LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.–On Tuesday night, Jason Grilli helped make
one of the bigger splashes in the World Baseball Classic by striking
out seven in 4 2/3 scoreless innings as Italy thrashed Australia 10-0.
the Italians would be eliminated after losing their next two games to
Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, Tuesday’s game was a historic
highlight for Italian baseball, and based on Grilli’s prior experience
with Italy’s national team, it is hard to fathom he was the focal point
for such a enormous occasion.
The World Baseball Classic is
not the first time that the Italian Baseball Federation has looked to
Italian-Americans for help. After qualifying for the 1996 Olympics, the
IBF called on Grilli (from Seton Hall) along with lefthander Todd
Incantalupo, another Italian-American from Providence College, to join
them for the Olympics.
“We were guaranteed a spot on the
team,” Grilli said. “We were supposed to play on a club team to get
ready. The national team was already gathered and practicing. We were
supposed to play for Florence and meet on the weekends to practice with
the national team.”
Not so warm welcome
after their arrival, things took a turn for the worse as the pitchers
realized they were not welcome by their new teammates, who did not
appreciate the thought of outsiders taking spots on a their Olympic
roster, when they had been the ones to qualify.
long meetings,” Grilli said. “Knowing very little Italian, I fed off
the emotional sentiments of the players. I understand because some of
their friends and people that were native Italians, we would be taking
three of their spots.”
Unfortunately, the harsh treatment
went beyond some unkind words in the midst of heated team meetings. The
Italian players threatened to boycott the Olympics if the Americans
were allowed to play and would tell them the wrong times for meetings,
meals and buses so that they would show up late and look foolish.
more humiliating was that in a scene straight out of Bull Durham, the
catcher for the Florentine team for which they were playing was tipping
the pitches to the hitters.
“I was very upset,” said
Grilli, who is now with the Tigers. “I had a big sendoff from (my
hometown of) Syracuse to go to the Olympics . . . I was very much into
representing my homeland country, going through the whole process and
proving my heritage and discovering my roots.”
four-week debacle of mixed messages and horrible treatment, the
pitchers read the writing on the wall and returned to the States. Italy
would go on to finish sixth in the Atlanta Olympics that year.
“To come home, crying the whole way home because I felt so ostracized and let down, it was very hurtful,” said Grilli.
Change of heart
years later, the experience in 1996 is a distant memory. Incantalupo
reconciled with the IBF in 2000 and pitched for the national team in
2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006. Grilli made his debut with the Azzurri
during the Classic. While it was the players who treated them like
pariahs, they realize that is was maneuvering of the IBF that was at
the root of the problem.
“I don’t think they were honest
with the players either,” said Incantalupo, who did not pitch in the
Classic. “It was more behind the scenes in the federation with the
president, vice president and secretary bringing us in and not really
consulting the team and coaches. The coaches weren’t on board either .
“The players were defending their teammates. When you
hear that, you can’t really complain, you can’t say too much, I
understood. I had a lot of long conversations since then with Italians
that were on that team, guys that were in the federation and work for
the federation now and it is totally different now. They embrace us
just like we were their own.”
For all the heartache that
the experience in 1996 caused the two hurlers, they have both managed
to put it in the past and even took something from it.
was almost a better thing for me to not play because I went back to
Cape Cod and it really propelled my career,” said Grilli, who was the
No. 4 overall pick in 1997, drafted by the Giants. “They poured
gasoline on a fire that was already burning and I used that adversity
to fuel me to be picked in the first round of the major league draft in
Grilli’s victory on Tuesday was important on many
levels. Besides being a huge win for Italy, it also gave him a chance
to showcase himself for the Tigers and other big league clubs. He will
rejoin the Tigers now that Italy is eliminated, but he is not assured a
spot on their 25-man roster. The 29-year-old, however, is out of
options, so he must pass through waivers before being sent to the minor
While he would have liked to have starred for Italy in the 1996 Olympics, he realizes it is better late then never.
wish I could have showcased myself then, but it wasn’t permitted,” said
Grilli, whose father Steve played in the big leagues for parts of four
seasons with the Tigers and Blue Jays. “There was a lot the other night
that I felt very prideful for–for my family name, for the name on the
front of the chest as well as the back. To show these guys that we want
to win, and we are not out here to be anybody’s doormat.”
Italy is by no means a doormat, and they can thank a pitcher they once wanted no part of as a big reason why.
Further proof that the Italian team is having as much fun as anyone
happened Friday morning. Despite being eliminated from the competition
yesterday in a 8-3 loss to the Dominican Republic, the Italians went
ahead with their workout this morning that was scheduled in case they
were still alive.
• With Team USA’s victory against South
Africa, the final eight teams for the second round, which begins
Sunday, are set. Team USA, Mexico, Japan and Korea advance to Anaheim,
with the U.S. opening with Japan while Mexico plays Korea. The
Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico advance play in
Puerto Rico, with matchups still to be determined.