WBC Notebook: National team debut worth the wait for Grilli--and Italy
Compiled by Matt Meyers
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.
Although 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
Soon 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.
"They had 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.
Even 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."
After a 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
Ten 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.
"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 '97."
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 leagues.
While he would have liked to have starred for Italy in the 1996 Olympics, he realizes it is better late then never.
"I 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.