I was wondering on Tuesday night why the Adam Greenberg story resonates so deeply with so many of us. Sure, there’s the obvious stuff. Greenberg, from the start, was one of those players with whom people connect. You know who he was? He was the kid in Little League who slept in his uniform. We all know that kid. Maybe, at one point in our lives, we WERE that kid.
Greenberg was a great athlete in high school, but he was also too small, not quite special enough -- nobody drafted him out of high school. He kept dreaming. He went to college, to North Carolina, and he became one of those classic college overachievers, the pesky outfielder who gets on base, steals bases, keeps everything moving, the favorite player of every child who came out to watch North Carolina play.
The Chicago Cubs drafted him in the ninth round, that point in the draft when major league teams try to find players who might be more than they appear. Greenberg’s greatest tool was his spirit. Even so, he never really was a Cubs prospect. In the 2003 Baseball America Prospects Handbook, he was not ranked among the top 30 Cubs prospects. Still, everybody liked him. Tough. Willful. Enthusiastic. Loved the game. He lacked size, lacked power and was not overwhelmingly fast. But he played good defense, and he clawed through every at-bat. It’s hard to say no to those guys.
In July 2005, the Cubs were just plodding along aimlessly. They had been a good team the previous two years -- heck, in 2003 they were a few outs from the World Series -- but things started to stagnate in 2005, and everyone knew it. The Cubs decided that their most immediate problem was outfielder Corey Patterson, viewed by some as the best prospect in baseball three or four years earlier. He had flashed some of his talent in the early part of his career but he was flailing in 2005. By mid July, his on-base percentage was .270, and the Cubs decided they had to do something.
They called up 24-year-old Adam Greenberg, even though he had never played above Double-A.
“We’re in a situation,” GM Jim Hendry told the Chicago Tribune, “where hopefully they will give us a spark.”
“They” meant Greenberg and another young player, Matt Murton, who was called up at the same time. Murton had been absolutely crushing the ball in the minors. Greenberg, to be honest, had not. Either way, Tribune baseball columnist Phil Rogers thought that neither was ready and that the move was pretty much a sign of Chicago panic. “They could get eaten alive,” was his summation.
Greenberg, of course, was beside himself with joy. This was everything he had ever wanted. “You start thinking about all the things you’ve done throughout your career, playing the game, from every level from Little League straight on through to pro ball,” he said in the Tribune the morning of his first game. This is the kind of story that reaches inside the chest of every kid who ever played Little League baseball, all the kids who felt too small, overmatched, the kids who believed that they were going to go to the major leagues despite the ample and obvious evidence pointing against it.
Greenberg came up for his first major league at-bat in the ninth inning of a game that the Cubs led 8-2 against Florida, and you know what happened next. He was hit in the back of the head on the first pitch from Valerio de los Santos. The thing that everyone noticed immediately was just how loud the impact sounded. Like a gunshot. Like a cannon going off. The recollections all revolved around weaponry gone wrong. Even so, at first, Greenberg seemed to be OK -- so much so that the aftermath was kind of teasing and light. “What a way to start you career,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. “I’m sure he’ll never forget that opening at-bat.”
“I told him it gets a little better from here,” Todd Walker told the Tribune.
Even a couple of days later, it all seemed to be a quirky but harmless moment in baseball history. The trainer told reporters that Greenberg’s symptoms were minor. The words “mild concussion” were tossed around -- oh, those days, not so long ago, when people might put “mild” in front of “concussion.” Greenberg himself said that he felt ready to go again. The one person who seemed to understand the severity of the situation was de los Valerio, who sounded haunted over the pitch. He called the hospital to talk to Greenberg. Anyway, Greenberg was released, and he said he would be ready to go as soon as the All-Star break was over.
Baseball people are obviously not the only ones prone to underestimating the severity of head injuries. That would be Adam Greenberg’s last at-bat with the Cubs. That realization only slowly came into focus. Greenberg was put on the DL for what everyone called “precautionary reasons.” By the end of July, he received his medical clearance. That’s when he headaches grew in intensity, when the vertigo kicked in. By late August, he was back in Double-A, trying to put things back together. He struggled. Then he felt healthier. In November, he was designated for assignment by the Cubs.
He was not going to give up, of course. He went to Venezuela to play ball. He showed up at Cubs spring training as a non-roster invitee. In June, the Cubs released him. It was always Greenberg’s quest to make it to the big leagues. Now, it became his quest to get back. Obsession, even. He did not want to be the guy known for getting hit in the head in his only big league at-bat. He tried to hook up with the Dodgers, the Royals, the Cubs again, the Angels, the Reds. He played independent ball in Connecticut. He even faced de los Santos again, in an independent league game, and he got a hit off him. Full circle, he said.
But it wasn’t, of course. It could never really come full circle. Not unless he made it back.
So, yes, it’s obvious why the Adam Greenberg story matters to us, obvious why it was so cool watching him get his at-bat on Tuesday night against the Mets’ R.A. Dickey -- a three-pitch strikeout that would under normal circumstances be as flavorless as chewed gum. This one was electrifying. Everyone was thrilled, excited, crying. Marlins player were, in the words of Florida manager Ozzie Guillen, as excited as they had been all year. Just about every other team’s broadcast broke into their live game to show the three pitches. We are enraptured by great quests. We cheer for the underdog. We hope for good things to happen to people who have been wronged somehow.
And yet … it seems to me that there has to be something more here. Adam Greenberg was not a player -- like, say, Herb Score or Tony Conigliaro -- who had demonstrated greatness, who had an impossibly bright career snuffed out by terrible event. He was a player who had overachieved to get to the big leagues in the first place, a player who would have had to overachieve even more to stay. He might have found a place as a utility outfielder who gives his team a spark. Maybe, he would have been the rare player who overshoots his talent and somehow works his way into the lineup based on his ethos and energy. And maybe, he would have played a few days in the big leagues, gotten sent back down, kicked around baseball for a while before adapting to a different life.
There’s no telling, really. So why did it mean so much to so many? Maybe that’s why. Maybe it’s because we can relate to the big dream, the one that held us as children, the dream of being a rock star or an artist or a race car driver or a movie star. Maybe we dropped the dream early, bowing to reality before it crushed us. Maybe that dream faded away the first time we flop-sweated before an audience, or with the first rejection letter we received, or with the realization that there were too many people who were better at our dream than we were. Or maybe we held on to that dream longer than our friends did, through the rejections and the doubts and cynicism.
Whatever the case, it seems to me that all we ever wanted was a fair shot. There’s no telling what Adam Greenberg might have done in the big leagues. We will never know for sure. But I don’t think that’s what captured the mind. I think it was that he didn’t get a fair shot. He had stayed with it all the way to the big leagues and then he got hit in the head. Everybody understood that Tuesday night’s at-bat wasn’t going to get the 31-year-old Greenberg a real shot at the major leagues. Everybody understood that this was as ceremonial as Satchel Paige pitching for the Kansas City A’s at age 58 or Minnie Minoso pinch-hitting for the White Sox at 54.
Still, Greenberg got to stand in against R.A. Dickey, perhaps the Cy Young Award winner, with one of the nastiest knuckleballs the game has ever known. It was his fair shot. It lasted only three pitches, three hard knuckleballs, a called strike, a swinging strike, and Greenberg never came close.
Baseball announcers will sometimes say after overmatched at-bats like that, “The batter never had a chance.” But the beauty of this at-bat was that the opposite was true. Adam Greenberg did have a chance. And I think, in the end, that’s all any of us really want.