“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.” -Jason Grilli, Player’s Tribune
I don’t think it’s any secret that some players, regardless of how they’re performing, can be harder to lose than others. There’s just a certain fan/player chemistry that is conjured, or a certain kind of character that is widely admired (think, for example, of the beloved Munenori Kawasaki). It basically means you’ll still wish there was a way your fave could stick around, even if their departure is an inevitable necessity.
On Tuesday, when news broke that Jason Grilli was designated for assignment, I definitely found myself wishing things could have panned out differently. There’s just something about that guy that struck a chord with so many of us, and—even in the very short time he was here—made him an important part of the team’s unique make-up.
I acknowledge that the bad Grilli news was not necessarily a surprise. His performances over the last few months meant the DFA decision was expected, and all signs pointed to this being best choice for the team. But in the emotional universe of this game, reason and logic don’t always matter all that much. There was something about Grilli (and all the many puns he inspired) that sparked a real fire in this fan base, and the team saying goodbye felt like yet another painful kick in the gut during a season that certainly has, at times, felt unrelentingly disappointing.
When Grilli first came to us in late May 2016, I certainly allowed myself to become emotionally invested. His story was compelling—a classic triumphant second chance/comeback from injury tale, with the lovely detail that he was a Jays fan as a kid thrown in. He was also a font of charming details, like his love for grilled cheese sandwiches, his distinctly dad-passion for Pearl Jam, and his French bulldog named Glover. And though he was older and more experienced than his teammates, he certainly didn’t appear jaded. He seemed to maintain a light, youthful irreverence that was warm, welcoming, and altogether charismatic. (It’s worth noting that more than a few Jays media folks have suggested he’s great to talk to, with one actually claiming “he’s the best.”)
But so much more than all of that obvious good guy stuff, when Grilli was pitching well, he was so damn fun to watch. In a game that is constantly debating the “appropriate” way to celebrate successes, you could count on Grilli for a glorious, sweaty, exuberant fist pump, and a triumphant grunty full-throated yell. He was all limitless enthusiasm, all energy and fire, acting as an attractive counterbalance to the majority staid seriousness found on the mound. It got to the point that when I knew he was coming out of the pen, when “Whipping” would blare on the Rogers Centre loudspeakers, I’d find myself jumping up and down, filled with a kind of child-like glee, excited to see the show that was about to unfold.
What was more, Grilli seemed to really love being here. Last October, when he penned an earnest piece for The Player’s Tribune, he talked at length about how grateful he was to call Toronto home. “Now that it’s actually happening at this point in my career, it’s all kind of surreal,” he wrote. “I want to absorb every second of the experience. While I was pushing my body to heal itself, I wasn’t dreaming about money. I was dreaming about this. The opportunity to have one more shot at a World Series. So when I found out that I was traded to the Blue Jays in May, I was so damn excited.”
In a lot of ways Grilli, and the distinctive way he approached the game, also reminded me to be unabashedly excited about baseball. He endorsed the unrestrained, and suggested it really was okay to care—a lot and in public. A player like that is a rare gift on a team, and one that’s easy to be grateful for. And while his time was marked by a successful road to October, I like to think he would have thrilled us regardless—he was simply a joy to behold in a Jays uniform.
The flip side to these feelings, of course, is how painful it was to see Grilli fail. How much he cared about every pitch was written all over his animated face, for better or worse. His struggles—especially in the last few months—hit especially hard. As frustrating as, say, four surrendered home runs in a single inning could be, the fact that he was hurting about it seemed more painful than the actual loss. No one wanted to know that he was staring into his locker post game, refusing to talk to the media—the fan heartbreak always seemed to smart more than usual.
On the decision to let Grilli go, Gibby told the media; “He’s one of the good guys and that always makes it doubly tough.” He also added, unsurprisingly, that the veteran pitcher made it “easy for him to deliver the bad news.” It would seem that Grilli was humble, professional, and had the necessary perspective, right up to the very end. His final gesture was to ask his teammates—and perhaps all of us—to “stay in the fight.”
Many have since adopted Grilli’s thoughtful parting phrase, saying it makes more sense than the lesser Jays-initiated “Let’s Rise.” I agree it’s certainly fitting for a season that has consistently demanded our commitment, and that at times feels more like a test of our faith and our feelings than anything else.