Being There With Zack

Next in our JoeBlogs Favorites, a look back at the young Zack Greinke

This week, Zack Greinke said he’d rather not throw a no-hitter. “It’d be more of a hassle than anything,” he said. This pressed Brilliant Reader Scot to remind me of this story I wrote on Greinke in 2010, when he was still with the Kansas City Royals and was the hottest pitcher on the market.

Russian Diplomat: “Tell me, Mr. Gardiner, do you by any chance know Krylov’s fables? I ask this because there is something, there is something Krylovian about you.”
Chauncey Gardiner: “Do you think so? Do you think so?”
Russian Diplomat (with a pleased smile): So you know Krylov?
(He leans forward to say a few words in Russian. Chauncey Gardiner laughs knowingly).
Russian Diplomat (happily): So you know Krylov in Russian, do you?
— Being There

I have written about Zack Greinke many times, for many years, and there’s one thing I can say without even the slightest doubt: I have no idea what’s going on in his head. Of course, you never really know what’s going on in anybody’s head, and that often includes your own. But with Greinke … I feel confident in saying that I’m not even close.

This hasn’t changed now that Greinke has become America’s most wanted pitcher. When Cliff Lee shocked everyone by signing with Philadelphia rather than New York or Texas — giving the Phillies what is potentially one of the greatest four man rotations in baseball history — Zack Greinke suddenly moved to the head of the line.

He isn’t just the best pitcher who might be on the market (the Royals appear open to dealing with him) he is probably the only potential No. 1 who is not tied down with Gulliver ropes. America’s Most Wanted Pitcher just turned 27 years old, and he has a mid-90s fastball, a devastating slider, an often tantalizing slow curve and a sometimes baffling change-up. He has won a Cy Young Award. Ever since being moved back into the starting rotation toward the end of the 2007 season he has thrown almost 700 innings and he has a 3.17 ERA, and a 637-to-162 strikeout to walk.

But with Zack Greinke, as you no doubt know, there’s always more to consider.

The first time I became aware of Zack’s, um, unique nature was when he was still a minor leaguer. He was brought to Kansas City to accept his award as the team’s minor league pitcher of the year. I had interviewed him a few times by then, and the conversations were never exactly free-flowing, but they were genial enough, and in general he seemed like an offbeat but fairly typical 19-year-old athlete, confident but awkward, friendly enough but suspicious, the whole thing.

His trip to Kansas City included a team-mandated tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. All of the Royals prospects invited to Kansas City went on the tour — there were probably 10 or 15 players. Buck O’Neil led the tour, told a couple of stories, and so on. And what I remember is that Greinke seemed more obviously moved by the museum than anyone else. He seemed to stop at every picture and wordlessly study it for a few beats longer than anyone else. Over time, the tour moved ahead, but Greinke never tried to catch up. He stayed back. He took it all in. Or anyway, that’s how it looked to me.

“Excuse me Zack,” a television reporter began. “Can we get a few minutes?”

“Um,” Greinke said, and he looked up at the ceiling. “No. This is not a good time. I don’t really feel like it …”

*I should say here that almost every Zack Greinke sentence ends with ellipses. He doesn’t finish sentences so much as he lets them drift off, like projects he intends to complete at some undisclosed later date. This can take some getting used to, though I do think that after a while the fade-out sentences become one of his many charms.

The reporter was not quite sure what he meant by “This is not a good time.” She was under the impression that the Minor Leaguers were there to see the museum AND talk to the media — all of the other players and media types seemed to be under the same impression. She asked him when he would be willing to talk. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds and then said 10 minutes. And so she went away, he looked a bit longer at the Negro Leagues photographs and baseballs and displays. She came back to him about 10 minutes later, asked again if he could talk. He said OK and they did the interview.

Now … what was that? Everybody around seemed to have a different opinion at the time. Some thought he was messing with the reporter. Some thought he was lost in thought the first time she asked and needed to regain himself. Some thought he was so caught up in emotion as he thought about those Negro Leagues players who never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues that he wanted to spend a bit more time thinking about them. Some thought he needed to psyche himself up to do the interview. Some thought he was hoping that he would postpone for 10 minutes and the reporter would forget to come back.

