The pitcher's mound is a stage, all eyes on the performer, and if there is irony in Tuesday's American League Cy Young voting results, it is that the man who performed better on that stage this season than anyone else would rather be anywhere than in the spotlight. "There are a lot of positive and a lot of negatives to [winning the Cy Young]," said Royals pitcher Zack Greinke. "Not a lot, some. I really don't like having a bunch of attention."
He may not like it, but he'll definitely have to get used to it, for attention must be paid to Greinke after his brilliant season of 2009 -- 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.073 WHIP and 242 strikeouts -- and with it will come more than a little focus on the man who authored it. For one day at least, that was particularly bothersome.
"I've got a lot of stuff going on today, when I usually like just doing nothing," he said Tuesday of a to-do list that included accepting his league's highest pitching honor by day and then making dinner plans with family by night in preparation of his wedding this weekend to longtime girlfriend and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Emily Kuchar. That's a far cry from how he prefers to spend his time in the offseason, when, he says, "I've been playing this World of Warcraft game a lot."
But the publicity may have an added benefit in that the light that shines on Greinke will once again include a retelling of his amazing journey to being the best pitcher in the American League, and perhaps, all of baseball. In spring training in 2006, Greinke left the team with what was later diagnosed as social anxiety disorder. He went home to Florida, and many were unsure if the former phenom -- once the sixth overall pick in the draft and a big league ace at age 21 -- would ever return.
"I can't sit here and say I was confident he would come back to the big leagues," said former Royals general manager Allard Baird, who now works in the Red Sox front office. "I was confident he would come back and be a happy person. I'm glad it worked out that way but I can't say I was focused on him coming back to play."
Like virtually every top prospect, Greinke had been evaluated endlessly as the 2002 draft approached. Royals scouts peeked into every corner of his life, and administered a test known as 16pf that consisted of more than 100 questions meant to gauge personality traits. Greinke's results produced no red flags, but just four years later, his career was at a crossroads as he struggled with an illness common to millions but rarely talked about in the ultra-macho world of professional sports.
How interesting, then, that the man who would start to change those opinions was the same man who usually wanted nothing to do with the limelight. Greinke became one of the few people in a culture that puts a premium on playing hurt to admit that he was struggling with pain that was mental, not physical, and be willing to put his career on hold to deal with it. It's especially worth remembering after baseball endured a season in which several players -- including Khalil Greene, Dontrelle Willis and Joey Votto -- all took leave of absences to deal with similar struggles. It was a path forged first by a skinny, heretofore undistinguished pitcher for the small-time Royals, but it isn't hard to see how Greinke's courage helped change public perceptions of athletes and make it acceptable for others to take their own time to recover.
"The one thing that stands out to me," says Baird, "Is when Zack was going through this process I had a lot of people -- scouts, managers, coaches, players, ex-players -- come up to me and say, 'Hey, I went through this.' He's opened the door to a real comfort level that there's a lot of people out there with this. Through that exposing some of these things he's made a difference in people's lives."
The difference in Greinke's life was obvious when he returned to the majors at the end of the 2006 season. He pitched in only three games, but he has since had no known recurrences of the disorder. He was effective pitching mostly out of the bullpen in 2007, and before the 2008 season, the Royals hired Trey Hillman as manager. Initially, Hillman wasn't sure exactly what he had in Greinke. He was getting a young pitcher, yes, but one who to that point had never had so much as a winning season in the majors. He was getting a superior talent, but one who had regressed after an eye-opening debut season in 2004. And he was getting someone who had endured a lengthy and public bout with a mental illness. So when Hillman approached Greinke, he had a simple and direct message. "I know you're a man of very few words," Hillman said. "We'll interact only when we need to. If you need something from me, come to me. I don't want you to think I need you to talk to me more than I do."
That arrangement worked flawlessly as Greinke put together a fine 2008 campaign, going 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA that went mostly unnoticed. But when he began the 2009 season by dominating one opposing team after another -- he would go 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA in his first 10 starts -- in what quickly took on the look and feel of a historic season, Hillman thought he might need to adjust his relationship. "I took it a step further this year when he started getting so much attention," says Hillman. "I said, 'I don't want you to think I need to talk to you more just because everybody else wants to talk to you more.'"
