MESA, Ariz. – Brett Eldredge has four No. 1 country music singles. He has a gold album. He’s won country music awards for best new artist and best song.
And somewhere among all those awards and accolades, on a shelf in his home, rests a baseball signed by Justin Grimm.
At least Justin Grimm likes to think so.
“He just told me the other day he’s still got the ball sitting up on his shelf,” said Grimm, the Cubs’ charismatic, off-center reliever. “So, yeah, job well done.”
When he says job, he means it.
Baseballs autographed by Grimm are thought to be in the possession of celebrities across at least a dozen genres, on at least two continents, from Las Vegas to Manchester, England.
It’s all part of Grimm’s fascination with being the Cubs’ all-but-official catcher of ceremonial first pitches at home games, a job he has claimed as his and his only – never mind that it’s a job other players in baseball typically want no part of.
“I can’t mess up a first pitch. That’s my goal,” said Grimm, who started doing it regularly as a favor to Cubs marketing man Jim Oboikowitch, who’s tasked with cajoling a player into doing it before each game.
Then Grimm started to enjoy it.
“You’re meeting a lot of cool people,” said Grimm, who has caught – and signed balls for – not only Eldredge, one of his favorite music artists, but also for such luminaries as Wayne Newton (“the ambassador of Las Vegas himself”), Criminal Minds star Joe Montegna and legendary Manchester United manager and former player Bryan Robson.
“And it’s not just about the stars,” he said. “You’re meeting war veterans and all sorts of people. I caught a lady who was 100 years old last year. And she was able to let the ball go. I mean, that’s just awesome.
“It’s small things like that, that make it pretty cool.”
It’s that kind of off-beat perspective that makes Grimm one of the most unique personalities in the Cubs’ clubhouse – and probably doesn’t hurt when it comes to dealing with the heat of the brushfire moments manager Joe Maddon seems to reserve for him during games.
“Yeah, Grimm, he’s one of a kind,” Cubs bullpen mate Neil Ramirez said. “I’ve been around him for five or six years now, since we played with each other in the Rangers organization. And he’s just a free spirit. Just a clown, man. Just a goof. But a great kid, great heart.”
And great stuff.
Maddon calls Grimm his “middle-inning closer,” sending the right-hander into games with men on base 30 times last year — often in the fifth and sixth innings.
Despite missing the first month of the season because of forearm inflammation last year, Grimm made 62 appearances, recorded a 1.99 ERA, and only nine National League pitchers faced more inherited runners than his 42. He performed better than most by stranding 31 – and Ramirez credits his nature and personality for part of that.
“Grimm has a great ability to just not think too much and just go right at guys,” Ramirez said. “And he’s got awesome stuff. He’s got closer-type stuff with that fastball and curveball he has.”
Grimm – whose role might make him the most important, if easiest to overlook, member of the Cubs’ bullpen — said Maddon’s confidence in putting him in those hot spots is a big part of his success.
“That and I have no choice but to attack the hitter,” he said.
Someday that could lead to being the guy who throws the final pitch in games for the Cubs, Maddon said.
These days, it’s the first pitch that keeps him occupied enough that he has built a pregame routine around it: being ready in the dugout before anybody else, getting the adrenaline going as part of the pregame show in front of 40,000 fans.
Except when Anthony Rizzo gets in the way.
“Yeah. He took away Charles Barkley,” Grimm said, mock anger rising in his voice. “We had a little drag-out on that one. I told him, `You never do the first pitch. That’s crap! I always do it.’ And he’s like, `Not today.’ “
Rizzo: “I don’t know what to say about that. It depends on who it is.”
Even Rizzo admits Grimm’s daily first-pitch routine keeps teammates from having their routines interrupted for possible duty. And after patching things up after the Barkley affair, Rizzo seems to have come to a new understanding:
“He can have whoever he wants.”