But here’s what strikes me: While nobody seemed to believe the same thing … everyone was SURE they were right. This was one of Zack Greinke’s great talents from the start: He gives people the impression that they get him. Scouts get him. Reporters get him. Fans get him. Managers get him. Teammates get him. Even now, all these years later, I have no idea why Zack did that weird 10-minute thing, just like I have no idea why Zack has done just about anything. My guess now is that the right answer, if there is a right answer, may very well be none of the guesses. But that did not stop people then or ever again from feeling certain that they understand Zack in some cosmic way, they know where he is coming from, know what troubles him, what inspires him, what motivates him.

Chauncey Gardiner from the movie “Being There” was the simple gardner of a rich man who wandered into the world and found people eager to infuse their own hopes and ideas and thoughts into his childlike words. Greinke is not simple, and his words are not childlike, but here he is, America’s Most Wanted Pitcher, and everybody seems to know what he wants, where he’d succeed, where he’d fail. So you know Krylov in Russian, do you? Some may be right. Some certainly are wrong. But if there’s one thing I have learned about Zack Greinke that I feel confident in saying it is this: Nobody really knows.

Royals GM Allard Baird (out loud): “Hey, I hear there’s supposed to be some hotshot young pitcher out here.”
Zack Greinke (standing on the mound and staring at the ground): “Yeah. And you’re going to be impressed.”
— First day of spring training, 2003

When Zack Greinke walked away from baseball during spring training 2006, nobody really understood it. Greinke certainly didn’t understand it. He would say that every day felt like a gray day. That was the closest thing to an explanation. Of course many people — me included — wanted to pin some of Greinke’s depression and anxiety on his miserable 2005 season. Oh, it was miserable. Greinke had gone 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA as a 21-year-old pitcher. It was staggering and awful to watch. One day in Arizona, Royals manager Buddy Bell left him out there for 4 1/3 torturous innings — he allowed 15 hits and 11 runs and at some point it seemed that by leaving Greinke out there Bell was breaking laws of the Geneva Convention.

Greinke had never failed as a pitcher before. He had never even liked pitching — he liked to hit, liked to play every day, liked to golf and so on. But, as a pitching talent, well, he was too big to fail. He pitched one year in high school, his senior year, and he was the Gatorade National High School Pitcher of the Year. He had an 0.55 ERA and a 118-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The things about pitching that seemed difficult to other kids — commanding pitches, repeating delivery, throwing strikes to both sides of the plate — came so easily to him that he did not understand why it was a big deal. Truth is: He did not think it WAS a big deal. The Royals made him the sixth pick in the draft though about half of the Royals decision makers were apprehensive about something in Greinke’s makeup (something they had a hard time putting into words, of course) and preferred another high school phenom named Prince Fielder. Greinke’s natural talent for pitching won out.

The minor leagues were not much harder for Greinke than high school baseball had been. He made 14 starts in High A Ball when he was 19 years old and he went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA. He moved up to Class AA and more than held his own. He was just about unanimously considered the best pitching prospect in baseball. I saw him pitch in the 2003 Futures game — a typically great collection of talent that included Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis and Grady Sizemore — and several pitchers topped 100 mph on the Chicago radar gun that day. Greinke wandered out, looked frail, and never threw a single pitch harder than 92. This is a prospect? Only, he sliced and diced hitters — he threw a perfect inning with two strikeouts. His recap afterward was both odd and mysterious: “It was just kind of crazy,” he said. “I mean I don’t know how, but it’s like everything I threw just kept going over the plate … and it didn’t just go over the plate, but it went over the corners.”

