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Published: Sunday, 6/11/2006

Baseball grips Grilli family

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The bond baseball builds between fathers and sons seems everlasting.

Whether enjoying each other's company in a game of catch in the backyard, or catching a game at the ballpark, or talking about favorite players, baseball seems to fashion a special relationship between dads and sons.

Want proof? Look no further than the link forged between former Mud Hens Steve Grilli and his son, Jason.

Last September, Jason Grilli pitched Toledo to a victory over Indianapolis in a game that clinched the Governors' Cup for the Hens. In the postgame celebration, Grilli hugged Hens manager Larry Parrish, who seemed to whisper something in Jason's ear. The words brought a look of stunned disbelief to Jason's face.

More than 600 miles away, someone watching the game on the Internet saw the reaction - and understood perfectly. That person was Steve Grilli.

"During the celebration, I watched Jason hug [Parrish]," Steve Grilli said. "Then I saw my son's face. I turned to my wife, my daughter, and my son-in-law and said, 'He just got called up.'

"They looked at me and didn't believe it. We had talked with [Jason's] agent, who had said he wouldn't be called up. But when I saw his reaction, I knew he had gotten the call."

Chalk one up for Steve Grilli in a Father Knows Best moment - Parrish had held the news of Jason Grilli's promotion to Detroit until on the field after the game.

"It was an overwhelming feeling," Jason Grilli said of learning about his call-up. "It was a monumental season for me personally. To get that good news on top of everything was extremely overwhelming.

"I was even hugging Muddy the Mud Hen, I was so excited."

That finish capped a season in which he began to fulfill the promise that had made the younger Grilli the fourth overall choice in the 1998 draft. Jason won 12 games for the Mud Hens to finish tied for second in the International League and finished with a 4.09 ERA as well as 120 strikeouts, third-best in the league.

In mid-season, Grilli blossomed, posting a 9-4 record and 3.42 ERA after June 17. He was especially impressive in the playoffs, posting a 1.23 ERA in two starts and fanning 16 in 142/3 innings.

Parrish said the improvement Jason Grilli made last season was more mental that physical.

"I think he wanted [to succeed] so bad, he would get in his own way," Parrish said. "Last year in the playoffs, to me, he pitched in some big ball games and handled himself well. It was the case of a kid who you know wanted it, and he finally had gotten over the hump a little bit."

Jason Grilli made his debut with the Tigers on Sept. 19 - 30 years to the day his father had first pitched for the Tigers, and he won his first start by handcuffing Seattle on two hits over seven innings Sept. 24.

But that success didn't secure anything for Jason Grilli this spring. Just as it was in his previous seven pro seasons, he had to pitch well in spring training just to earn a spot on Detroit's roster. And that's just what Jason Grilli did.

He pitched well for Italy in the World Baseball Classic, and he pitched well enough for the Tigers to make the team's roster as a relief pitcher.

Still, Jason Grilli didn't find out he had made the Tiger roster until the final days of spring training.

"It was a little nerve-wracking, because it came right down to the wire," Jason Grilli admitted. "It came down to a decision between me and Franklyn German, and I didn't know how it was going to turn out. There are a lot of things that can happen unexpectedly in baseball.

"But I had good faith, and this is where I wanted to be, so it all worked out for me in the end."

It worked out well enough that Grilli made just his second opening-day roster.

"Definitely relieved was the feeling," Grilli said. "Every time I've been in the hunt for being a fifth starter or being in long relief, it's always come down to the wire.

"Some guys have the paved road, and some guys have the gravel road. I've always traveled the gravel road, and that's why I don't take a day in the big leagues for granted."

Even though Jason Grilli was a high draft pick, he has faced more than his share of bumps in the road. He had elbow surgery in 2001, then battled back from Tommy John surgery in 2002.

It's a road Steve Grilli shared, since it was so similar to his career path. The elder Grilli pitched for the Mud Hens in 1972 and '73, then Evansville in 1974 when Detroit moved its Triple-A team.

He saw limited action with the Tigers in 1975, then spent most of the next two seasons in Detroit's bullpen before ending his big-league career with one relief appearance for Toronto in 1979.

"He was told [he made the team] at the very, very end - that's what makes this a nerve-wracking business," Steve Grilli said. "I was elated that he made the team for opening day for just the second time in his career. His hard work paid off."

Jason's return to the team Steve spent most of his career pitching for has allowed the elder Grilli to renew acquaintances with several former teammates, including new Detroit manager Jim Leyland and third-base coach Gene Lamont.

"With Jason in the Tigers' locker room, I've come in contact with Bill Slayback, [John] Young - I've bumped into old friends I wouldn't have seen otherwise," Steve Grilli said.

But both agree the best relationship formed has been the one between father and son.

"Being a Tiger holds a special place in the Grilli household," Jason Grilli said. "I'm wearing my dad's number [49], and that brings back a lot of memories for him.

"My dad and I, no matter what cap I have on or what team I'm playing for, just the father-son bond I've been able to share ... Baseball is very special to our family."

And it has been that way ever since Steve Grilli's career ended.

"When I got out of the game, I tried to make up for the time I had lost [with Jason]," Steve Grilli said.

"I coached his team in Little League, and I coached his team in high school.

"But we're best friends, too. I was the best man at his wedding. It goes way beyond just being a father and a son."

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com or 419-724-6481.



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