Book review: Jason Grilli's hilariously narcissistic 'Just My Game'

Justin K. Aller

Just My Game is the autobiography of a baseball player. It exists only because Jason Grilli is very good at playing a sport. Holding him to too high a standard would be unfair, since Grilli isn't any more a writer than Jonah Keri is a second baseman. So when Jason Grilli writes, I don't expect Shakespeare. What I do expect when a ballplayer writes a book is insight into what the player is really like, or what baseball is really like. At least on the first count, Just My Game delivers. Just not in the way it intends.

Just My Game is a tour de force of delusional narcissism. The first 15 pages are vain outsider art on par with The Room. Grilli is an angrier, jock-ier Derek Zoolander.

The book begins innocently enough with a foreword by Clint Hurdle, who is likable as usual despite a serious mixed-metaphor problem. ("Jason has skins on the wall, and the younger guys see him as that veteran who has earned his wings. He's the old bull," Hurdle writes.)

And then it's all Grilli, and at least for a while, it's something to behold. On page 2, Grilli compares his 2010 knee injury while in camp with the Indians to being shot and to stepping on a landmine. Then on page 3, he's lamenting his fate as the reality of the injury becomes clear to him.

Like Nancy Kerrigan after she was whacked in the knee with a lead pipe, but hopefully not in the same high-pitched shrill, I began screaming, "Why me? Why does this always happen to me?"

A serious injury is pretty bad for a ballplayer, particularly a reliever in his thirties who's trying to claw his way back to the major leagues, as Grilli was in 2010. You could excuse him for that one moment of self-pity. Two paragraphs later, however, Grilli explains how his injury will affect his salary for the year.

I was going to be practically standing in the soup line on the Triple A disabled list. ... I made about sixty grand for the year ...

It was on this page that I began underlining ridiculous sentences and writing swear words in the margins.

But okay, whatever! Maybe being a baseball player can cause you to lose track of the fact that many people in this country would love to make sixty grand a year. If you're a ballplayer, maybe making a totally reasonable salary of $60,000 a year really does seem like a soup line, but without, you know, the soup, or the line, or the hunger, or the homelessness, or any sort of danger. Losing perspective is bad, but it isn't the worst thing, is it?

No, it isn't. And we know, because Grilli gets there on page 5.

This was supposed to be the year for me, something I predicted all along. I promised myself and any inhabitants of the world who followed me that the year I turned thirty-three would be my "Prophetic year!" ... I grew my hair out, even turned my goatee into a beard. ... In another ironic twist, I even stepped on a rusty nail while cleaning out my garage during the offseason. This was going to be my season of resurrection.

At this point I quit with the swear words and just moved on to series of exclamation points. If Jason Grilli were attempting to write as "Jason Grilli," some sort of satirical "Stephen Colbert"-like character, he couldn't have been doing a better job. In fact, he reminded me a bit of David Brent from the UK version of The Office:

Unfortunately, Grilli wasn't trying to be funny. The extent of his obliviousness quickly became clear. From page 10:

Despite what many people may think when they see me pumped with adrenaline after a game-ending punch out, I never have been overly comfortable bringing attention to myself.

Oh really? Because I could have sworn that just five pages ago, you were telling "any inhabitants of the world who followed" you about all the similarities between you and Jesus.

Grilli writes about adrenaline a lot. From watching him pitch, it isn't surprising that adrenaline is important to him, and in the book, it quickly becomes clear where he gets it. It comes not primarily from the thrill of competition, but from ancient, petty grievances with most of the people he meets -- coaches, other players, his minor-league host families (I hope none of the families kind enough to take Grilli in have the misfortune of reading about themselves here), even athletes on his high school's lacrosse team.

I often used to argue with the "lax guys" who would claim their sport was far superior to baseball. "Baseball is for p******," I would hear tauntingly shouted across the locker room as I got ready for practice. I would shoot right back, "Okay, you enjoy playing professional lacrosse and making $500 a week, while I'm signing my first million-dollar contract." They thought they were right; I knew I was, and ultimately I would have the last laugh.

You would think a millionaire baseball player would have better things to do than sweat decades-old insults from his high school's lacrosse team, but apparently not.

Anyway, after the first couple chapters, Just My Game sadly settles into being merely boring, rather than a contender for the most obnoxious book of all time. But it's still the product of what seems to be a massively warped mind. Allow me summarize it for you.

