Before AJ Graffanino had the opportunity to join the Orioles, before he received a phone call months earlier from a former Braves employee who prepared him for the news, he began to bond with the organization as a fifth-grader taking ground balls next to a shortstop who would beat him to it by 10 years.
If this sounds a little confusing, just imagine Graffanino accompanying his father, Brewers shortstop Tony Graffanino, to the ballpark in 2007. Imagine the kid on the field for pregame drills and getting instruction and encouragement from J.J. Hardy.
The dots become much easier to connect.
AJ Graffanino and Greg Cullen, another infielder from the 2018 draft, are the players to be named later in the Tommy Milone deal. The Orioles made the announcement on Thursday.
Graffanino already was prepared for it.
“Two months ago, I got a phone call from an old front office guy early in the morning telling me,” he said. “I was pretty shocked, just because I haven’t played the past two years. But obviously excited. I know it’s a really good thing, so there’s a lot of emotions going through me during that time. And when he told me he said, ‘It’s not official, you’re just on a list and you’ll find out officially after the season ends.’ So it’s a lot of waiting.
“He used to be part of our organization as a front office guy, but they let him go early this year. I don’t even know how he heard. He just told me that he heard it was me. So I was basing it off that. It was crazy.”
Graffanino didn’t want to share the name of his source. Jobs were lost across much of the Braves organization, including in scouting, player development and minor league operations. A trend throughout the sport during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of games for Graffanino is another part of his compelling story. But first, his relationship with Hardy, who played for the Orioles from 2011-17 and won three consecutive Gold Glove awards.
Hardy was an All-Star in 2007. Tony Graffanino was playing for his sixth team after the Braves drafted him in the 10th round in 1990. They became good friends. Hardy became a mentor to AJ - which stands for Anthony Joseph, just like his dad.
“J.J. was super nice to me,” he said. “I was playing baseball, I was the shortstop, and he knew that. During BP, he would take ground balls with me and help me with some stuff. Just the nicest guy. So obviously I looked up to him and I was following his career.
“When he was on Baltimore, I really thought he was the man and got to watch him and it was so cool. Now being a part of the Orioles, it’s really, really cool for me.”
Graffanino would become an elite defender at the University of Washington, rated the 75th-best 2018 draft prospect by D1Baseball.com. The Braves secured him in the eighth round and he rose to No. 23 among their prospects in the MLBPipeline.com rankings.
Hardy didn’t make any projections. He just enjoyed being around the youngster.
“I remember him being a very respectful kid and a great athlete,” Hardy said earlier this week.
“Tony was one of my favorite teammates that I ever played with.”
AJ had to leave behind his friends after the trade became official.
“Obviously, I was shocked,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, I’m going to miss my teammates.’ But I was kind of used to that life because my father played and got traded a bunch. So at the end of the day, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is part of the game.’ So I was ready. I know it’s a business, so it is what it is.”
The same applies to injuries and shutdowns, which have made an tremendous impact on his life.
Graffanino appeared in one game with high Single-A Florida in 2019, coming off the field after only one plate appearance. It was a mystery, with a numerous Internet searches turning up nothing or just mention of a gastrointestinal disorder.
“In ‘19, I dealt with concussion issues the whole year, which was brutal,” he said. “I wasn’t even sure if I’d ever be healthy again. That was wild for the whole year. And then this year, the way the Braves did the 60-man, we were kind of on call and then they canceled the season, which was frustrating. So the last two years have been frustrating. But I’m a man of faith, so I believe it’s happening for a reason.
“There’s nothing I can do about any of these situations, so at the end of the day it’s not really worth stressing over.”
The concussion stayed a mystery for much too long. The symptoms were debilitating. Graffanino and his family couldn’t get any answers.
“A couple months before the first game of the season, I was baserunning and I got hit in the head on a pickoff and they didn’t take me out of the game, they didn’t do concussion treatments,” he said. “When this was first going on, I wasn’t able to eat, I wasn’t able to run without throwing up. For months, this was going on. We were getting tests done and nobody was finding anything.
“All of a sudden, my father was like, ‘Wow, you did get hit in the head.’ I got tested for a bunch of that stuff and it came back that it was a concussion. We had all the proof. So then the Braves were very good about how they handled that with me. I had to do the treatments and I’m all healthy now, obviously.
“I was ready to go this year in spring training. It was wild, it was crazy.”
The shot to the head occurred in a game at the Braves minor league complex. Graffanino really began to notice the effects a few days before the season.
“Like after I would eat or run, I’d feel weird,” he said. “And opening day, the stuff hit the fan.”
Eager to get on the field this year and climb the farm system, Graffanino was stalled again by the shutdown.
“I went home to my parents in Arizona for a couple months, and then once we heard that we might have a season, I flew out to Florida and started training by our spring training complex in North Port with a couple buddies on the Braves,” he said.
“We were staying down there waiting for the 60-man stuff and nothing happened. So training and some video games and a lot of time at the beach for me was kind of how I was keeping busy during that time.”
There’s also the conversations with his father, who appeared in seven games with the Indians in 2009 to finish his baseball career and later learned how to support and coach AJ without applying too much pressure.
It was a gradual process and their relationship became stronger over the years.
“Having him even growing up was unbelievable,” AJ said. “From T-ball, he was giving me this pro advice that didn’t even make sense to me, but at the end of the day, him going through what he went through, the ups and downs and my journey, all of the ups and downs, it’s nice to have him just tell me that everything’s going to be good.
“You’ve just got to put your head down and work and at the end of the day everything else takes care of itself. We’ve gotten a lot closer because of baseball.”
Tony Graffanino settled in the Phoenix area and began working for Unlimited Potential, a Christian baseball ministry. A.J matured into a baseball and basketball standout at Northwest Christian High School.
“He says I’m better,” AJ said. “He was a grinder of a player, but I think we’re two definitely different players. We have a similar mindset of put your head down and work, but we’re very different players.
“I hope I can be better, but he was an unbelievable player and the more I start to move up, the more I’m like, ‘Wow, 13 years.’ He had an unbelievable career. I hope I can do something like that.”