Pitt Stop

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Jason Grilli, Pitcher / Atlanta Braves - The Players' Tribune

Ninth inning. Two outs. One-run game. Save situation — my specialty. Runners at the corners. Clint Barmes at the plate. It’s Grilled Cheese time.

It’s crazy. I’m hugging this guy before the game because I’m so excited to see him, and next thing you know we’re squaring up with the game on the line. You love the guy, but you have a job to do, and when you’re on that mound, the only loyalty you have is to the name on your chest. You gotta punch him out.

And I did. Swinging. Game over.

I texted him after the game. No hard feelings. There never are.

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Clint and I played together in Pittsburgh. Now, I’m in Atlanta and he’s in San Diego. I’ve played for a lot of teams, so I’ve made a lot of friends in a lot of places. Secretly, we’re all fraternity brothers, but when we’re on the field it’s all business. But it’s hard to be friends with opposing players sometimes.

Last weekend in Pittsburgh, I ran into an entire team and an entire city of old friends.

Before I landed in Pittsburgh, you could say I was a journeyman. Seven teams in 10 years? I think that qualifies. I’d been drafted, traded, drafted again, demoted and released. I think I even got “purchased” once …

In 2008, just after I was traded to my fourth big-league team, the Rockies, I was throwing out in right field when I saw my new manager, Clint Hurdle, walking towards me. I knew what was coming. The same old “welcome” song and dance:

Are you good? Does your family need anything? Here’s what your role is going to be …

I knew the routine. I had my answers locked and loaded with a “sir” on the back end of each. But he hit me with something different. It stopped me dead in my motion. Point blank:

Clint: What do you want out of your career?

Me: Wait, are you serious?

Clint: Dead serious.

Me: I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that …

So I spilled my guts right there in short right field. I told him that as a reliever, I always wanted to be in the back end of the bullpen, and I know I can be that guy if given the opportunity. I’d done my job well as a middle reliever inheriting runners — imagine what I could do as a closer with a clean inning. I gave him every reason why I believed in myself, but I admitted that I didn’t know how to take the next step. That closer role is a tough one to crack unless someone gets injured. I was frustrated. I was literally stuck in the middle.

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About a year later, I was sent down to the minors. I did some good things in my short stint in Colorado, but the best thing I did was open up to Clint Hurdle that day, because he remembered that talk. And when our paths crossed again, everything fell into place.

There’s a moment for every pitcher when it all comes together. A point where you have equal command over your mechanics, velocity, location and temperament. Everything just lines up, and you feel unhittable. It’s a lot like the comfort you feel when you find the right fit in a team — when a clubhouse, a city and a fanbase mesh to create an environment in which you feel you can succeed.

When I signed with the Pirates in 2011 — Clint Hurdle’s Pirates — I discovered both.

I could really relate to the people. Resilient. Blue-collar. Gritty. Good neighbors. Good people. I instantly became a part of that.

If you’ve never been to Pittsburgh, stop what you’re doing. You can finish this article later. Buy a plane ticket and go. Now. There’s so much to do and so many good people to meet, and they all have such passion for everything they do, right down to their food and their art. Visit the Clemente Museum. Grab a sandwich at Primanti Bros. Hit the Strip District. I could go on all day…

When I first got there and got to know the people and the city, I felt like they embodied my story. I’d been to team after team, city after city, getting knocked down and back up again. So I could really relate to the people. Resilient. Blue-collar. Gritty. Good neighbors. Good people. I instantly became a part of that. They believed in me right away, and I fed off that belief and confidence.

I came in at the end of 2011 and threw up a sub-2.50 ERA for the last couple of months of the season, and a big part of that was how comfortable I felt — in the clubhouse, on the mound, at the stadium and in the city itself. I could tell something special was happening there. The Pirates hadn’t been to the postseason or even had a winning record in almost 20 years, but we were close, and I think everyone in the city could feel it. You couldn’t find an empty seat in that stadium. I’d never had a real “home” in baseball. I was always bouncing around. I knew that if I wanted to stay to be a part of it when the Pirates finally broke through, I had to pitch my ass off.

