Before he steps on the mound to face his first batter every outing, State College reliever Kyle Grana stoops down and draws four letters into the dirt.
He’s heard the acronym his whole life. Grana learned the four letters when he was 5 years old, around the same time he decided, like so many other kids his age, he wanted to be a professional baseball player.
Grana took the family acronym and its meaning to heart, incorporating it into his baseball career. The hard-throwing right-hander has been writing the four letters into mounds since high school as a reminder to compete the way his father taught him once he steps on the mound.
“I’ll do a clean version for you, it’s ‘Let it fly,’” Grana said of the acronym. “Pretty much just get in there, throw, get ahead and be a bulldog.”
Grana (3-0, 0.78) has been a bulldog out of the bullpen for the Spikes this season, allowing just two earned runs in 23 innings. He led the team and ranked fifth in the New York-Penn League with 35 strikeouts going into Saturday night’s game against Auburn — the top four in the league were all starting pitchers who had thrown 35-plus innings.
Grana’s success starts with his mid-90s fastball, but he’s also developed a splitter that’s starting to produce results along with his breaking ball. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound reliever has established himself as a trusted arm to finish games for the Spikes in his second year of professional baseball after being signed by the St. Louis Cardinals as an undrafted free agent last June.
“He’s a competitor,” Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said. “He takes the ball and he wants it, and he wants to close out games. You can see it. He’s just a true competitor.”
The mentality was instilled in Grana by his family growing up in Wildwood, Mo.
His parents, Bob and MaryLou Grana, were in State College this week for the team’s five-game homestand to watch their son pitch. And his grandmother, Mary Hirlemann, made the trip from West Orange, N.J., for the final two games in hopes of seeing Kyle pitch for the first time ever.
“She’s never seen me throw a baseball in a game at all,” Kyle said Friday. “So hopefully I’ll be able to get in and throw for her one of these days.”
His grandmother visited with Grana from the stands by the dugout before Friday night’s game, and she was excited to finally see him in action.
“I haven’t seen him since December, and I see this maturity about him,” Hirlemann said Friday night at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. “There’s a difference, very mature, seemed very self-assured, that’s what I found — much more self-assured and the maturity. And he’s a charming young man.”
Grana credits his parents for putting him in a position to be successful. They’re proud to see his dream in professional baseball continue to unfold.
“It’s a dream come true only because he’s 4 or 5, 6 years old and you ask him what do you want to be when you grow up and all he would say is he wants to be a professional baseball player,” MaryLou said. “So all the years watching him play, you kind of think in the beginning, is this really just a dream or is it a dream that can become a reality?”
Grana made his dream a reality with the help of his family.
Bob Grana coached Kyle throughout childhood until he was 16. Tony, his older brother by 11 years, was like a second father, pushing him to stay in shape during training sessions.
Through it all, Kyle learned to compete — his basic definition for “let it fly” — and to be passionate about everything he did.
He now embodies the four letters he heard so often when he’s on the mound.
“That to me means you just focus on what you got to do and have fun,” Bob Grana said Friday after watching his son pick up his fourth save the night before. “Let it go. Have fun. I can see when he’s out there, he got a little amped up last night, but he came through. It’s just something that since he’s been 5 years old that he’s been taught LTFF.”
That attitude helped Grana get to this point.
He finished his three-year career at Bellarmine (Ky.) University with a 20-8 record and ranked second in career strikeouts with 252.
But the 2013 First-Year Player Draft came and went without a phone call. Grana was set to continue his baseball career with an independent league team.
Until his phone rang with an opportunity to sign with his hometown St. Louis Cardinals last June.
The reliever figures the Cardinals’ interest stemmed from a pre-draft workout at Busch Stadium.
“Dream come true,” Grana said. “Being a little kid sitting on the couch watching Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, seeing Ozzie Smith do backflips at shortstop, just seeing all that stuff, it made it seem magical I guess. It was one of those things that being a young impressionable kid that I wanted to do that.”
That’s why he’s excited for every opportunity he gets on the mound regardless of the situation.
He said he tends to overthrow at times due to the excitement, but he tries to calm the nerves after scribbling his acronym, walking behind the mound and taking a deep breath.
He then picks up the rosin bag, dusts his left forearm and slams it to the ground.
“I have so much adrenaline going through my body,” Grana said. “I didn’t really notice until one of the guys pointed out to me a couple days ago that I actually do throw it down. It’s just one of those things, I’m so into it, so passionate about it that I’m ready to get out there.”
He’s ready to do the only job he’s wanted since he was 5 years old.
If he weren’t here playing baseball, he doesn’t really know what he’d be doing. Probably teaching or coaching baseball, he said, but he hasn’t really given it any thought.
And right now, he doesn’t have to.
Said Grana: “I get to be a kid for a longer time in my life.”