After one at-bat, Adam Greenberg fights to get back to the majors

Publish date:

The Dom Perignon sat in an ice bucket, near a king size bed in the Ft. Lauderdale Marriott. It had been barely 12 hours since Adam Greenberg got The Call, the promotion to the big leagues.

It was July 2005 and the Chicago Cubs were, characteristically, struggling, having gone more than a week without winning a game. In a move designed both to prod some of the underperforming veterans and give a bright prospect a shot, the Cubs summoned Greenberg from Double A. "It was just like you dream it," says Greenberg. "You're about to get on a bus for some random place; then -- hold on -- you're redirected to fly first class and meet the Cubs in Florida for a series against the Marlins."

"Greenie," as he was inevitably nicknamed in every clubhouse he ever entered, cut an atypical figure for a ballplayer. A nice, Jewish kid from the quaint town of Guilford on the Connecticut shoreline, he spent three years in college at North Carolina before getting picked by the Cubs in the ninth round of the 2002 draft. While Greenberg's teammates played cards on the bus and PlayStation at the motel, he was day-trading stocks, flipping residential properties and setting up a high-tech company he vows could one day be "Google-huge." Greenberg stood only 5-foot-9 but conformed to cliché, compensating for modest stature by scrapping and hustling and diving -- performing all those other don't-show-up-in the-box-score gerunds that sports bosses admire. Plus, the kid was lightning. At the time of his promotion, he had stolen 15 bases and hit nine triples for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.

When Greenberg met up with the Cubs in Florida, he couldn't fake playing it cool. Showing off a mouth of jarringly white teeth, his face froze in a smile. He needed to remind himself he was a teammate, not a fan, of, say, Derek Bell, that the No. 17 jersey belonged not to Mark Grace but to him. And he couldn't entirely banish thoughts of his new salary, either: his wage of $316,000 was more than 10 times what he'd been earning in Tennessee.

Having scoured the Internet for the best fares, Greenberg's parents and three of his four siblings had flown to Florida to be on hand for what they hoped was his Major League debut. At the very least, they'd congratulate him in person. "It was just a monster occasion," recalls Adam's father, Mark, chief financial officer for a manufacturing firm. "Adam had been so dedicated, so determined to get there and, wow, he was 24 years old and he'd done it."

That first night Dontrelle Willis -- the Dontrelle Willis of 2005 -- was pitching for the Marlins. "Think we'll let you rest tonight," Dusty Baker, the Cubs manager, said to Greenberg, cackling. But the following night, in the top half of the ninth inning, Baker sent Greenberg into the game to pinch hit. It struck Greenberg as odd, given that he was a lefty and so was the pitcher, Valerio de los Santos. But the Cubs were winning 4-2, and besides, Baker knew that Greenberg's family had flown in.

With his boyish, clean-shaven face and an unruly thatch of curly black hair, Greenberg looked like a kid who'd defied orders to visit a barber. As he swung in the on-deck circle, his hair poked out from the bottom of his helmet. When Greenberg approached the plate and dug in, his mother, Wendy, ignored a security guard and maneuvered from her seat behind home plate to the front row to snap photos. Mark, the antithesis of a Little League Dad, took inventory of it all, figuring this moment was the culmination of all those nights he'd wake up and realize the banging noise was his self-motivated son working on his swing in the basement.

Then de los Santos reared back and fired a 92-mph fastball. The pitch was awful, a (mis)guided missile that whistled through the air, directly toward Greenberg's head. He twisted awkwardly but the ball drilled him behind his right ear, partially on his helmet, partially on his skull. Greenberg had been hit before in thousands of at-bats, but it never felt like this. He went down, almost as if he'd been shot, and instinctively he clutched his head, hoping to contain some of the contents that, he was sure, were seeping out. The crowd went silent. The Marlins catcher, Paul Lo Duca, cautiously reached out to Greenberg and told him to stay down. The pitcher, de los Santos, would later admit he feared he'd killed Greenberg. Mark stood numb. Wendy screamed. Greenberg's sisters started to cry and were comforted by the wives of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, seated nearby.

After a few minutes, Greenberg sat up. When Cubs trainers asked: "Where were you two days ago?" Greenberg responded lucidly. "I was in the minor leagues, and I'm not going back!" Whew. He was replaced with a pinch runner, and, after the game, Greenberg downplayed his pain. When de los Santos called -- ironically, his cousin, Roberto Novoa, was playing for the Cubs at the time and kept him informed -- Greenberg accepted his apology. That night, asked how he was feeling, Greenberg responded, "I'll be fine."