In 2012, I did. I spent the whole year setting up for closer Joel Hanrahan. With 32 holds, I had the best season of my career.

Jason Grilli exits the Braves' clubhouse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

That offseason, I was a free agent. I had a good year-and-a-half run with the Pirates, and teams were taking notice. I had a couple of offers on the table, some more lucrative than what the Pirates were offering to keep me.

When you’re a pitcher, especially a reliever, you have to pitch with confidence, and the atmosphere and the fans can play a big role in that. I basically got booed out of Detroit (my third MLB team). But it was different in Pittsburgh. Pirates fans didn’t jump on the Grilli bandwagon because I was having success. I was having success because the fans got behind me from Day 1. Throw in the fact that I loved the community and it was a great fit for my family, and how could I leave?

Pirates fans didn’t jump on the Grilli bandwagon because I was having success. I was having success because the fans got behind me from Day 1.

I remembered that talk I had with Clint Hurdle back in Colorado. I wanted to be a closer, but I was stuck behind a great pitcher in Joel Hanrahan, who was coming off back-to-back All-Star campaigns. A tough role to crack, remember? But not having a shot at the closer role was just one negative of staying in Pittsburgh that was far outweighed by the many positives of re-signing, and I was prepared to deal with that.

So I turned down better offers and signed a two-year deal to stay in Pittsburgh.

Two weeks later, Joel Hanrahan was traded. I was the new closer.

It was a “finally” moment, but it was a beginning, too. I wasn’t just handed the keys to the Ferrari. I had worked hard and earned my stripes, and I believed I deserved that opportunity. But now, I had to go out and prove what I already believed about myself: that I could thrive as a closer.

That 2013 season was where it all came together for me, as well as the team and the city. I notched 33 saves in 35 attempts and made the All-Star team. I even got a sick entrance video out of it.

Grilled cheese and Pearl Jam. If that doesn’t get you pumped, you don’t have a pulse.

But the best part of that 2013 season by far wasn’t about me. It was about the city of Pittsburgh when we finally ended the season with a winning record and made the playoffs — both for the first time in 20 years. Just like my resilience paid off, culminating in an All-Star season, the fans’ resilience also paid off. They stayed with that team through all the bad times, and now, I was a part of the team that rewarded them. It was an honor to be a part of that.

You wanna know what Pittsburgh is all about? Watch that Wild Card game against the Reds that year. It’s almost as if the Reds had no chance because they weren’t just playing the Pirates — they were playing the whole city of Pittsburgh. Those fans waited for that moment for so long, and they let out 20 years of built-up frustration that night. As a player, you lay your body on the line because of that. You feed off that energy, and it’s there on a daily basis, whether you’re pitching for the Pirates, playing nose tackle for the Steelers or ripping slapshots on the ice for the Penguins. Everything revolves around sticking together and rallying behind their teams.

After winning that Wild Card game, we lost in the divisional round to the Cardinals, but the city and the team were riding a high. Winning baseball was back in Pittsburgh, and for me, everything had finally come together. I was pitching well. I had the closer job I’d always wanted. We were winning. I bought a house in Pittsburgh. I was ready to raise my kids there. I had finally found a home.

We didn’t start off the 2014 season with the fire we ended 2013 with. I wasn’t off to the same start I was in 2013, either, but it wasn’t anything crazy. I had a couple of bad games, but I was still getting the job done. But still, something didn’t feel right. I could sense people around the front office acting differently around me, and couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Until I got called into the manager’s office. I was being traded to Anaheim.

Wow. That’s the only thing I could think. Wow. I was shocked. My family was shocked. My teammates were shocked.

Everything I had gained in Pittsburgh — on and off the field — was suddenly ripped away.

The business of baseball can be nasty. I’d been on the wrong end of it a few times, but this was by far the most hurtful of my career. I got traded, said goodbye to my family and left the next day to join my new team. Everything I had gained in Pittsburgh — on and off the field — was suddenly ripped away. The guys in the clubhouse. The relationship I’d built with the fans. I remember the people at the apartment complex I lived in and how they treated my wife and family, leaving notes on our door, leaving notes in the elevator. That was gone. I went from playing in the city I fell in love with to playing 2,500 miles away from my family. On top of all that, I went from being a closer to a middle reliever again.

