Grilli proud to represent Italy at Classic
Rockies reliever eager to help baseball grow globally
DENVER -- Rockies right-handed pitcher Jason Grilli's top memories of pitching for Italy in 2006 World Baseball Classic can be boiled down to incredible smells and inspiring sounds.
As much as his success -- he was the winning pitcher in Italy's 10-0 victory over Australia in the opener -- the smells and sounds are bringing him back for this year's Classic.
"I remember we were training in Lakeland, Fla., and one of the coaches went into the kitchen and made some amazing, authentic Italian food," Grilli said. "Those were some of the most amazing smells. Then we had the Italian music going, not the everyday modern music that's usually in the clubhouse.
"Then one day we jammed into the showers in the small clubhouse at Disney, where we were going to play, and Tommy Lasorda came in to talk to us. It was one of the greatest speeches I'd ever heard. I wish I'd memorized or recorded it. He talked about the pride that comes with being Italian, with such feeling. It was a great experience."
In the past several days, Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta and right fielder Brad Hawpe accepted invitations to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, which will begin in early march and end with the championship game March 23 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
But many Rockies will play for other countries, with the same sense of pride that those playing for Team USA will display.
Grilli, who says he is "75 percent Italian" and traces his roots to Florence and Naples, went through some heartache before being allowed to wear the Azzurri jersey in the 2006 Classic.
In 1996, the Italian Baseball Federation invited Grilli, then playing at Seton Hall, and another Italian-American collegiate pitcher, left-hander Todd Incantalupo of Providence, to join the country's Olympic team. The feeling was the team needed power pitchers to be competitive.
Grilli, proud of his heritage and excited for the Olympic opportunity, was honored with a parade in his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., and had several family members arrange trips to Italy to see him prepare for the Games in Atlanta.
However, when they arrived, other players on an Italian team that qualified for the Olympics without the two made it clear they didn't want them on the club, going as far as to threaten a boycott. The pitchers would leave.
"I was in tears the whole way home," Grilli said. "The good part of it was I got to see Italy, but the worst part of it was it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I didn't get to play."
"But I came back and went to the Cape Cod League and had a good showing that sort of helped me as a prospect."
Grilli was drafted by the Giants fourth overall in 1997, so the slight from the Italian team worked to his advantage. Grilli forgave, and was excited to pitch for Italy in 2006. After that Classic, Grilli gained a Major League footing and pitched for a Tigers team that went to the 2006 World Series.
The Rockies acquired Grilli, 32, from the Tigers for Minor League right-hander Zach Simons on April 30. With the Tigers, Grilli was 0-1 with a 3.29 ERA and was not pitching important innings. The Rockies made him a key part of the bullpen. He appeared 51 times and went 3-2 with one save -- his first in the Majors -- and a 2.99 ERA in 2008.
Going into the last World Baseball Classic, Grilli was a candidate for the Tigers' rotation, so pitching as a starter for Italy helped his preparation. Grilli, who is scheduled to throw off the mound for the first time on Wednesday as he prepares for 2009, said he hasn't talked to any officials with the Italian team, but because he is a reliever now he does not want to be asked to take on the workload of a starter during the tournament.
This will make for a spring of heavy travel for Grilli.
Rockies pitchers and catchers are due in Tucson, Ariz., on Feb. 14. Then he'll join the Italian team in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which works out well -- he lives in Orlando and his wife, Danielle, and 1-year-old son, Jayse, can join him. Italy opens tournament play on March 7 in Toronto, where Team USA, Canada and Venezuela are in the same pool. That works for him as well, because his family is from Syracuse and his wife's family is from Buffalo.
No matter where his travels take him, Grilli will feel at home pitching for Italy.
"Obviously, I love the United States," he said. "But I'm also proud of my lineage. No doubt you get some national pride, and I'm in the books in Italian baseball, and that's good. Major League Baseball wants the game to grow globally, and I'm happy to be a part of that."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.