TEMPE, Ariz. – Kevin Grendell was slogging his way through another summer, buried deep in the minor leagues long past the time he should have advanced farther, when he discovered a motivation that changed his career.
A little girl.
Her head barely peeking over the railing, as taller boys behind reached over her to get autographs from the ballplayers, the girl caught Grendell’s attention. Something in her ears. Upon closer inspection, they were cochlear implants, devices to aid those who are hearing impaired.
Grendell, the subject of such scorn from other children when he was growing up with hearing aids in both ears, gave the girl a baseball. Her face lit up. She ran excitedly to her father, who waved a thank you to Grendell.
That’s when everything changed for Grendell, a left-handed pitcher in camp with the Angels.
“I sat at my locker and was like ‘That was one of the coolest moments ever,’” he recalled. “It was the first time I ran into a kid with a hearing deficit. It was like that lightbulb moment. I’m able to understand my platform. All that struggle I was going through, now I can use it to turn around to a positive.”
Suddenly, Grendell didn’t want to make it to the majors for all the typical reasons: fame, money, ego. Pitching in the major leagues, with a hearing aid tucked into his left ear, would give him the visibility to help kids who had gone through what he went through.
“It developed my why,” Grendell said.
A motivation for the work it takes to reach the majors.
That epiphany helped Grendell, 23, turn around his career.
After languishing for four summers in the lowest levels of the Baltimore Orioles system, he was released last April. The Angels quickly signed him, and he shot through three levels of the farm system. He was named Angels minor league pitcher of the month last May.
He participated in MLB’s rookie development program in January. That’s where Grendell met Curtis Pride, who played parts of 11 season in the majors despite being deaf. Pride finished his big league career in 2006 with the Angels.
And now Grendell is in big league camp.
“It’s crazy, man,” Grendell said, with an almost awestruck smile. “It’s been wild. It’s just everything you work for. You get here and it’s like, Wow. I’m here with the best baseball player in the world and Albert Pujols has his locker across from me.”
Jim Gott, the Angels minor league pitching coordinator, said Grendell is a legitimate prospect, even though neither MLB.com nor Baseball America have him in the top 30 of the Angels’ undeniably thin system.
“He has all the attributes,” Gott said. “The body, the strength of arm, left-handed, a really tight spin on a curveball. Lucky for us that Baltimore went a different direction, and we were able to pick him up. We’re really happy to have him. He gives depth to our organization that has been light recently.”
Gott also appreciates what’s gotten Grendell this far, besides just a fastball and a curve.
“This is a very determined, headstrong kid,” Gott said. “You need to be that type of competitor to pitch in the big leagues. We have kids who haven’t had Kevin’s story. Things are a little easier for them. What happens to them during the early part of pro ball is they fail because they don’t have the tenacity to push through the tough times.
“The struggles he’s had in his life put him in a situation to be in big league camp with us this year.”
Grendell, who grew up in northern San Diego County, had struggles from birth, although no one knew because it was before newborns had their hearing screened as they do today. He fell behind in his speech development and was placed into a pre-school with other special needs kids, he said, although his mother, Sandy, insisted there was nothing wrong with him intellectually.
The mystery of his slow development was finally solved when he was about 31/2 years old, and his mother noticed him pressing his ear hard against a toy radio, trying to hear it.
He was fitted with hearing aids for both ears.
Grendell caught up for lost time with his language – “He was so competitive that he would be competing with other hearing-impaired kids to get better,” Sandy said – and today he speaks without a hint of the late start. Still, he was constantly dealing with bullying.
“I kind of wore it,” Grendell said, explaining how he accepted the cruel treatment. “I couldn’t stand up for myself. They would throw me against the wall and jump me because I was that nerdy, geeky looking kid.”
When Grendell was 7, he experienced what he and his mother now describe as a miracle. Sandy had been calling her son from another room, and he responded. Then she realized that he’d heard her without his hearing aids on. Further testing revealed that some hearing had returned to Grendell in his right ear.