Except he wouldn't. The Dom Perignon, a gift from his agent, sat uncorked in the hotel room, and Greenberg had a rough night. The following day he went to the hospital and was told he probably had a mild concussion. Over the next few days, his headaches and dizziness worsened. The slightest maneuver and he felt his head imploding. Eventually, the Cubs assigned him to rehab, intending to recall him when his symptoms cleared. He was diagnosed with positional vertigo, an inner ear problem that affects balance. For the rest of the summer, Greenberg could scarcely brush his teeth, much less hit fastballs, without feeling like he'd just gotten off the Tilt-a-Whirl. Still, he was young and enthusiastic and motivated; he'd work over the winter to get to where he once belonged. He didn't consider that one pitch -- maybe half a second of action -- might represent the sum total of his Major League career.


The Ballpark at Harbor Yards is home to the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish and it's one of those venues that highlight the charms of minor league baseball. The average ticket price for this unaffiliated Independent League team is $10; and if half the 5,600 seats are filled, it's a respectable crowd. There's a goofy mascot and cornball giveaways and a scratchy p.a. system that belts out the usual sports playlist while scout troops and Little League teams and senior citizen groups dance in their seats. The outfield wall is adorned with placards for local car dealers and insurance agents. All that's missing is the "Hit Bull, Win Steak," promotion.

But, as the Amtrak trains whipping by behind rightfield and the I-95 traffic behind left seem to underscore, the minors are all about transition. The clubhouse is a mix of Major League has-beens -- easily identifiable by the showy rides in the players' lot and the gold medallions hugging their breastbones -- and Major League hopefuls, scraping by on their salary of two grand or so a month. The team's ace, Estaban Yan, pitched for seven big league teams over 11 seasons. The manager earlier this season was Tommy John. Even the current manager, Willie Upshaw, notes that he recently was the first base coach for the San Francisco Giants and was the first man to slap five with Barry Bonds when he hit his record-breaking home run.

On a cool spring night, as the first 1,000 fans were being presented with Bluefish foam fingers, the team's starting centerfielder sat in the dugout, holding forth on the strange vibe. "These are your teammates and you support them, but, let's be honest, they're also guys you're competing with," says Greenberg. "You make the best of it, but everyone involved wants to get to a higher level. It's weird like that."

It's been four years since Greenberg faced his one and only big league pitch, enough elapsed time so that some of his current teammates know nothing of his backstory. His hair has long since been shorn -- "New chapter, now look," he says -- and he's now engaged. Bridgeport is the latest stop in his quest to return to The Show. If Harbor Yards is a long way from a big league park, there are enough sources of hope -- a teammate recently signed by the Angels organization; the alleged presence of a Mets scout this night -- to nourish his spirits. "I just know good things are going to happen to me," says Greenberg, now 28. "As long as I'm wearing a uniform, I still have a chance. As long as I'm competing I'm happy. And I'm still competing."

After being struck in the head, he was left to confront a dilemma common to athletes in all sports: do you articulate the full extent of your injury, thus running the risk of losing a spot or being considered soft or, worse, damaged goods? Or do you play through it, although diminished abilities that might reflect in your stats? Greenberg chose the latter. Despite impaired vision and lingering spells of dizziness and disorientation, he began the 2006 season, back in Double A ball in Tennessee. He hit .179. He was then "promoted" to Triple A, where he played three games in three weeks and hit .118. When he asked for his release from the organization, the Cubs were happy to oblige.

He signed with Dodgers and played for their minor league affiliate in Jacksonville, but his struggles at the plate continued. The vertigo eventually subsided, but standing in the box, Greenberg says that he would, reflexively, "bail" on inside pitches. "Eventually the subconscious became conscious," he says. Marooned in backwaters of Arkansas or Tennessee, he would analyze and re-analyze his game. Never one to let his thoughts go unexpressed, most every night, he'd call his father with a Eureka! revelation. I need a different bat. My hands are wrong. I have a little hitch in my hitch. 'I got it, dad. I know what I'm doing wrong!' he recalls. "Then I'd go 1 for 5 and do it again."

Talk about having your equilibrium thrown out of whack: With his winning attitude and advanced baseball cortex, Greenberg had always mastered the mental side of the game. Now, it was his nemesis. "I've learned about the psychology of baseball," he says. "At the end of the day, was I depressed? Yes. What kid wouldn't be? You go from the big leagues, realizing your dream, to nowhere to be found."

