Competitive fire still burns for 40-year-old reliever still eyeing World Series title
By Paul Hagen
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Bartolo Colon, who will turn 44 in May, is the oldest active big leaguer at the moment. Ichiro is seven months younger. R.A. Dickey is 42, and Koji Uehara will get there on Opening Day.
Then there's Blue Jays reliever Jason Grilli. He turned 40 last November, which is impressive all by itself. Not only that, he made 46 relief appearances for the Blue Jays, allowed fewer hits (28) than innings pitched (42) and had a 3.64 earned run average. Against a backdrop of contemporaries like David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, David Ross, Joel Peralta and (apparently) A.J. Pierzynski retiring after last season, he's still going strong.
"I'm just blessed every day, man, to still do what I love to do," Grilli said after Thursday's workout. "You obviously have to love it to do it this long, and I obviously do."
There were several times it all could have ended long ago. Two serious surgeries, one on his Achilles and another on his quadriceps tendon. The fourth overall player drafted in 1997, by the Giants, he didn't have notable success in the Major Leagues until he was 29 and with his fourth organization.
Grilli could have gotten discouraged when he couldn't get called up by the Phillies in 2011 despite a 1.93 earned run average and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings in Triple-A. Instead, he became even more determined to succeed, exercising the out clause in his contract and signing with the Pirates. Two years later, he had 33 saves for the Bucs and made the National League All-Star team.
"It was just another road block where I said I wasn't listening," Grilli said. "I wasn't listening to these labels. I wasn't listening to these stereotypes. I've always bet on me. A long time ago I told my dad [Steve] I was going to be a first-round pick. And here's my dad who was a non-drafted free agent and signed for a Snickers bar [and eventually spent parts of three seasons for the Tigers and appeared in one game for the Blue Jays], and he even looked at me like, 'You know what that requires?' I've always kind of had my mind made up.
"It's just like every year. We all come in, and we all believe we're going to win the World Series this year. And that should be our mindset. I'm still trying to achieve that. It's the last bucket list item I've got on my board that I really want the most."
And what about catching Jamie Moyer who, at 49, became the oldest pitcher to win a game in the big leagues?
Grilli laughed and shook his head. He mentioned his wife and two children. He talked about the importance of family. But he didn't entirely rule out the idea, either.
"At some point, you have to make that decision," he said. "Sometimes the career makes that decision for you. But I'm relishing it now. I'm still hanging onto the bull. And still showing that I can do something significant."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.