“There is no way for them to understand why,” Sandy said. “God touched his shoulder and gave him his hearing back. We passed it off as miraculous.”
Grendell’s hearing never did return to his left ear, which has sensorineural hearing loss. It’s a permanent nerve problem, requiring the hearing aid that Grendell still wears.
Throughout all the trouble with his hearing, and the bullying, sports provided an outlet. He played soccer, basketball, water polo and baseball. Sandy said a coach once told them, when Grendell was in second or third grade: “I bet one day we’ll see him on the big screen.”
Grendell played baseball at San Pascual High in Escondido, and the Orioles drafted him in the 11th round in 2012. But his progress through professional baseball did not go smoothly.
He pitched seven games in his first short-season that summer in the Gulf Coast League. After the season, he learned that he had failed a test for a performance-enhancing drug, which he said was the result of a supplement sample he got over-the-counter. It apparently contained Dehydroepiandrosterone, also known as DHEA.
“Just one of those things,” Grendell said. “You’re naive. You take the wrong thing, and it’s in your system. There’s not much you can do. You just have to own up to it.”
Grendell had to wait until the start of the 2013 Gulf Coast League season to serve the suspension, so he pitched just a few games that year. Then he went to Australia to play winter ball and catch up on his development. In 2014 he was back in the GCL, and in 2015 he was only moved up to Aberdeen, Md., in the short-season New York-Penn League.
That’s when he crossed paths with the little girl who provided the inspiration for him to turn it around.
“I took myself a little more seriously,” he said. “Got into the weight room, took eating more seriously, stopped drinking. I changed a lot of life habits and was able to connect everything where I want to go. I was able to line up my action with my vision.”
Grendell said he was relieved when the Orioles released him last April, because he felt better things were ahead. Five teams called him, he said, before he signed with the Angels. He was finally moving in the right direction. Grendell had a 1.93 ERA at Class-A Burlington, Iowa, with 30 strikeouts in 182/3 innings. He was then moved up to Inland Empire, in the more advanced Class-A California League.
With the 66ers, he did more than pitch.
Kerri Bollin, a member of the 66ers Booster Club, had just discovered that her 11-year-old son, Trevor, had a 40-percent hearing loss. The awkward middle school years are hard enough already, and the prospect of adding hearing aids did not sit well with Trevor. One night at a 66ers game, the Bollins noticed Grendell’s hearing aid. They eventually got his attention, and Grendell talked to Trevor at the ballpark.
“They had a little bro talk,” Kerri said. “He came back to me and said when he gets (the hearing aids) they will take pictures together. From then on, they were best buddies.”
Bollin said her son and Grendell are still in touch, on Facebook and via text. When Trevor recently learned that he had to wear a different, more conspicuous, type of hearing aid, he said: “That’s cool. Kevin has it.”
Grendell made an impact on the Bollins even though he wasn’t at Inland Empire for long. Despite a 4.30 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League, his whirlwind first season in the Angels system took him in August to Double-A. He had a 1.37 ERA at Arkansas.
All of that earned him an invitation to his first major league camp this spring, less than a year after he’d been released without getting out of short-season ball in the Orioles system.
“Emotional,” Grendell said, describing the feeling of getting that invitation. “It was the affirmation that I was meant to do this. That I was meant to be in this game. I am here for a reason. There is a bigger purpose in all of this.”
Grendell said one of his goals is to establish a charity to help families who can’t afford hearing devices. He knows he needs to get further into his baseball career before those type of initiatives can really make a difference.
Gott understands. A former major league pitcher, he is the father of two autistic sons, so he appreciates that people in the public eye can be role models to help others in the same situation.
“I want him to make it to (the majors) because look what he’ll be able to do,” Gott said. “With his situation, he’s possessed. This is really important to him not only to compete at the major league level but to get his story out and help other people.”
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