By 2007, he was in the Royals' farm system. As centerfielder for the Double-A Wichita Wranglers, he played capably, leading the league in triples, ranking fifth in steals and patrolling centerfield. But after he failed to make the Royals' Triple A team in spring training 2008, the organization cut him loose. He'd heard the speech before. He was a "great guy" and "a credit to baseball," but ultimately, "it was a numbers game," and the calculus wasn't working out for him. It was around that time, the Greenbergs popped that bottle of Dom Perignon at a family function. Suddenly unemployed (and losing on his real estate investments), Greenberg was at a low point. Unexpectedly, he received a voicemail from Baker, his old manager. It was a garden variety "keep your head up" message of inspiration. But Greenberg was sufficiently touched that he still has the message stored on his phone, resaving it every 21 days. He and Baker, by this point the manager of the Reds, started to communicate -- everything from one-sentence emails to meaning-of-life conversations. "What happened to him is one of the low moments of my career," says Baker. "He's one of the finest young men I've met, confident and humble at the same time."

Greenberg played last summer in the Angels organization, this time for Double-A Arkansas Travelers. After the season, he got another version of the "numbers game" speech. Undeterred, Greenberg spent last winter working himself into peak condition -- "That's one thing I can control," he says -- whittling his body fat to 5.6 percent of his 180-pound frame. Still, on Feb. 21, he celebrated his 28th birthday at home in Connecticut. "It was totally bittersweet," says Wendy Greenberg. "It was the first time in 10 years he was home. Nice as it was, I didn't want him there. I wanted him in spring training."

The next day, Greenberg got a call from Baker inviting him to the Cincinnati Reds' spring training. "I didn't invite him to be nice," says Baker. "It was because he can play. I know he can help a team. That's why he was there." Greenberg hit the ball, he stole bases, he caught everything hit his way. He made it to the last round of cuts. Then, another "numbers game" soliloquy.

There's a temptation to curse the Baseball Fates. Greenberg notes, for instance, that in the weeks after the beaning, the offending pitcher, de los Santos, was a wreck, giving up seven earned in his next five innings, getting demoted to the minors within a month. It looked as though a single wayward pitch had forestalled two careers. But the pitcher eventually worked his way back and threw eight innings for the Rockies last season. Though de los Santos is now out of baseball, Greenberg shakes his head and notes, "You feel like, all right, he got back. Now it's my turn."

But those moments are rare. Greenberg admits it sounds trite, but hop-scotching around the minors, has reconfirmed how little the game owes him. "Okay my situation is unique -- one pitch and all, I get that. But every guy out here has a close call or a hard-luck story," he says, surveying his teammates in the field. "Let's be honest, lots of guys here probably deserve to be somewhere different. It's easy to get bitter. But why do I have any more right to be in the Majors than anyone else?"

He's also quick to talk up the virtues of Bridgeport. He's only half an hour from home. His folks don't just get to watch him play; they let a few of his Bluefish teammates save on rent and stay at the house. He's near his fiancée, Lindsay Marottoli, who grew up down the street. And Greenberg's business partners in their software development company are also nearby. Though the team plays in the independent Atlantic League, the level of play is comparable to Double A Ball. "Overall, it's a good situation."

So far, though, this season hasn't gone as hoped. Greenberg claims that's he never seen the ball better or been lighter on his feet, but his numbers have been unsightly. Through Tuesday, Greenberg was hitting just .242 with two homers and 32 RBIs. He's quick to stress that it's no excuse, but Lindsay's twin sisters have lung cancer, and Greenberg regularly comes to Harbor Yards directly from the hospital. Just another rough stretch to get past.

Greenberg's fate has brought out the baseball mystics and numerologists. They cite the eerie comparisons to Archibald"Moonlight" Graham -- they even share initials! -- the figure immortalized in Field of Dreams, who, exactly a century before Greenberg, was left stranded in the on-deck circle. They note that Fred Van Dusen, the only other player to be hit by a pitch in his first and only big-league at-bat, was struck 50 years before Greenberg. And isn't it symbolic that Greenberg's former manager, Tommy John, is best known for his return from a career-threatening injury, a man who pitched in the Majors until he was 46?

Like a hanging curveball, the awkward question hovers in the air: what if Greenberg never gets back? For the first time all afternoon, there's a conversation topic he'd rather not engage. "I don't even let myself go there," he says. "People say, 'It's great you got there,' and that's absolutely true. But if I accept that, what's my motivation to continue? They also say, 'You hold the record for the highest on-base percentage in Major League history. How cool is that?' Let me tell you something," he says, before pausing and then smiling widely. "As soon as that percentage goes down, it will be the happiest moment of my life."