For the Royals' Jason Grimsley, it's a season of redemption.

Cheer the Reaper 

For the Royals' Jason Grimsley, it's a season of redemption.

Few people seemed to notice when Royals pitcher Jason Grimsley took the mound against the Chicago White Sox on March 31. When the announcer intoned Grimsley's name at the start of the seventh inning, it triggered a few instinctive boos and jarred a few alcohol-addled memories, causing a scattered spell of flashbacks to last year's ugly labor dispute. But this was opening day, and most of the 40,000-plus fans in attendance were willing to bask in the unseasonable warmth, imbibe a day's wages worth of $5 beers and casually check in on the action every inning or so.

But when Grimsley walked Frank Thomas -- the first batter he faced -- on four pitches, it all came flooding back. This was the villain who had wanted to go out on strike last year, the creep who had tipped his cap at a livid crowd that was calling for his head. Now he was threatening to squander starter Runelvys Hernandez's six shutout innings.

If he blew the team's two-run lead, Grimsley could have lost more than the game. Not only might he become a scapegoat for the immediate future, but countless casual followers might give up on the season, muttering "same old Royals" on their way out the gate. The man known as the Grim Reaper held the team's fate in his hands. The sold-out stadium shook with hostile noise, a thick mix of hearty boos and profane jeers.

Grimsley was once among the team's best-liked players. In 2001, he'd posted the best ERA (3.02) of any Royal since David Cone in 1994, and he ranked third in the league in appearances, solidifying his reputation as a tough guy who would play through injury. He'd struggled through the first half of 2002 -- but so had the rest of the Royals.

As talk of a baseball strike grew serious after last season's All-Star break, though, Grimsley drew increasingly negative attention as the players' union representative. His vocal defense of veteran role players, whom he argued would be squeezed out by the proposed salary cap, didn't sit well with fans who believed that owners were spending baseball into oblivion and greedy players were forcing their hands.

The combustible situation exploded last July, when Grimsley first appeared on Between the Lines, the Kevin Kietzman-hosted midafternoon sports-talk show on WHB 810. Grimsley argued that current players owed their improved working conditions (as well as their bloated salaries) to past union interventions. Kietzman countered that the players' demands would spell the end of baseball in small markets such as Kansas City.

Their sparring crescendoed dramatically when Kietzman claimed that thirty-year-old rookie Aaron Guiel (currently with the Royals' AAA team in Omaha) couldn't possibly be in favor of a strike that would likely snuff his career. Grimsley passed the phone to Guiel, who said, "I've got to see the big picture and educate myself about the issues.... I'm willing to trust [Grimsley].... It's our job to stick together."

Another exchange exemplified the widening gap between the sides. "Salaries aren't going to go backward," Kietzman said. "When do you say we've got it good enough?" Grimsley chuckled in response, more startled than amused. "You think that's funny?" Kietzman retorted. "It's not that simple," Grimsley said.

Later, Between the Lines began airing a snippet-heavy remix of Billy Joel's "Allentown," with samples of Grimsley's incendiary comments spliced in mocking proximity to a steelworker's laments. A few weeks later, Grimsley called the show unsolicited. Kietzman stayed with the call for 45 minutes without commercials.

"I was driving him as crazy as he was driving me," Kietzman tells the Pitch. "He wanted to say his side. At the beginning, it was a little shaky, but the more he talked about it, the better he defended his point of view."

The tensions cooled temporarily, but they quickly intensified when Kietzman announced plans for an "Enough Is Enough" demonstration in support of the owners on August 29, the night before baseball's proposed strike date. Wearing station-provided T-shirts bearing that slogan, approximately 4,000 disgruntled fans packed the cheap seats and chanted "Let them strike!" The volume reached airplane-landing levels when Grimsley appeared late in the 7-1 loss. At the end of his scoreless inning, Grimsley removed his cap and waved it like a red flag at the frothing fans.

After the game, he remained professional, playing it straight in the press with sound bites such as "I just want to thank all those fans who came out tonight" and "They pay their money, and they have a right to say what they want to say."