At 20, he came up to the big leagues and posted a 120 ERA+ in 145 innings and was named the Royals pitcher of the year. To watch him pitch then was probably as close as I will get to watching a pitching prodigy. I don’t mean he was good — he WAS good much of the time. But he was so different. He was utterly unlike any young pitcher I’d seen. He seemed to throw his fastball different speeds every time. Sometimes I would just write down the MPH numbers on a piece of paper and look at them — 89, 83, 88, 84, 91, 88, 90, 86 — the way Russell Crowe stared at numbers in “A Beautiful Mind.” He mixed in a 55-mph curveball that once left Jim Thome standing in the rain. He once caught both Bernie Williams and the home plate umpire by surprise with a quick pitch. His fastball topped out in the low-90s then, he often pitched in the high-80s and when asked if he could throw harder, he responded with a nod. He could throw much harder. Why didn’t he? Simple. He did not want to throw harder.

If he threw harder, he seemed to be saying, the ball might not just go magically over the corners. It was like Zen.

Yes, he was different, right from the start, and then came his disastrous 2005 season when for the first time hitters battered him around. The Royals felt like it was good for him go through failure, for him to learn how to deal with it, I feel sure that’s why Buddy Bell left him out there to drown in Arizona. “(Zack’s) a smart kid,” Bell said after the game. “Sometimes that might get in the way.” Others didn’t think Zack’s problem was being too smart — they had different views. Some thought stubbornness. Some thought the Royals’ misery — they lost 106 games that year — affected Greinke Some thought he was bored by baseball — and there was some pretty solid evidence backing up that theory. Brian Anderson, who was Greinke’s teammate that year, remembered that once Greinke announced in the dugout that the next inning he intended to throw a 50-mph curveball. The next inning, he threw a curveball, and Anderson hopped to the top step to see the radar reading. Exactly 50 mph. It was like he was inventing little challenges for himself just to keep the game interesting, like someone who cannot watch a horse race without having a bet on it.

Then, spring of 2006, he walked away from baseball. Talked about being a golf pro. Talked about coming back as a hitter. And I know I wasn’t the only one who thought his miserable experience as a pitcher in 2005 was as big a reason as any why he walked away from the game in spring training 2006. I was as sure as everyone else.

But … Greinke says that isn’t right. Close friends say that isn’t right. While his 2005 pitching experience was certainly no fun, they say it was life away from the field that was wearing on him. As one doctor explained, just about the ONLY time Greinke felt at ease was when he was on the mound pitching. Social anxiety is a tough diagnosis, and there are many varieties, and those varieties affect people many ways — ways that they often cannot put into words themselves.

In his six weeks away from baseball, Greinke began taking medication. He began to feel more comfortable about things. He will tell you that he’s still not a social person. He will not feel all that comfortable in crowds or when people want things from him. But much of the gray lifted. He came back to the game as a reliever and began to love pitching again. He started to throw 96 and 97 and 98 mph. He enjoyed the speed. And, in pretty quick sequence, he became a good pitcher, then a great pitcher, then a Cy Young Award winner, then America’s Most Wanted Pitcher.

@EloquentGlamour: “Tougher” pitchers have failed in New York. No way it happens and I think it’s smart not to acquire (Greinke).
@RyPThomas: “Isn’t Greinke’s psyche, like, the antithesis of what a NYY needs to succeed?”
@CJZero: “Greinke won’t survive in New York if he couldn’t deal with KC.”
@SpudChapp: “Greinke is not suited for NY, unless we get his therapist as well.”

— Twitter Feed

I have written about Zack Greinke many times over many years, and other than my statement above (I have no idea what’s going on Greinke’s head) there’s almost nothing I can say about the guy with any real conviction. Well, there’s is one other thing I can say: Zack Greinke hates the losing.

For some reason, people rarely seem to realize this. People think because Greinke does not feel comfortable around crowds — he has said a couple of time that being on the cover of SI was awful because it encourages more autograph seekers — that he somehow lacks confidence or aggressiveness or competitiveness. No. The guy has those three things in bulk. He knows that he’s a great pitcher. He never backs off. And he HATES losing.

