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“I’m trying to do anything to get one more shot,” says Greenberg. “There’s no quit in what I do.”
And so another baseball season slips away, sadly.
Yet as Adam Dunn takes his last hopeless hacks for the South Siders and Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs stares up once more at a fly ball he will, inexplicably, fail to catch, my thoughts turn to another ballplayer, a player who didn’t stick around the major leagues long enough to enjoy shame or glory, a player who will finish this summer with more pride than any member of the 2011 Cubs or White Sox can justifiably claim.
His name is Adam Greenberg. Remember him? Little guy, only five nine, 180 pounds, maybe not even that, but quick as hell and smooth with the glove—perhaps not a top prospect but for sure a peppy little player. The Cubs called him up from the minors on July 7, 2005, and gave him his first chance to play in the big leagues just two days later, as a pinch hitter.
Cubs versus Marlins, top of the eighth, big lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound for Florida. Behind the plate, Greenberg’s mother and father snapped pictures, clapped, and white-knuckled their armrests. Greenberg crouched in the batter’s box, stared out at de los Santos, bent his knees, locked his eyes on the ball, and steadied his bat, ready to go.
And then it was over. Greenberg was rolling on the ground, trying not to black out, clutching his skull with both hands, telling himself not to let go or his head would split open, telling himself not to die.
Hundreds of players have seen their big-league careers begin and end with one turn at bat. But to get just one pitch? And to have that pitch hit you in the head and knock you silly? To have that pitch leave you with months of dizziness and screaming headaches? To have that pitch put you out of the big leagues for good?
Nothing like it had ever happened in the sport.
Greenberg, like every kid with baseball dreams, had imagined his first big-league moment, playing it in his mind a hundred different ways. Sometimes it was a towering home run; sometimes it was a solidly struck single; and sometimes, more modestly, he’d pictured watching the first ball go by, just to take better measure of the opposing pitcher. But this? No way. No one thinks of being the next Moonlight Graham, who played in one game, without going to bat, for the 1905 New York Giants and was the inspiration for the character of the same name in the movie Field of Dreams. No one imagines that he might fail without getting a chance to swing the bat.
So as soon as the bells stopped ringing in his ears, Greenberg began the process of working his way back to the Cubs. He thought he would need a day or two—three at most.
“Every day I wasn’t playing, it was an opportunity lost,” he says. “I was 24 years old, and I was on the Cubs. What could be better than that? So I rushed myself to get back.”
Three weeks went by, three weeks that seemed like three years, before he told the Cubs he finally felt good enough to play again. But even as he stepped on the field for one of the organization’s minor-league teams, he knew it was too soon. Bending to tie his shoe gave him headaches that lasted hours. He told the outfielders playing alongside him that they’d have to help on balls rolling in his direction because he couldn’t look down.
After countless medical evaluations, he was diagnosed with positional vertigo. The doctors said it would pass, and eventually it did. But fear lingered.
In 2006, Greenberg played for Jacksonville, West Tennessee, and Iowa. Physically he felt fine, but he couldn’t quite dig in at the plate, especially against left-handers. He couldn’t put what had happened out of his mind. He finished the season with a .209 average, which might—might—be OK if you’re a home run hitter like Adam Dunn, but it wasn’t going to get Greenberg another shot at the bigs. Not even close.
He worked with sports psychologists and athletic trainers. The next year, playing in the Kansas City Royals’ minor-league system, he got better, hitting .266, but he was still striking out too much. There was further improvement in 2008, with a .274 average. But it still wasn’t enough. By 2009, Greenberg was no longer affiliated with a major-league team, playing for the independent Bridgeport Bluefish of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the Atlantic League. Though it’s a low rung on the baseball ladder, the league is packed with former major-leaguers hoping for one last shot. In his first season, Greenberg hit only .248, with a whopping 124 strikeouts in 508 at-bats. He had no excuse. There was no reason for it as far as he could tell. If baseball were easy, after all, everyone would hit .330. The following season, 2010, was only slightly better: He batted .258.
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Photograph: (Greenberg) Nam Y. Huh; Illustration: GlueKit