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Thursday April 24 2014
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Gravel Road

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After a decade in the major leagues, every player has faced—and overcome—some type of adversity. Players stare adversity right in the face every time they step in the batter’s box or take their place on the pitching mound.

 For Jason Grilli and his fellow relief pitchers, adversity comes each time they get the call out of the bullpen.

“Every pitcher has to pitch through adversity at some point during his outing,” said Grilli. “As a reliever it’s usually what you have to do and I thrive on that.”

Grilli has shown to be incredibly resilient over the course of his career. However, sometimes a player’s career doesn’t go quite how he envisioned it. Whether it’s playing for half a dozen teams, suffering a career-threatening injury, or being stuck in the minors at age 34, obstacles arise and major leaguers need to have the pride and passion to carry on.

While Grilli struggled to find a place he could call home early in his career—he spent two full seasons in the minors after pitching in seven games with the Florida Marlins in 2000 and ’01—he seems to found a home in the Pirates bullpen in 2012 at age 35. Through the first 48 games of the season, Michigan-born Grilli has become one of the National League’s most dominant relievers. Finding this niche didn’t come easy, however.

One of Jason Grilli’s biggest obstacles came in 2010 when he suffered a severe leg injury when running sprinting and agility drills during spring training shortly after signing with the Cleveland Indians. Grilli tore his quadriceps muscle above his left knee, causing him to miss the entire season. He proceeded to file for free agency soon after. 

In a recent television interview, Grilli said the first thing he thought of when hitting the ground after injuring his leg was his family. They would serve as part of the motivation Grilli used to get back to the major leagues. But one specific person Grilli met while rehabbing the leg provided him with the extra bit of motivation he needed to get through tough times he was about to endure. It was then that Grilli met a young athlete named Bree McMahon.

As a young 19-year-old woman, McMahon has more adversity than most people. In 2009, McMahon was pinned against a wall by a car in a bizarre accident during a car wash fundraising event. Her left leg was amputated. She almost lost both of her legs, but doctors managed to save the right leg and affix a prosthetic leg to her left.

Grilli and McMahon first met during rehab stints in a medical facility in Orlando in 2010. Grilli said he was down on himself and sulking about his injury; however, when he met McMahon, he said it was like a “wakeup call.”

“We formed a pretty solid bond. She’s here for me and I’m here for her,” said Grilli in a recent media interview.

Meeting McMahon when he did—at 33-years-old and facing the possible end of his career—made Grilli an even stronger, more resilient individual.

McMahon, meanwhile, went on to play soccer at Brevard College in North Carolina on her prosthetic leg.

Her ordeal made Grilli’s own injury easier to deal with. Following his nearly year-long rehab, Grilli signed a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. However, despite a 4-1 record, 1.93 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 33 innings for the Phillies’ triple-A team in Lehigh Valley, he never received the call-up from the big club and received his release on July 20. The next day, Grilli signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Grilli said his rehab process was a long road, but in the end, the work he put into it is paying off.

“It's been a gravel road to get to this point in my career,” he said.

After a successful second half to the 2011 season, Grilli has pitched in 19 games in 2012, posting a 2.00 ERA, allowing just 12 hits and notching 33 strikeouts in 18 innings. Through May 29, Grilli established a club record for a relief pitcher by striking out at least one batter in each of his first 19 appearances of the season. At press time, Grilli has fanned the last seven batters he’d faced.

Though the Pirates have struggled through the last 19 years without a winning season, Grilli and the rest of the bullpen are giving the Pirates a fighting chance to overcome this hump. The veteran hurler knows a thing or two about adversity—and the pride and passion Grilli put into rehabbing from a potential career-ending injury is something he plans to instill in the rest of the clubhouse.

“The fans are always behind the team no matter what’s going on, and I’m just glad to be on the side of it now to get a full feel and full backing of this town,” said Grilli. “And I wanna bring this town a championship.”

It’s all starting to make sense. The Steelers have not made the playoffs the past two seasons. Those two years have seen the team part ways with players who were integral to a sustained run of success that resulted in a pair of Super Bowl championships.
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