Things Jason Grilli wants you to know

-P- Jason Grilli loves his dad! I love you, Dad.

-P- Jason Grilli had to overcome lots of obstacles! Like a few injuries and, uh ... um ... hmm.

-P- Despite being the son of a big-leaguer and receiving a $1.875 million bonus out of college, Jason Grilli "never had a silver spoon up my butt" like other first-round draft picks! (I'll leave the reader to ponder the necessity of the "up my butt" part of that phrase.)

-P- Jason Grilli plays the game the right way!

-P- Jason Grilli never took steroids! Steroids bad.

-P- Jason Grilli is in touch with his emotions!

I was so pissed that tears of rage filled my eyes, and I grabbed the training table I was sitting on and pushed it over.

ROWR!

-P- In addition to being eerily similar to Jesus, Jason Grilli is "an artist" who on his best days is much like Pavarotti and Nolan Ryan! In fairness, Grilli does catch himself the second time he compares himself to Ryan, noting that he's being hyperbolic.

-P- Jason Grilli knows to be careful when he's in a neighborhood filled with "prostitutes and gender-benders"!

-P- Other people think Jason Grilli is really talented!

I was blazing 94-96 MPH heaters and threw a Bugs Bunny slider that day, punching Ellis and Kemp out on three pitches each. A reporter for LA came up to me and said he had not seen Kemp look that bad -- ever.

More!

Albert Pujols came up to me in the Rockies' weight room one time to let me know that he was surprised to see me wearing a Rockies' uniform, and he complimented me on what a battler I am.

As we all know, there's no better way to prove your worth than to tell everyone all the nice things people have said about you. And Jason Grilli is a worthy man indeed -- he happily tells us about every offhand compliment Miguel Cabrera or Tony La Russa or Bruce Bochy or Tagg Bozied or the Phillies' bullpen catcher ever sent his way. Grilli's agent, Gary Sheffield, is particularly generous with praise -- one comes away feeling that Sheffield has real talent as an agent, given the amount of smoke he seems to have blown around the silver spoon in Grilli's backside.

-P- God is always talking to Jason Grilli!

... I went to see the movie How to Train Your Dragon. At the end of the movie, the main character, Hiccup, ends up with a prosthetic leg. If God wasn't speaking to me then, I don't know when He was. ... I turned to Danielle and said there was something bigger going on behind that movie scene. There had to be.

I'm just going to summarize that one, in case you missed it: Jason Grilli believes God is sending him a message through the movie How to Train Your Dragon.

*     *     *

Of course, there are plenty of other things Just My Game can teach us about Grilli.

Grilli describes himself throwing a fit to Alan Trammell and Dave Dombrowski after the Tigers decided to send him to the minors in spring training. "[I] expressed my dissatisfaction with the way the demotion was handled, because I was sick and tired of the same bull**** reasons that no coach likes to admit to when they send you down," he says.

What reasons might those have been? Grilli had posted a 7.40 ERA with the White Sox the previous season. He'd posted a 4.83 ERA that year in Triple-A. (One imagines how the conversation might have gone. Dombrowski: "We're sending you down because there's no evidence whatsoever that you can contribute right now." Grilli: "THAT'S BULL****!") What were the Tigers supposed to do with him? What reason could he have had to chew out an all-time great in Alan Trammell, and one of the game's best GMs?

Grilli also gets angry about getting cut by the Phillies in 2011, even though he had missed the entire 2010 season (and hadn't pitched well in 2009, either). Later, even after obliviously describing how the Phillies were decent enough to give him a Triple-A appearance to showcase himself for a Pirates scout, he mocks the Phillies for allowing him to leave for Pittsburgh:

[W]hat kind of report allows you to mistake a Triple-A also-ran with an All-Star-candidate reliever? That would be sort of like the Pujols' scouting report saying that he has warning track power but will never hit in Big League ballparks.

I mean, what can one say about the lack of gratitude? Or the implied comparison to Albert Pujols?

Grilli also explains that when he was in the Rockies organization, he played in the World Baseball Classic against the team's wishes, then skipped out on Rockies Fest to celebrate his son's birthday. His agent then told him that the Rockies believed he was a "problem child," at which point they sold him to the Rangers.