In the end, Hillman wound up treating Greinke just as he had the year before. Their conversations, normally "one or two minutes," says Hillman, stayed just as brief. He's still never asked him about the social anxiety disorder, relying only on the information he got from pitching coach Bob McClure when he arrived in Kansas City. In fact, in two years as manager, Hillman says he and Greinke have only had one long conversation -- a spring training debate in 2008 about whether tennis players or NBA players were the superior athletes -- and the rest of the time, "He doesn't like to talk about it. But there aren't many things he does like to talk about for any length of time."
One subject Greinke has always been enamored of is baseball, but he was so good as a high school pitcher at Apopka High near Orlando, Fla., that he quickly became bored. He would try out new pitches, new windups, in the middle of a game, just to try and give him something else to compete with. He preferred life as a position player (even now, he tells Hillman, "If I were two steps quicker, I'd be your starting shortstop") but he nonetheless took his craft very seriously.
"What I find amazing to this day about him is he had that at such a young age," says Baird. "He was a good evaluator, and I know that sounds crazy, but he could break down hitters, talk about their limitations, bat path, bat speed, bat weakness. He could talk about it and then pitch to that. With his body and stuff very few pitchers can go to a hitters weakness the majority of the time. The classic thing is if you're gonna get beat, get beat with your best stuff. He has the ability to manipulate the baseball to a very high degree with an incredible feel for hitters, ability to break down a hitters strengths and weaknesses."
After spring training workouts when he reached the majors, Greinke would go watch local high school and college teams to see how their pitchers got hitters out, then report back to Baird that he should really take a look at some of them. "Eddie Bane, who is the scouting director for Angels, called me one day and said, 'Is this kid for real?' I said what do you mean? He said, 'He's here, breaking down hitters at a high school game here in Arizona.'"
Greinke continues to follow the game as few players do. On June 24, the Royals played an extra-inning game in Houston. "I'll tell you how smart he is and how much he stays in tune," says Hillman. "Unbeknownst to me, he was managing the ballgame right alongside me. We got into the 10th or 11th inning and we had only one player left. He very casually walks past me and goes, 'Skip, I'm gonna go put my spikes on.' You hope players are paying attention. It was a moment I'll always remember."
Greinke provided many such moments this season, though they usually came with him on the mound rather than in the dugout. Nine times this season he pitched eight or more innings without allowing more than two runs. In back-to-back starts in late August, he struck out 15 Indians one game and came back five days later with a one-hit shutout against the Mariners. He quickly became the Royals' most beloved player. After his last home start of the year, a win over the pennant-chasing Twins on Sept. 27, Hillman asked Greinke if he would like to go out to the mound as if he would start the eighth inning so that he could be removed to the thunderous ovation he so richly deserved. True to his humble nature, he refused. "He was not for that at all," said Hillman.
By then Greinke's season was already being touted as Cy-worthy, yet it was all the more surprising because of the way he was pounded in spring training, when he posted a 9.21 ERA while trying to develop his changeup. By the end of the year, it had been modified and become effective enough that it could complement his biting slider,a curve that he can throw as slow as 50-60 mph and a mid-90s fastball. "Slider's always been easy for me to throw, curve is easy for me to throw, but changeup I just haven't had a feel for it. Slider I know I could go out today and throw a good slider and I haven't thrown in two months."
In fact, Greinke hasn't done much of anything baseball-related since the season ended. He is open about his lack of enthusiasm for working out, but he already knows that in about a month's time, he will need to start ramping up his workout schedule to six days a week to prepare for another season. "That's the fun part, you do whatever you can to try to get ready to see if your game plan works," says Greinke. "Everything's fun -- it's fun facing the hitters and challenging them [saying], 'I dare you to beat me.' Watching the game isn't near as interesting but playing the game, you're watching every single detail. There's just so many things that are fun about the game."
Indeed, life is a lot of fun for Greinke right now, and for all the ways in which he is the same as ever, even he can appreciate how different that is. "It's an uphill battle from where I was at," he says. "If you're not completely focused on what's ahead you won't be able to succeed. That's what gives me pleasure is giving your all to something and being able to succeed. It's a lot better when you're 100 percent focused for it.
"I worked my whole life to do good in baseball, mostly in hitting, pitching I was doing good, good, good, but then you hit a rough spot and get back to the bottom so fast you realize you can't take anything for granted. It definitely wasn't easy to get back to doing good but it's kind of a challenge. It's nice when you get to the top."
Greinke is, at last, at the top of his profession, and for a little while at least he'll be able to savor it, as well as his privacy. When he goes to Hawaii on his honeymoon next week, he's taking his new bride, his well-deserved status as the best pitcher in the American League, and leaving beyond his cellphone. The attention will have to wait.