“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
Greenberg writhes on the ground after getting beaned in 2005.
Some people would have called it quits. But Greenberg hadn’t been at his best in 2010. After the season, he had rotator cuff surgery. As he began the 2011 season, still with the Bluefish, he told himself that this was it. This was the year.
“I just turned 30,” he says. “It’s not like I’m 35 or 36.”
The season started well.
In his first game, against the Long Island Ducks, Greenberg stepped to the plate in the eighth inning to face the same man who hit him in the head in 2005: Valerio de los Santos. In the intervening six years, de los Santos had seen his own career derailed by the injury to Greenberg. Ever since that night, he’d been incapable of throwing inside to batters. He’d lost a crucial weapon, and hitters were taking advantage. Like Greenberg, though, he was trying to find his way back.
The first pitch was a cutter that seemed to be aimed at Greenberg’s body. He didn’t flinch. He watched it curve over the plate for a strike. He watched two more pitches go by before seeing one he liked. He swung and lined it for a single.
“Biggest hit of my life,” he says, with a note of regret in his voice, because, of course, there should have been bigger ones.
Greenberg went two for four that night and stayed hot for the first part of the season. He was spraying hits around the field, running well. He was batting leadoff for the Bluefish and stealing a lot of bases. He felt like his troubles were finally behind him.
“It brought the whole thing full circle,” he says.
But by the end of July, his average was back down around .270. When we spoke, he said he had made some adjustments to his swing, and he was certain that his numbers would improve. “Things are clicking right now,” he told me.
A month later, his average had not improved.
How long would he keep chasing the dream? It’s a question all of us ask at some point in our lives, assuming we’re fortunate enough to have dreams. But baseball players chase their dreams in front of a paying audience that boos when they fail. And most of them fail.
“You know, we don’t make a lot of money [$2,200 a month for five months out of each year],” Greenberg says, “and I just got married. So you can imagine the conversations my wife, Lindsay, and I have. The thing is, I don’t want to give this game up for anything other than a lack of desire or because I can’t perform at the level I want to. I’m not going to give it up for money. I’m willing to give it two or three more years if I feel good. I eat right. I take care of myself. I don’t feel any older than I did when I was 21.”
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Photograph: Steve Mitchell/AP
Greenberg reminds himself that his initial path to the major leagues was hardly predictable. Back in 2002, he was riding the bench at one of the lowest levels in the minors, his batting average in the doldrums. For logistical reasons having nothing to do with talent, he got promoted to play for the Cubs’ Class A minor-league team in Daytona, where he went on a tear at the right time. He hit for the cycle on a day when scouts and team officials happened to be in the stands. Suddenly he was on the radar.
A few years later, in 2005, when the Cubs were stuck in an eight-game losing streak, they summoned Greenberg to Chicago, hoping his speed and high-energy approach to the game might lend a spark.
Who’s to say it can’t happen again?
He believed then and believes now that he’s got big-league talent. That’s what keeps most minor-leaguers going. But for Greenberg there’s something more.
“Not having the opportunity to succeed or fail, that’s been burning inside me,” he says. “That’s been the most difficult thing of all.”
I asked him if he’d been following the Cubs this year.
He said yes.
“Pretty awful, aren’t they?” I asked.
Greenberg chuckled but said he hadn’t really been following closely.
I told him I thought the Cubs should give him another chance. Even if there are better prospects out there, they should put him on the big-league roster again and give him the chance he never had. In a lost season in which the team often seemed to play without passion, Greenberg’s story might remind some of the men in the clubhouse just how fortunate they have been.
I submitted the idea to the Cubs and asked to speak to Jim Hendry, the general manager. He declined to comment. (Hendry has since been fired.)
I asked Greenberg if he would mind coming back under such conditions, knowing that some people would view it as a publicity stunt.
“I’m trying to do anything to get one more shot,” he said. “There’s no quit in what I do.”
In W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, on which Field of Dreams was based, Moonlight Graham, as an old man, says he still yearns for that chance to hit, “to squint my eyes when the sky is so blue it hurts to look at it, and to feel the tingle that runs up your arms when you connect dead-on. . . . That’s what I wish.”
Greenberg is far from an old man, but his wish is much the same: “Getting in the box,” he says, “just getting in there and looking at the pitcher, browsing around, looking at the three tiers of the stadium, whatever stadium it is, digging in . . . and knowing it’s my time again.
“That’s what I want.”