You don't have to read very far between the lines here to be skeptical of Grilli's frequent claims that he's a good teammate. The Rockies, who value character very highly, clearly thought he wasn't, and I'm guessing the Tigers didn't either. I don't have much direct knowledge of his behavior with the Pirates, but the Jason Grilli who was with the Tigers, Phillies and Rockies doesn't seem like that great a guy, even in his own account.

So who is Jason Grilli? Let's turn, for a second, to pages 154 and 155. One paragraph, Grilli is describing beating his "own legendary Pac-Man record" in the clubhouse at Dodger Stadium while awed teammates look on, "amazed at my ninja skills." (He says this with no obvious irony, in case you're wondering.) In the very same paragraph as the "ninja" comment, he mentions taking a run around the ballpark:

Locke and Moskos later said they had chills seeing me in full stride, enjoying a run around the field, knowing my story. Once again, I was just trying to lead and inspire by example.

Now, you might ask, what do Pac-Man and the run around the ballpark have to do with one another? Why are they in the same paragraph? Much of Just My Game is hard to follow, because Grilli skips around from year to year, and from story to story, without providing much context.

It gradually becomes clear, though, that Grilli isn't writing this book for you, the reader. He isn't concerned about things like chronology or narrative. For Grilli, it makes sense to talk about his ninja Pac-Man skills and his awe-inspiring run around the ballpark in the same paragraph, because both stories feed his narcissism. Dean Treanor tells Grilli that Grilli can't beat his own points record at Pac-Man -- Grilli will show Treanor how wrong he is! Suck it, Treanor! And then Grilli will take a lap around the ballpark as awed teammates watch him gallop like Secretariat in the California sun. To us, these stories seem unrelated, but to Grilli, the connection is clear. Grilli does not see beyond himself; he perceives the world almost entirely as series of obstacles to overcome, haters to disprove, and personal triumphs for others to bask in.

Given Grilli's apparent belief that the world revolves around him, his patronizing attitude towards Pittsburgh fans comes as no surprise. He describes "salt-of-the-earth people" who needed a winning team to distract them from their sad-sack lives.

Jason Grilli cannot be easily dismissed. He genuinely is among the best in the world at something. That "something" is throwing a small projectile toward a target a high speeds, which is a frivolous thing to be good at, but many people would love to be in Grilli's shoes. What if Grilli's narcissism is among the qualities that have driven him this far? What if his ridiculous grievances against others give him fuel? Grilli comes across as a complete megalomaniac, but it's likely that megalomania helped make him who he is. Many very successful people don't have that quality, of course. But many do. Just in baseball, think of Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds.

There's a chicken-egg question here -- maybe Grilli is great because he's a narcissist, or maybe he's a narcissist because he was the fourth overall pick out of college, and he's had people like Sheffield surrounding him since then. Then again, maybe he's a decent guy who did a terrible job conveying who he really is. Whatever the case, thinking the way he seems to is a very, very high price to pay for greatness. If you're a teenage baseball player, please do not read this book and treat Grilli as a role model.

Just My Game presents itself as a book about adversity. The problem, obviously, is that Grilli hasn't had much to overcome. He grew up as the son of a big-leaguer and received a bonus of nearly $2 million before he had ever accomplished anything in professional baseball, then spent a dozen years bumbling from team to team before finally emerging as a very good reliever in his mid-30s. Along the way, he had injuries, and the knee injury was, by all accounts, awful. But injuries are simply part of life as a professional pitcher. And even when Grilli couldn't pitch, he had the millions of dollars he had already made to fall back on.

Later in the book, Grilli compares his situation to that of an amateur athlete who lost her left leg in a car accident and still returned to play college soccer. It's an instructive comparison, and one Grilli ought to consider working harder to keep in mind the next time he wants to compare an injury of his own to being struck by shrapnel, or the next time he wonders (as he often does), "Why me?"

Meanwhile, if you're interested in reading about pitcher injuries, check out the recently-released Bigger Than The Game by Dirk Hayhurst, who is a far superior writer and who has a clue that there's a world out there beyond whatever he's feeling that day. If you want to read about a top draft pick who struggled, read about C.J. Nitkowski, whose story is in some ways similar to Grilli's, but who maintains perspective, thinks about others, and always appears to be a thoroughly decent person. There are plenty of perceptive ballplayers and good role models out there. Grilli, or at least Grilli as he depicts himself in Just My Game, is neither.

Just My Game will be released on May 22. You can preorder it here.

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