At last, Greinke feels right again

At last, Greinke feels right again
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
April 9, 2007

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Since no one without a medical degree can look inside Zack Greinke's head, perhaps the best arbiter for his mental state of being comes from the lower half of his body.

"Before, I really didn't care about baseball," Greinke said. "And I would run a lot, but I wouldn't lift (weights) for a stupid reason – I thought it would make my legs big. I didn't want big legs. It wasn't worth it to me. Probably no one thinks that way, but I did at the time."

Back then, in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, Greinke already was in the throes of so many dualities. Success vs. failure. His gift of pitching vs. his love of hitting. Playing baseball vs. quitting. Greinke's refusal to build up strength in his legs was a microcosm for the greatest battle in which he was engaged.

Him vs. himself.

To see the 23-year-old Greinke on the pitching mound against the Boston Red Sox and Daisuke Matsuzaka last week, then, was to see a conqueror. He threw with a ferocity absent in those previous years, keeping David Ortiz so off-balance that he struck him out three consecutive at-bats with three different pitches. In the buried subplot of Matsuzaka's first major-league start, Greinke nearly matched him, striking out seven and giving up one earned run in seven innings.

Two days after the beginning of his second act, Greinke actually sounded proud of the increased velocity, which he attributes to his new leg program in the gym.

"They're stronger," Greinke said.

So is he.

Depression and social anxiety had sapped Greinke of any joy he derived from baseball. The 20-year-old prodigy who had won the Royals' pitcher of the year award as a rookie in '04 – the one who could throw a 95-mph fastball one pitch and follow with a 50-mph curveball the next – despite ruing trips to the ballpark. In that first season, Greinke developed the reputation as someone who kept to himself yet spoke up often enough to know the filter between his brain and mouth had sprung a leak.

"I don't think you can ever be honest to a fault, but if there is such a thing, you can put him in that category," Royals manager Buddy Bell said. "He says what's on his mind, takes everything literally."

Often, and without prompting, Greinke would mention his desire to play shortstop, the position he manned in high school. It was the cry no one noticed. As Greinke's 2005 spiraled – he gave up 11 runs on 15 hits in 4 1/3 innings to Arizona in a mid-June game and finished the year 5-17 with a 5.80 earned-run average – he withdrew more.

By spring training the next season, Greinke was ready to quit baseball. He told his friends in the offseason he would. And on Feb. 25, 2006, during a bullpen session in Surprise, Ariz., he stormed away, ready to end his career then and there. The Royals allowed Greinke to return to his parents' home in Orlando and figure out why he felt how he did.

"I'd go through spurts where I'd care," Greinke said. "It wouldn't be consistent. As soon as I actually got to the baseball field, I would dislike it again. I would only care about baseball during the offseason. Whenever I was at the field, it would stop being fun."

In sessions with a counselor, long-standing issues revealed themselves. Greinke's family had a history with depression, and the doctor diagnosed him with social-anxiety disorder. He was prescribed antidepressants, which still help balance him.

The recovery wasn't easy. Greinke returned to Surprise last April and continued to fight the boredom of half-day workouts. In June, the Royals dispatched him to Double-A Wichita on a rehab assignment. At the end, Greinke knew he wasn't ready mentally to return to the major leagues, and he told new general manager Dayton Moore so much.

It wasn't, Greinke said, until just after the All-Star break that baseball began to capture him again. The meds helped him realize he was a pitcher, a good one at that, and pining for what couldn't be did him no good.

"If the whole game you're preparing to pitch, you can't prepare to hit," Greinke said. "I can't do that. And I finally started to recognize that."

Three relief appearances with the Royals in September sent Greinke into the offseason knowing they hadn't sworn him off. Teams inquired about his availability. Moore didn't bite. Greinke came to Surprise this spring with the extra muscle in his legs and forced himself into the Royals' rotation.

"It seems like he's enjoying himself," Royals catcher John Buck said. "He's more enjoyable to be around and hang out with. And that goes for anybody: It's easier to play a game with someone, whether it's golf or baseball, when they don't have a sourpuss."

It's easy, too, when he can be as good as Greinke. In his final six innings against the Red Sox, Greinke gave up leadoff hits, including four consecutive innings with doubles. And only one of them scored, an unearned run at that.

After the game, amid the fervor for Matsuzaka, people went out of their way to praise Greinke. He was the bouquet of gerbera daisies – understated and underappreciated – among Matsuzaka's red roses.

Said Buck: "He knows he can be special."

Said Red Sox manager Terry Francona: "You're going to look up a few months from now and see a lot of wins with that kid. He can pitch."

Said Royals DH Mike Sweeney: "Zack has a chance to win a Cy Young someday. What is he, 23? Most guys, at 23, are barely getting out of college."

Greinke, meanwhile, has resurrected a career that looked all but dead. He'll start again Tuesday night in Toronto – his second in a row and, he hopes, his second of many – with a burgeoning appreciation for the game that once caused him such strife.

"When I was 20, I was happy with myself and how I was," Greinke said. "And now that I'm 23, I'm still happy with myself and how I am.

"I'm just having fun."

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Apr 9, 2007 4:52 pm, EDT

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