I thought, OK, I’ll do what I’ve always done. I’ll ride the wave where it takes me. I got knocked off the horse, but I’m gonna dust myself off and keep doing what I do best.

Sometimes it’s not the game that’s tugging at you and making things hard. Sometimes it’s the daily grind of making sure your family is comfortable, but still going out and performing and doing your job. It’s the pressure of finding a home and having some stability for your family — stability I thought I had found with the Pirates.

It’s a business, and the Pirates did what they thought was best for their team. I can’t fault them for that, but it still hurt, and it was a tough one to wrap my head around.

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Once you’ve tasted success, the only thing that motivates you is finding a place where you can win again. A place where you can have an opportunity to succeed and where someone believes in you. Someplace like Pittsburgh when I went there in 2011.

I found it again when I sat down with John Hart of the Atlanta Braves before the 2015 season.

I signed with the Braves for a lot of reasons. It’s an organization that prides itself on pitching — a tradition I wanted to be a part of. I knew they had a chance to win. I wanted to be closer to my family on the east coast. I was joining a great bullpen, anchored by closer Craig Kimbrel, whom I’d be setting up. Not the closer role I was looking for, but still a pretty good gig for a great franchise.

Then, things started happening for me again.

Pittsburgh will always be a special place to me, but I couldn’t have chosen a better place than Atlanta to continue my career.

I was having my last offseason dinner with my family when my phone started going haywire. I’m like, What the hell is going on? I’m getting text after text asking me if I was going to be the closer. I’m thinking, No, Kimbrel is the closer. And he’s an All-Star. It was a Joel Hanrahan situation all over again.

And just like Joel, Craig Kimbrel got traded. Suddenly, I was the new closer for the Atlanta Braves.

Everything happened in Atlanta kind of backwards compared to Pittsburgh. I went to Pittsburgh and fell in love with the city and the fans first, then I pitched well and earned the closing gig. Now, I was given the closing gig before throwing an inning in a Braves uniform, and I had to go out and win over a rabid fanbase that loved Craig Kimbrel as its closer.

I was nervous. I thought, Well, here we go again. I’m either gonna be jeered or cheered. So I just went out and did my job — controlled what I could control and didn’t try to fill a void by trying to be something I’m not.

And so far, it’s worked out.

I’ve pitched well and the Braves are in a position to compete for a playoff spot — not where we’d like to be, but it’s still early, and we’re in it. The Braves fans have really embraced me and accepted me. There are even a few Grilled Cheese shirts going around, and I can say I’m proud to be an Atlanta Brave. Pittsburgh will always be a special place to me — I still have the home I bought there — but I couldn’t have chosen a better place than Atlanta to continue my career.

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When the Pirates came to Atlanta earlier this season, it was my first time pitching against them since they traded me. I pitched in one game, throwing a scoreless inning and getting the win. Bragging rights, I thought. For now. This past weekend, in my first trip back to PNC Park as an opposing pitcher, I took the loss in the series opener, but I came back and got the save in the series finale.

When I got the strikeout to earn the save to close out the series, the fan reaction was mixed, with a 50-50 split of cheers and boos — the boos to let me know they weren’t happy that I just beat their team, and the cheers to let me know they still have love for me. They’re crazy about their sports teams, but they also care about you as a person.

That’s Pittsburgh.

That’s still home, and it was great to be back. It was great to see the guys and it was great to be around those fans and in that stadium again. There aren’t a lot of guys left from that 2013 Pirates team. That’s the nature of this business. Guys move on, a lot. But for those guys who are still there, I’m rooting for them and that team and that city every day.

Unless they’re playing the Atlanta Braves.

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What the (Blank)?

Welcome to the latest edition of What the (Blank)? Just like on the first day of elementary school, we ask athletes to answer 10 questions about themselves so you can get to know them better. Next up is Atlanta Braves pitcher Jason Grilli.

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