Bucs' Grilli goes from journeyman to closer
CINCINNATI — If you want a luxurious tropical getaway, closer than you think for a great price, Gary Sheffield has the spot for you. Near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Florida’s Gulf Coast, across from Skinny’s Place, the best hamburger joint around, is the Anna Maria Island Beach Resort.
“It’s near the Pirates’ spring training, right on the beach,” said Sheffield, who owns the property. “I call it a hidden jewel.”
Sheffield finished his 20-year major league career with the New York Mets in 2009. He was intentionally walked in his final trip to the plate, feared until the very end. Now 44, he is a business mogul on a small scale, with the resort, a cigar line and a sports agency that represents one major leaguer, Jason Grilli, another hidden jewel.
Grilli is the closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates and a sudden star at 36. He is old enough to have been a teammate of Sheffield’s with the Detroit Tigers but young enough to have been awe-struck when Sheffield asked him to dinner. Somehow, Grilli said, they connected. They are Scorpios, he said, passionate and stubborn.
Most people know Sheffield for his ferocious swing, for standing at the plate and snarling, waving his bat above his head like a windshield wiper on the highest setting. He hit 509 home runs, won a batting title, led the Marlins to a title and negotiated his own free-agent contract with George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees.
But if you have met Sheffield, you know him mostly for his piercing stare. Sheffield will look you in the eyes with an intensity you will probably never encounter from anyone else. Those cartoons of Superman, with X-rays shooting from his eyes? That is Sheffield, and that is what Grilli remembers most from their first business meeting in Tampa.
It was after the 2010 season, more than two years after they last played together. By then, Grilli had pitched parts of eight seasons in the majors, mostly as a reliever, with a .500 record, a 4.74 earned run average and two saves. It was not the career he expected after being drafted fourth overall out of Seton Hall in 1997. To make things worse, he had shredded his right knee with Cleveland the previous spring.
“I couldn’t even lift my leg up; nothing was attached,” Grilli said. “Walking right, let alone pitching again, was in question. I was screaming like the dickens, man. You want to see a grown man cry for his mother in pain — it was that severe.”
Grilli did not know it then, but he was really crying for Sheffield. He never pitched a game for the Indians, who did not want him back. He had gone through three agents. A mutual friend, the former player Trenidad Hubbard, put Grilli in touch with Sheffield and Xavier James, a lawyer and Sheffield’s business partner.
Sheffield had made $168 million in his career but said he did not even buy a house until he was 30.
“I live a modest life,” he said, adding that he showed Grilli how he could reliably increase his income. Grilli had not earned a $1 million payday since his draft bonus, but he said money was less important than trust.
“Gary Sheffield could ride off into the sunset,” Grilli said. “He doesn’t have to do what he’s doing. He didn’t have to do it for me, certainly. I wasn’t a prospect. Nobody wanted me. I wasn’t even paying him at the time. But I told him, ‘You’re willing to take me on as a client, and I promise you I won’t let you down.’ He wanted to see the look in my eye.”
The 2010 winter meetings were in Orlando, Fla., where Grilli lives, so he accompanied Sheffield and James to their negotiating sessions.
Sheffield takes a more aggressive stance with teams — “like a tiger,” Grilli said — while James is more diplomatic. They got a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Grilli pitched in Class AAA through mid-July in 2011, with a 1.93 ERA. But the Phillies, who were on their way to the playoffs, told Grilli his stuff would not translate to the majors. Grilli exercised an out in his contract — officially, he was released — and Pittsburgh signed him the next day.
As a middle reliever in Detroit, Grilli had used sinkers and curveballs to minimize his pitch count and save the rest of the bullpen.
Sheffield did not approve. As with everything, he was blunt in his assessment of his client.
“I told Jason my honest opinion of his pitching style, and he knew I didn’t like it,” Sheffield said. “I let him know, ‘Your stuff and your results don’t match up.’ He’s a big guy with a hard sinker and filthy slider, and when I see that, I think that’s closer stuff — he just had to believe it. Just because someone tells you you’re not that type of pitcher, that don’t mean anything to you.”
Grilli’s strikeout rate rose with the Pirates as he scrapped the curveball and concentrated on the fastball-slider mix. After striking out 90 in 58 2-3 innings last season, with a 2.91 ERA, Grilli hit the open market and joined Sheffield and James at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
Sheffield and James negotiated with the Chicago Cubs, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Pirates. (The Mets needed bullpen help but showed no interest.) All along, Sheffield said, he knew the Pirates planned to trade closer Joel Hanrahan and give Grilli his job, even if they did not explicitly say so in negotiations.
Other teams acted rashly on the reliever market, notably the Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed Brandon League for three years and $22.5 million, and the Reds, who signed Jonathan Broxton for three years and $21 million.
But those pitchers are younger and had been All-Star closers before. Grilli had never closed and was willing to take a discount to return to Pittsburgh. (Hanrahan was traded in December to the Boston Red Sox.)
Grilli will earn $6.75 million for the next two years, well more than he had ever made before but a bargain for the Pirates. Sheffield, who played for eight teams, said he stressed to Grilli, a veteran of nine organizations, the importance of being comfortable. The contending Pirates, who are seeking their first winning season since 1992, had special appeal.
“I knew that we were close to winning, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Grilli said. “I’m in this position because they gave me an opportunity to succeed and I ran with it. I’m grateful to these guys.”
Russell Martin, the Pirates’ catcher, said Grilli confused hitters by varying his timing to the plate while using the same arm speed for his fastball and slider. On Tuesday in Cincinnati, he struck out three Reds in the ninth inning to close out a victory. Todd Frazier struck out on sliders to three different spots.
“It’s weird,” Frazier said. “One is kind of slurvy. The other is kind of on a downward plane. And he’s got one that looks like the fastball and just cuts away. It’s pretty difficult to hit.”
Grilli said he woke up in his hotel the next morning and cried as he reflected on his journey. The son of a major leaguer — his father, Steve, pitched in the 1970s — Grilli had celebrated Father’s Day the previous weekend by earning his 25th save in 25 chances, with his own sons there to see him. A spot in next month’s All-Star Game at Citi Field seems certain, and Grilli had prepared an email with details for his family.
“It’s not a surprise to me,” he said that afternoon after a pregame run around Great American Ball Park. “I wanted to do something great. It just wasn’t my turn yet.”
That night, Grilli’s turn came up in the ninth inning with the Pirates leading the Reds, 1-0. No team had scored off him in more than four weeks, and he had not allowed a home run all season. But with one out, Grilli left a first-pitch fastball down the middle, and Jay Bruce lashed it 417 feet into the right-field stands.
Grilli picked up the rosin bag and flung it to the ground. He recovered without further damage, but the Pirates lost in 13 innings. Later, Grilli said he felt horrible for forcing more work on an overtaxed bullpen, but he offered no apologies.
“I could sit here and crucify myself, but everything’s been working pretty good for me,” Grilli said. “I’m not going to sulk tonight.”
Naturally, as Grilli spoke, he looked reporters directly in the eyes.