It’s amazing how emotional most major-league players get when told they’ve been selected to the all-star game. After all, it’s just an exhibition game in the middle of the season, even if the result determines home-field advantage in the World Series. But with this current generation of major-league players, it’s the ultimate individual honour. A World Series is their team equivalent.
There are two Jays players that can identify with the emotions Estrada was feeling — starter R.A. Dickey, who was 38 years old when he was named to his first all-star game in 2012, and reliever Jason Grilli, who was drafted fourth overall in the first round in 1997, then waited until 2013, at the age of 36, when he was a closer with the Pirates, before he was recognized among the game’s bullpen elite.
“I was in the first Futures all-star game (for top prospects) in 1999 that they held at Fenway,” Grilli smiled as he recalled the long journey. “But the thing, for me (in 2013), I was happy just because of having my sons with me. It meant more to me than just me making an all-star team. Having my son sit on my lap for an all-star game, it just brought in the whole thing of the sacrifice of what we do away from our families. To have that baseball moment with them on the field — young as they might have been — I still have that picture to go back to and live that memory.
Estrada also prominently mentioned his family when he talked about his coming celebration in San Diego. He talked about bringing along his mother and grandmother, and being with his wife and children.
“It was a celebration for many reasons,” Grilli said. “I had come off of being out of the game to looking from the mountain top. Just having Mariano Rivera . . . me and him were warming up and he tipped his cap. There were so many things.
“I’ve always been taught to love and respect the game, so to hold the Golden Globe Award in our respective field, it meant a lot. I’ll always have that memory and check it off the list. But the box I don’t have checked is a World Series championship. I think any guy in here would trade an all-star appearance for a World Series title, any day of the week.”
It may be coincidence, but ever since Grilli was first acquired from the Braves on May 31, the much-maligned Blue Jays bullpen has been in a better place in terms of understanding and executing roles. The 39-year-old Grilli did not immediately take on the mantle of leadership, but has gradually grasped that role with the Jays, relishing what he brings to the table in terms of maturity and experience.
“There’s plenty of talent, there’s plenty of arsenal that we have here,” Grilli said. “Whether guys have been in certain roles and what’s expected of them, I think it’s solidified now. We’re all capable of doing a good job.
“I enjoy talking the game. I have a little bit of an old soul that way . . . talking the game, watching every pitch, expectations of backing your guys up and knowing what they’re going through, that to me is important.”
Grilli recognized the void he has helped fill behind the left-field wall, sitting with his fellow relievers, all of them younger, some much younger. He knows his Blue Jays history and who has come before him.
“LaTroy Hawkins was here, all the guys that are old school,” Grilli said. “I say old school because I’m old school. The game changes, generations change. We only borrow this game, but I’m only inserting what was taught to me. And until I’m done borrowing this game, I’m going to insert that same reflection of what I think should be done and how I think it should be respected.
“I’m not thumping my chest. I’m not on a soapbox. I don’t thump my chest to be that way, but I certainly enjoy talking it and learning from some of these guys. They’ve got power arms and filthy stuff. But if I can teach . . . be another coach, another friend and another teammate — that’s what we’re all here for, talking the game.”
The start of the all-star break is also the one-year anniversary of Grilli’s accident covering first base in Colorado with the Braves, when he tore his Achilles tendon. Some say he came back too soon at the start of 2016, but that’s just the way he is. The Jays took a chance and, in 13 games, he is 1-0, with a 2.31 ERA, pitching 11 2/3 innings, allowing nine hits with five walks and 21 strikeouts. Not all-star numbers, but he’s been there.