A torn Achilles is nothing. Jason Grilli knows that to be truth. Coming back at the age of 39 to try to reclaim the Braves closer’s job with a fresh scar on his left heel and a clubhouse full of young, live arms all around him? Nothing.
He has known this for some time, long before his tendon went zing in the course of a game in July.
Before tackling the first day of spring training, 2016, first go back to opening day of 2010 to understand how Grilli approaches this task.
There he was sitting on the cushioned table of his Orlando physical therapist, contemplating the start of a long, hard rehab. He was then a member of the Cleveland Indians, when a bone chip in his knee had gone off like a cherry bomb during a spring training agility drill, tearing all kinds of muscle and ligament.
It was a very bad day for Grilli. Baseball was moving on without him.
“I was sulking,” he remembered. “I was tearing up. I told everybody that I’d need a minute before we could get started.”
Then, cue the instant perspective, delivered like a slap in the face. Into the clinic rolled young Bree McMahon. She was an Orlando high school soccer player who had just lost her left leg in a freak accident while working a benefit car wash for her team. She also is, as Grilli says today, “the toughest young woman I know.”
“They bonded,” said Grilli’s therapist, Melissa Brown. “He had one of the worst knee injuries I had ever seen. Doctors didn’t know if he’d ever walk correctly again. And her injuries were some of the worst I had ever seen, period. They both have done amazing things.”
As Brown summarized the transaction between the two: “She said, ‘Hey, I’m going to play soccer again.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to spring training again.’”
“I think I gave him some incentive. And he pushed me in rehab. There was a lot of encouragement both ways,” McMahon said.
“Something like that,” Grilli realized, “you can’t script in life.”
McMahon did play soccer again, in goal for Brevard College in North Carolina. She now lives in Asheville, where she coaches club soccer.
And Grilli, as we all know, did get back to spring training. He regained more than a normal walk. He had bounced from team to team throughout much of his career, struggling to establish himself first as a starter and then out of the bullpen. Between the injuries and the detours to the minors, he had a dozen good reasons to put down the baseball and get a real job. But he clung to the idea of pitching and finally gained traction as a closer with Pittsburgh in 2013, a season in which he accumulated 45 percent of his career saves (33 of 74).
His entourage that year when he went to his first and only All Star game: His trainer, his physical therapist and the young amputee who reminded him about the power of belief.
No, a torn Achilles is nothing. In fact it ranks no higher than third on Grilli’s own list of surgical repairs, behind the exploded knee and a Tommy John elbow fix in 2002.
There are all kinds of lists that a fellow of Grilli’s experience could be asked to compile.
Like his favorite minor league city — he has, after all, worn the uniforms of 11 lesser clubs over his determined career, from that of Lehigh Valley Iron Pig to Toledo Mud Hen to Shreveport Captain.
Or the best major league clubhouse spread — he has sampled the home cooking of seven franchises. Or his top five ways to avoid a mid-life crisis — we assume that No. 1 would read: Make your first All-Star game at the age of 36.
But, now, at the sunny start of another Braves spring training, here we were asking him to rank his surgeries by degree of difficulty.
“They put Humpty Dumpty back together a few times,” Grilli said with a smile.
“Fortunately I got a good surgeon. I know the work required to go into rehab. And I bounce back good.”
Sooner or later the elasticity is going to run out, but Grilli and the Braves would appreciate delaying that inevitability one more season.
We saw Grilli in July, crumpled on the infield grass, long hair in a chaotic tangle, his face contorted in anger/pain. It seemed to many at the time the portrait of an old hand’s last game.
“The anguish on my face that day was more I can’t believe this stuff’s happening to me again. It’s not the way I wanted it to end, I can tell you that,” Grilli said. And he had been going so well — ranking fifth in the National League in saves at the time (24) with a 2.67 ERA. Then, while trying to cover first on a ground ball to the right, his Achilles let loose.
We saw Grilli again Saturday, the first pitcher out of the dugout Saturday morning as the Braves emerged for the first official pitchers and catchers workout of the spring.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the pitchers went right to the drill that simulated the very motion that ended Grilli’s season — covering first. He got through it without incident, with steps that were somewhat ginger.
His manager’s first-day instructions were simple enough. “I said hey, let’s take it easy, make sure you’re healthy,” Fredi Gonzalez said. “He doesn’t have to prove anything for me, he’s done it all.”
If anything favors Grilli now, it is that he is a professional survivor.
And the same motivations that have carried him this far still apply. “It goes without saying you want to ride the bike as long as you can. You want to take the jersey off at your own time. I’m not ready. I’m expecting another good season. At my age, I’m still having fun and I’m still able to do what my body allows me to do.”
How much that body will allow this season is the question. Grilli has done all the work of rehab. He has done his research, consulting with another member of the torn Achilles fraternity, St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright. He already has turned in a few brief bullpen sessions and has thrown without incident. As for the answer as to whether Grilli can come back all the way — yet again — one expert on the subject has a strong opinion.
“Definitely,” rehab buddy McMahon said. “He’s as tough as nails.”
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