Former Tiger Steve Grilli is in his fifth decade in baseball

Steve Grilli pitched in 69 games for the Detroit Tigers from 1975-77.

Steve Grilli pitched in 69 games for the Detroit Tigers from 1975-77.

One of the benefits to living and working in Cooperstown is the opportunity to participate in Hall of Fame Classic Weekend. Held over the Memorial Day holiday, the weekend brings roughly 40 retired major leaguers to town for a skills clinic and an old-timers game. For someone like me who works in the Hall’s education department, the experience affords me the opportunity to relive baseball history—and meet good people like former Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Steve Grilli.

Ever since the Hall of Fame and the MLB Alumni Association have teamed together on a youth skills clinic, Grilli has become a fixture at the event. He is good humored, patient, and caring toward the kids. And even when rainy weather prevents anyone from actually going through drills on Doubleday Field, Grilli takes the microphone, addresses the kids, and preaches the importance of working hard, cooperating with teammates, and playing the game just the right way.

After the abbreviated clinic, Grilli typically remains at Doubleday Field to chat with staffers and fans, regaling them with his sense of humor and his stories of days as a player and broadcaster. Of all the players who participated in the clinic, Grilli is often the last to leave.

For younger fans of the Tigers, the name of Steve Grilli might not mean much. So let’s learn about him. Grilli was not a highly touted prospect coming out of college. He went undrafted, but was signed by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1970. The following summer, the Tigers assigned the rookie right-hander to Rocky Mount of the Carolina League, where he pitched most of the season in relief. (Keep in mind that if you pitch in relief in the low minors, you are probably not on the fast track toward the major leagues.)

In midseason, the Tigers assigned him to Lakeland of the Florida State League. Converted to the starting rotation, Grilli began to blossom. He made eight starts, won five of them, and sported an ERA of 1.98. From there, he began a steady rise up the Tigers’ minor league chain.

In 1972, Grilli dominated at Montgomery of the Southern League. He won 11 of 14 decisions, while forging an even more impressive ERA of 1.72. With 94 strikeouts in 115 innings, he began convincing the Tigers’ brass that he was indeed a prospect, even though he lacked a dominating fastball and relied more heavily on a capable change-up.

Promoted to Toledo of the International League during the second half of the season, Grilli struggled. That was understandable, given that he was still only 23 and experiencing Triple-A hitters for the very first time. So in 1973, he went back to Montgomery, where he once again toyed with Southern League hitters, again convincing the Tigers to promote him to Triple-A. And just like before, Grilli struggled in for the International League, where his ERA of 6.43 indicated he was simply not ready for the major leagues.

The Tigers decided to challenge Grilli in 1974, sending him back to Triple-A, where the Tigers had switched affiliated from Toledo to Evansville. He fared better, putting up a 4.13 ERA as a combination starter/reliever. But it still wasn’t enough to earn a ticket to Detroit, so Grilli returned to Evansville in 1975. The Tigers decided to adjust his role, making him a fulltime reliever. The switch worked to perfection. Working 102 innings, Grilli saved 12 games, won 11 other decisions, and forged an ERA of an even 3.00.

Now in rebuilding mode, the Tigers decided to give Grilli a late-season look in September. Once the rosters expanded to 40 players, the Tigers added Grilli to the club and gave him three appearances out of the pen. Though his control was spotty (he issued six walks in six innings), he allowed only three hits and compiled a 1.35 ERA. For a 26-year-old pitcher of middling ability who had toiled for five minor league seasons, it was a terrific way to end the summer.

In 1976, Grilli made the Opening Day roster. Manager Ralph Houk called on Grilli to pitch long relief, in front of veteran relief ace John Hiller. Appearing in 34 games, Grilli pitched 66 innings, but generally struggled. He walked more batters than he struck out (always a bad sign for a pitcher who doesn‘t rely on power) and saw his ERA balloon above 4.50. Still, the bicentennial represented his first full season in the majors, while simultaneously giving him the chance to play with the wondrous Mark Fidrych. “The Bird” just so happened to be a rookie in 1976, too, making Grilli’s first year experience that much more lasting.

Desperately needing relief pitching, the Tigers gave Grilli another look in 1977. He raised his strikeout total, but his number of K’s matched his number of walks, and his ERA jumped higher, from 4.64 to 4.83. Those numbers simply weren’t good enough to sustain a career in Detroit.

