a road trip. As he came out of the clubhouse, snazzy in travel suit and tie, and waved while starting to scale the steps aboard the team bus, Jason heard the quivering voice behind him.
"Don't get hurt again," Steve Grilli said weakly.
And Jason turned and smiled, "Don't worry, dad. We've got this. We're good."