It’s startling to me that people keep missing this. Well, maybe it isn’t startling. I suppose that when you hear someone walked away from baseball, it’s natural to assume certain things. I suppose when you hear someone takes medication to deal with social anxiety it’s natural to assume certain things. But, as my old science teacher first told me, as he wrote the word “assume” on the chalkboard, you know what you do when you assume …*

*You have no doubt heard the “assume” wordplay: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

Greinke craves pressure. I have seen it. I have listened to him talk about it. He craves big games. He hasn’t had many. You could make an argument that he hasn’t had ANY. I remember in 2006 when he came back to baseball, he was sent down to Class AA Wichita to be a reliever and to get his head together. And he found that he LOVED it. Yes, it was partly because he liked the bullpen (where he could pitch more often) and it was partly because he was on his medication and no longer felt quite so gray. But perhaps the biggest part of it was that the Wichita team was good. They were in a pennant race. The games mattered. When the Royals wanted to call him up to pitch for a third straight 100-loss team, Greinke found that he really wanted to stay in Wichita, where the action was happening.

Throughout his career, he has been at his best in April (before the Royals fall out of contention) and in September (when he can feel the season coming to an end). He probably deserved to start the 2009 All-Star Game, at least based on the way he pitched in the first half, but instead Roy Halladay started. Greinke pitched the fourth inning. He threw 10 pitches, eight strikes, and got a foul pop-up and two strikeouts. Absurdly small sample size? You betcha. But when you pitch for the Royals, and you are trying to find meaningful moments, there aren’t any big sample sizes.

I don’t know how Zack Greinke would do in New York or Chicago or any other big market. How could I know? But when I see people question his toughness or his psyche — either in direct words on Twitter or, infinitely more annoying, in read-between-the-lines quotes and stories — I guess they don’t know him any better than I do. If I had to pick the hardest place in baseball for Zack Greinke to pitch it would be … in Kansas City, with a dreadful defense behind him, with little run support, with little hope of contending now or anytime soon. I would guess that’s why Greinke last year, after playing the good soldier for so long (and signing a club-friendly contract), came out and said he didn’t want to go through another youth movement. He’s been through enough youth movements.

And, if we’re just talking guesses anyway, well, while many people would bet on him not being able to handle New York, I’d bet the other way. Sure, there’s more media in New York — but there are also strict guidelines (and Greinke would undoubtedly maintain his “I don’t talk except on gameday” stance; he certainly is not shy about saying “No” to media types — remember he refused to pose for the Sports Illustrated cover). While New York is a much bigger city with many challenges, well, let’s face it, there are certainly ways for multi-multi millionaires to weave around those (and anyway Kansas City and other places its size can be much more like fishbowls than big cities with countless big stars like New York). And when people ask me how Greinke would respond to being booed when he struggles … well, one more time, I don’t know, but I’d GUESS he’d handle that better than just about anyone in baseball. I don’t think he cares about that stuff at all. This is a guy who once said that fans cheering him madly in the midst of a good game was “kind of annoying.”

That’s not to say that Greinke would like New York or even be willing to play there. I don’t know that. The Yankees seem (publicly anyway) to be looking elsewhere which could mean that they have been alerted that Greinke won’t come there. It also could mean they don’t have — or don’t want to give up — the prospects necessary to pry Greinke away. It also could mean that they have their own opinions about how Greinke would pitch in New York. And, of course, it also could be a bluff.

I also think it’s possible that the New York Yankees — with all of their money, their background checks, their good scouting and everything else — don’t know Greinke any better than anyone else.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long story about Zack Greinke for The Kansas City Star — probably the longest of all the stories I’d written about him. After it came out, Greinke approached me and told me a story. He said his girlfriend, now his wife, had called to tell him about the story. He was in the car at the time, and he asked her to read it to him. He had a 45 minute drive somewhere and was looking to kill the time. He said she started reading him … and she finished the story 45 minutes later, just as his drive had come to an end.

“That was a long story,” he said by way of conclusion.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s probably the longest story I ever wrote about you.”

“It was like a book,” he added.

“Well, I hope you liked it.”

He smiled then, his classic Greinke style, and he looked up at the ceiling, and he said: “It was like a book.” Then he walked off, and to this day I have no idea what he meant.