Other players were less civil. "It was embarrassing," high-priced closer Roberto Hernandez said of the 810-provoked protest. "That was a joke." The team's erstwhile ace Paul Byrd also seethed, questioning whether those involved in the stunt were "true fans."

Both Hernandez and Byrd are gone now, starting the year on the Atlanta Braves' injured-reserve list. Also cut were mercurial slugger Mark Quinn and surly shortstop Neifi Perez (who caused a stir late in the year by reportedly refusing to enter a game). Before the end of last year, the Royals cut Blake Stein, a reliever who had ranked second in command to Grimsley on the union leadership chain. Yet Grimsley survived all the clubhouse cleaning. Clearly, even his detractors realized he wasn't a disruptive force on the team or a potential bad influence on the baby-faced relievers with whom he'd be sharing the bullpen.

When the Royals released Roberto Hernandez, the 35-year-old Grimsley (14 years in the majors, a pair of world championships with the Yankees, 33 wins) figured to be in the running for the glamorous game-ending job. He never campaigned for the gig, though, and he didn't balk at seeing his team hand it to untested rookie Mike McDougal, as many veterans in his position might have. But Grimsley has never chased the spotlight, even though the off-field events of last year's baseball season placed him squarely in its blinding gaze.

This year, there's no contraction guillotine hanging over the heads of small-market squads and no talk of a strike to poison perceptions of players. Although Grimsley still faces intense pressure on the mound, he no longer has to bear another burden after the games. Likewise, fans can return to viewing players as athletes, idols and entertainers without being forced to recognize them as businessmen.

Manager Tony Peña says the Royals' bullpen includes only two designated fire extinguishers: McDougal, who owns the ninth inning, and Grimsley, who plugs any dire leaks earlier in the game. The team announces McDougal's arrival on the mound by playing the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and showing a montage of special-effects video that turns his fastballs into fireballs. Grimsley enters without fanfare, perhaps because Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" would send the wrong message.

As a pitcher who's never been a closer, Grimsley isn't particularly qualified to school McDougal on that position's intricacies. But with no other Royals veterans in the bullpen, he's now filling the role of makeshift mentor.

"I'm still a player, not a coach," he explains. "I just pitch. As far as the young guys go, I've just got to get them to believe that the stuff they've got is good enough to get anybody out. I think they're starting to believe that now."

He led by example on opening day. Dwelling on a lost batter could crush a relief pitcher's psyche, so Grimsley immediately rewound and erased his errant salvos. His situation soon worsened -- a single advanced Thomas to third. But Grimsley didn't obsess on that, either. Oblivious to the stakes, to the maddening crowd, and to his anxious teammates, he escaped this self-made trap unscathed, then breezed through the next inning without a scratch. Perhaps Grimsley just needed one more reminder of his past trials -- the fan abuse, the late-game struggles -- before he could move past them.

Grimsley has appeared in seven games since his opening-day close call, and he has yet to hear another chorus of discontent. Instead, he generates quiet appreciation for an unheralded role.

"People recognize that this is a stand-up guy who was speaking on principle about things he thought were important," Kietzman says now. "I couldn't disagree with his stances more as they relate to major-league baseball, but I completely respect and understand not only his right but his passion to fight for what he believes is correct. I think the fans get that now, too."

Grimsley claims that his turbulent treatment at the hands of the fans never affected his performance, and the statistics support his case. In August, the most toxic month for fan-player relations, Grimsley was the team's pitcher of the month, giving up just one run in eighteen innings. But though he never let the taunts distract him, and though he maintains the on-field abuse never crossed the line into verbal attacks against his wife and two children, Grimsley says he's looking forward to receiving a more traditional home-team reception in 2003.

"It'll be nice to walk out there and not get booed," he says, adding a relieved laugh.

A soft-spoken player by nature, Grimsley isn't a vocal leader in the clubhouse during labor peacetime. He makes his strongest statement nonverbally, as the only player with a slogan posted above his locker. Scrawled on construction paper is this phrase: "Today I get to play. Not tomorrow, not yesterday, today."

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