Grilli reported to the Tigers’ spring camp in 1978, but he didn’t last long in Lakeland. Shortly after the start of spring training, the Tigers sold his contract to the Blue Jays, an expansion franchise on the verge of playing its second season.

Even though the Jays had less established talent than the Tigers, Grilli did not make Toronto’s Opening Day roster. He instead reported to the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, where he split the season between starting and relieving. With an ERA near 4.00, Grilli seemed like light years away from a recall to Toronto.

In 1979, Grilli returned to Syracuse, but the Jays wisely moved him back to the bullpen, where he prospered. Lowering his ERA to 2.01, he saved 12 games and won nine. It was during that summer that Grilli became a cult figure in Syracuse. The fans not only enjoyed his pitching, but also his bullpen antics. During the seventh inning stretch at ancient MacArthur Stadium, the Chiefs played a popular song by the Doobie Brothers. As the song blared on the public address system, Grilli performed an “air banjo” routine, pretending to play the instrument to the timing of the song. Fans loved the routine, often reacting wildly to Grilli’s gyrations.

The Jays didn’t care much about the banjo routine, but they did reward Grilli with a late-season recall and gave him a chance to pitch in one game. He did well, throwing two and a third innings of scoreless relief. As it turned out, that would be his final appearance in a major league game.

Now 31 years old, Grilli could have been excused for giving up his career. But he refused to give in, reporting to Syracuse at the end of spring training in 1981. He pitched so badly that the Jays ended up selling him to the Orioles’ top affiliate at Rochester. That allowed him to take place in one of the most memorable games the minor leagues have ever seen.

On June 23, Rochester and Pawtucket played the conclusion to the longest game in professional baseball history. As the game moved to the 33rd inning, the Red Wings called on Grilli to pitch. He faced three batters, retiring none. The third batter, Dave Koza, stroked a single to end the game. Although Koza’s hit saddled Grilli with a loss, it also made him the answer to a trivia question.

Grilli opted to retire at season’s end, but his involvement with the 33-inning game created a connection to the Hall of Fame. Hall officials asked Grilli if he would be willing to donate something from that memorable game, to be included as part of the Hall’s collection of artifacts. “I kind of joked and told them they could have anything in that game that they wanted,” Grilli told the Hall of Fame’s Bill Francis. Ultimately, the journeyman right-hander decided to donate his Red Wings cap. “It’s great to be remembered for something. I was well short of winning 300 games in the big leagues, so I wasn’t going to get in the Hall of Fame that way.

“We’re all going to be dead and gone someday, but in a sense it’s almost like a tombstone etching right there in the Hall of Fame. If you can leave something there and be part of the history of this wonderful game, I think you’ve got to be a fool not to give it up.”

Grilli’s Red Wings cap has been part of the Hall’s collection ever since. Over this past weekend, Hall curators showcased Grilli’s cap as part of a series of special behind-the-scenes tours.

So Grilli is now part of the Hall of Fame’s permanent collection. His persistence in pitching at the minor league level would pay off in more tangible ways, too. His popularity in Syracuse would eventually create business and career opportunities. Impressed by his outgoing personality, the Chiefs offered him a position as color analyst on their radio broadcasts.

“I’m a good luck charm. I’ve worked with broadcasters like Sean McDonough, Ken Levine, and Mike Tirico,” Grilli said slyly over the weekend in describing co-workers who have gone on to become celebrities in baseball, at ESPN, and even in Hollywood. “They’ve all become big stars. So I like to remind them that they wouldn’t have made it without me,” Grilli says with a smile.

Now a member of the Chiefs’ Wall of Fame, Grilli continues to broadcast Syracuse games, he also enjoys success in other locales. He owns and operates a bar in Syracuse known as “Change of Pace.” The chicken wings served by Grilli’s staff often earn ratings as the best wings in the Syracuse area.

Grilli’s notoriety happens to extend beyond the Syracuse area. He is the father of Pirates closer Jason Grilli, a 2013 All-Star who just returned from the disabled list last Friday. Grilli’s pride in his son could be found in his decision to wear a Pirates cap during part of Hall of Fame Classic Weekend.

All things considered, Grilli’s experiences in the game have far exceeded reasonable expectations. A onetime teammate of Mark Fidrych. Cult status in a minor league town. A never-ending connection to a Hall of Fame artifact. And countless friends along the way, thanks to an enthusiastic personality and a willingness to reach out to kids who want to learn and fans who just want to talk.

For an undrafted amateur pitcher who struggled as an obscure middle reliever, it’s a legacy that borders on the remarkable.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.