Steve Grilli is eager to speak of his decades long association with the Syracuse Chiefs. ” I didn't get along with Humphreys (Chiefs' manager Bob Humphreys),” says Grilli of his Syracuse skipper in 1981. “Back in 1981, he put me on the disabled list , when there was nothing wrong with me. It was early […]
Steve Grilli is eager to speak of his decades long association with the Syracuse Chiefs.
” I didn't get along with Humphreys (Chiefs' manager Bob Humphreys),” says Grilli of his Syracuse skipper in 1981. “Back in 1981, he put me on the disabled list , when there was nothing wrong with me. It was early in the season, and I think he just wanted to look at some youngsters we had.”
Shortly after being released by the Toronto Blue Jays, Syracuse's parent club, Grilli almost signed with the New York Yankees. Almost.
Columbus Clippers (Yankees affiliate) manager Frank Verdi had Grilli workout for three days with the club. With a pitching staff anchored by future Yankees great Dave Righetti, the mighty Clippers would finish the regular season at 88-51, and go on to collect the Governor's Cup. While waiting on Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner to make a decision, to sign or not to sign Grilli, the Baltimore Orioles, at the same time, had an offer out to Grilli for the taking.
“I waited until midnight, and when I hadn't heard from Steinbrenner, I took the job in Rochester,” Grilli,69, tells. “I couldn't wait to pitch against Humphreys. I remember Cal (Hall of Famer Cal Ripken) hit a home run to win the game we had against the Chiefs. The next day I took the line-up card to home. Anytime I could stick it to (Humphreys), I did. That was three, or four times the rest of the season.”
Grilli bleeds Chiefs baseball.
When last fall it was announced that with the Chiefs no longer being a community-owned franchise, and the New York Mets had purchased the organization,Grilli, born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, saw the move as positive. Just wanting baseball on Syracuse's North Side is all this baseball lifer wants.
“It's the direction minor league baseball is going,” Grilli tells. “The Mets are coming here with a vision. They own two teams here (New York) – Single-A in Brooklyn, and now Triple-A here.”
The Mets have their Double-A club in Binghamton.
During Grilli's four season's with the Chiefs (1978-'81) there were special people to him in the clubhouse that he still has high esteem for. Grilli's first Chiefs' skipper Vern Benson is among them. When Toronto fired manager Roy Hartsfield, and hired Bobby Mattick as his replacement, that decision didn't sit well with Grilli.
“I loved Vern. I think he got robbed. He was fun to play for; mild.”
Details are in no shortage for Grilli, who made his MLB debut at age 26 for the Detroit Tigers when the minimum salary was $16,000. Names of teammates, Grilli rattles off a list.
Ainge came out of Brigham Young University as one of the most celebrated college basketball players. It was during his time at BYU that Ainge played in parts of three seasons with the Chiefs, after being drafted by Toronto in 1977. Today, Ainge is the president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics.
“He (Ainge) was a great sports figure,” said Grilli,who pitched in his final MLB game with Toronto in 1979 against the Boston Red Sox at Exhibition Stadium. Danny was ready for the NBA. He didn't belong in Triple-A. As a shortstop, Ainge barely hit .200. Then, they (Toronto) put him in center field. He was such a great athlete, but Toronto rushed him.”
It was in the Chiefs' former home park – MacArthur Stadium, where Grilli worked games.
“I loved it,” declared Grilli of the then 60-plus year old ball park ” It was a pitcher's park.”
MacArthur's dimensions truly were inviting for pitchers looking for an edge that would catapult them to the big-leagues. Left field was 320 feet from home plate, while straight away center was 434, and right field was 320. But, for the former pitcher, memories of what went on outside the white lines, at times were equally entertaining as in-between the bases.
“Back then, in the seventh inning, the Chiefs played John Denver singing Thank God I'm A Country Boy. That got so boring, hearing it over and over again,” remembers Grilli, who would retired from baseball after the 1981 season, and remained a resident of the Greater Syracuse area ever since. “When we (Chiefs) were on road trips, on the bus we had a boombox. I loved listening to the Doobie Brothers. During one trip, I was in charge of the box”.
With Grilli switching from Denver to Doobies on the bus, he recalls the change of pace pumping the guys up.Once returning home to MacArthur, and having the Chiefs substitute the Doobies for the all too familiar Country Boy tune over MacArthur's public address system, the change caught on with the fans. Grilli looks back at how the new music selection caught on with the fans, many who would be playing air guitars, as the grounds crew completed grooming the field.
After playing two and a half seasons in Detroit, when he was sold to Toronto on February 25, 1978, Grilli fully anticipated having a roster spot with the Blue Jays.
” I had two really good seasons here (Syracuse), and never got called up,” offers Grilli, who won a combined 18 games during the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
While with the Chiefs, Grilli and his wife bought a house in the Syracuse area with money saved while with the Tigers, as an investment. The Grillis never left. Central New York reminded the young couple of their Long Island roots.
Thoughts of what could have been with the Blue Jays, if only a break he felt was deserved had come, still haunts Grilli. Listening to his passion for the game, Grilli truly feels that he could have been with Toronto. Experiencing what he labels a “phenomenal year” in 1979 (9-7 2.01 ERA 12 saves), a one game appearance, for two innings, is all that was in the offering by Toronto.
However, Grilli's post-playing career in Syracuse has introduced him to new generations of Chiefs' fans. Calling games on radio and TV transformed Grilli into Central New York's version of former Yankees great Phil Rizzuto on the local airwaves. Beginning in 1984, as part of Syracuse's broadcasting trio with Sean McDonough and Dick Grossman, Grilli would inform and entertain Chiefs' fans for many seasons to come
“I remember when Tex (Chiefs' former general manager Tex Simone) asked me if I wanted to work with Sean. Yeah. I'd love to,” says Grilli. “He (McDonough) told me, it's like the two of us are in a bar, and we're watching a game on TV.”
Not working Chiefs game on radio is something missed by Grilli. He admits to going through withdrawal. Baseball and the Chiefs have been a major part of his family's life for as far back as most can remember. But, memories there are plenty of – just ask the former Chiefs' pitcher.