KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nobody does honest like Zack Greinke. Because modern athletes have conditioned us to expect canned analysis, hollow words and cadaverous personalities, there is something so satisfying in somebody unburdened by what others might think. Greinke's specific brand of truth is cold and unfiltered, nothing sacred, be it cows, people or even himself.
Greinke placed Greinke under a microscope Tuesday night. He had just thrown seven brilliant innings for the Milwaukee Brewers in a 2-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals, the team he forced to trade him less than two years earlier. It was his return to the city he disowned. Rather than avoid his dirty deed – the trade request in baseball is the domain of those considered spoiled and Derek Bell's brilliant Operation Shutdown – Greinke addressed it with searing forthrightness, especially for someone who could have a nine-figure payday awaiting him once he hits free agency this offseason.
"I was pretty rude on the way out," he said. "I felt like I had to in order to get out. I didn't want to have to be the bad guy, but I felt like I had to be. I liked it here. The fans were great. I don't know how so many of them come to the games when they've been bad for so long, but it's pretty impressive."
The whole thing was so positively Greinke. His admission that he was the bad guy, threatening not to play for the franchise that drafted him, nurtured him through a social-anxiety disorder that led to almost a year away from the game and watched him blossom into a Cy Young winner. His praising the fans, many of whom booed him on Tuesday. And his inclusion of a little shot to go, the nod-and-wink sort in which Greinke specializes because his droll delivery masks a wicked sense of humor.
There are other truths about Greinke, ones he'll have to confront as he enters the final two-thirds of perhaps the biggest season of his career.
Truth No. 1: With an eight-strikeout, zero-walk performance against the Royals, Greinke's 89 Ks are more than anyone in the National League but Stephen Strasburg (who's up by three) and Gio Gonzalez (with whom he is tied). It's an embodiment of his raw ability, his harnessing it and his relentlessness, which occasionally can misplace itself via diarrhea of the mouth.
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Among that, his time away, his forcing of the trade and his affect, which has been called everything from bored to disinterested to aloof, Greinke has grown the sort of reputation that chases him even if it's unfair. And that leads directly to …
Truth No. 2: Plenty of executives worry about Greinke's ability to adjust to the big city, the media crush, the hype and the general awful treatment promised a star who makes eight figures annually. This is a silly claim, one borne of stereotypes extrapolated and designed to limit his marketplace.
Greinke would play anywhere. Check that: Anywhere with a team that has a pulse. What he did was simultaneously weasely and brave. He ditched his teammates … and he refused to play anymore for a woebegone franchise. He quit … and he demanded a winner. Yes, he stunk last postseason. Another shot, he figures, and he'll get it right.
So unless the Brewers pony up – and there's no sign at this point that they're inclined to do so, especially as they lollygag below .500 – Greinke may again find himself traded before getting to choose where he wants to go. And at 29, he'll do so at an optimal time.
Greinke wouldn't set his criteria. He's not thinking about that, he said, not with the season still going on, even if the end game is $125 million. He's got the type of pedigree and stuff and health to fetch that, too. For only two years of Greinke, the Royals received Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, Lorenzo Cain and Jeremy Jeffress, respectively their shortstop, top pitching prospect, center fielder and hardest thrower. It was the rare double success, one both teams would consummate again, and it says how much the Brewers think of Greinke and his 2.96 ERA with peripherals to match.
Royals fans used to. In 2009, when Greinke won his Cy Young, he would practically sell out Kauffman Stadium. It was stunning – the revitalization of baseball in a city that long ago gave up hope. Too many guys had left. Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, and that was just one outfield.
Greinke scanned Kauffman Stadium to see if anyone still wore his jersey. And much to his surprise, the Greinke 13 might have been the most popular there. They liked him even more when he fed the leadoff hitter, Alex Gordon, a fat 3-2 fastball that landed more than 430 feet later in a fountain and staked the Royals the only run they needed most of the night.
Eventually they scratched across another, but it was a struggle, like so many things with Kansas City's offense. And there's where Greinke was telling the truth: Of course it's brutal living with loss after loss. Baseball myopia can condition players to accept it, but Greinke never did, and here the Royals are, almost a half-decade into their plan, still unable to even reach .500.
"It's not like it's just gonna happen because they have a bunch of good young players," Greinke said. "It has to be done consistently and done thoughtfully, and even then it's still not guaranteed."
There was a tinge of sympathy and resignation to Greinke's mock-GMing: It can be done, it's just really hard. And more than anything, that answered the question on which so many wanted him to bite: Would you come back here to play? There are limits to Greinke's truth, apparently, because he woudn't exactly say. So why not do it for him?
Truth No. 3: Zack Greinke isn't coming back to Kansas City, in part because the Royals may or may not be any closer to a championship than they were when he asked out, and similarly because what the hell sort of an organization would spend more than $100 million on a guy it saw quit, no matter how bad he feels about it?
That, and the Valhalla in which the Royals extend their payroll to include a nine-figure guy, make this discussion nothing more than "Fifty Shades of Grey" for a starving Kansas City baseball fan. Still, it was interesting to note that Greinke and Royals GM Dayton Moore crossed paths Tuesday and chatted for about 10 minutes.
Greinke asked questions about the current state of the team, and it wasn't just him engaging in pleasantries. He doesn't do that. His curiosity was genuine, like he cared. A little guilt? A little sadness? Probably not. Even if he does still own a house here, even if he wants to know about this team, he was the bad guy, and almost two years later, that truth hurts as much as any.
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