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Greinke takes step toward mound

By WRIGHT THOMPSON
The Kansas City Star

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Zack Greinke is alone, something that seems to both comfort and frighten him. The normally busy baseball facility has gone silent. Just green grass and brown dirt and white chalk — the simple things that have always drawn him to the game.

When the young Royals pitcher speaks, his voice is quiet but strong. “Most people who have my problem have it when they’re by themselves,” he says.

For all of his 22 years, Greinke has been a man defined by two powerful but disconnected traits. He is a phenomenal baseball player, but at the same time he is emotionally unequipped to handle everything that comes with playing at the highest level.

Small talk always eluded him. Locker rooms, clubhouses and crowds made him uncomfortable. He felt out of place everywhere but the mound. Then, two months ago, he felt lost there, too. During one spring-training bullpen session, everything spilled out, forcing him to finally deal with longstanding emotional issues.

“The way I was throwing,” he says, “it wasn’t me throwing. I couldn’t throw a strike. I couldn’t think about throwing a strike. I couldn’t focus. And I had the worst bullpen of my life one day, and the next time I was trying to throw my arm off just because I was going crazy. I was throwing everything 100 miles per hour. That’s when I was like, I can’t keep doing this.”

Greinke went home to Orlando needing a break. Now, after his self-imposed exile, he’s back. He gets up and goes to work at extended spring training, trying to become an elite pitcher again and retake control of his mind. General manager Allard Baird has come to realize the challenge that Greinke faces every morning just to make himself come to a clubhouse.

“I will tell you this,” Baird says. “What he has done to address this is, to me, one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen.”

From an early age, Greinke didn’t know what to do with empty spaces. Even during Little League, he hated to arrive at the ballpark a half-hour before games. He never seemed to know what to do or say.

“I knew there was something wrong with me,” he says, “but I never thought about going to see anyone to talk about it.”

He gravitated toward solitary pursuits. Even today, he loves golf, fishing and mountain climbing. High above Phoenix, where he likes to trek, he can look down on everyone else, happy up near the clouds.

Growing up, there were signs. As about an 8-year-old tennis player, with a 50-0 record, he finally got beat. It was the only tournament match he lost, and he said it’s the last one he played.

“I lost on purpose,” he says. “I had problems; I’d get real nervous before the games. The last time, I got so nervous and I was like, ‘Dad, I can’t play anymore.’ I was going crazy thinking I was gonna lose. I got so nervous I ended up hitting every ball straight into the net. The second set, I was loose and I beat the guy like 6-2. I ended up quitting in the last one. I hit them into the net again.”

Still, his athletic talent came to define him to the outside world. His emotional issues became quirks. The Royals selected him in the first round of the 2002 draft. Dubbed the future, he rose through the minors, landing with a big-league club that was in dire need of pitching.

He had a successful 2004 season but faltered a bit in 2005. By the time he got to spring training earlier this year and couldn’t throw a bullpen session, he’d come to a crossroads. He couldn’t fake fitting in any longer. Things he’d once adored meant little.

“I really like when the sun is setting,” he says. “I was here in Arizona, and it was one of the prettiest days out and the sun was setting, and I was like, ‘I don’t care; I don’t even want to look at it right now. It doesn’t do anything for me.’ That was one moment where I was like: What’s wrong with me?”

He left camp, and as the plane took off for home, a weight lifted off his shoulders. He felt free, for the first time in ages. But soon, he realized that his problems existed inside himself, not in any clubhouse.

Now, two days into his comeback, sitting in a conference room in Surprise, he touches his pitching arm.

“I wouldn’t give up this thing for anything,” he says. “I love it. But also, the problem I have isn’t going to bother me just if I play baseball. It’s gonna bother me no matter what I’m doing. That’s one thing I realized when I left and started talking to some people. I realized that it’s not just at the baseball field that it’s like this.

“Whatever I do in life, it’s gonna bother me.”

Greinke looks good. His blue eyes are bright. He says that he feels better and that he owes everything to the team officials who, in his moment of need, treated him like a human being first. That has taught him baseball can be more than a job.

“I couldn’t have done this without Allard, (manager) Buddy (Bell) and my parents,” he says. “They’ve done so much more than they needed to do or should have done. I’m still amazed by it. When I left, I thought they’d just kick me out the door. The way they’ve done it, I wasn’t expecting it. It’s just been incredible.”

Wednesday afternoon, standing in the empty lobby of the Royals’ spring-training facility, Greinke makes a point of saying how supportive his teammates have been. When he left, he was worried that he’d burned too many bridges. Their calls have meant the world.

“I’ve treated a lot of them like crap, because I felt so miserable that I acted rude to everyone,” he says. “I was taking it out on people I was friends with. The way I was doing it, it was out of control.”

Greinke doesn’t claim to have a miracle cure. Each day is a profound challenge. When Baird professes pride in what the pitcher has been able to do, Greinke refuses to celebrate moral victories. There’s no time to be proud yet.

“If I get better, I will be,” he says. “If not, it will all be a waste of time. At least I’m trying; that’s kinda cool. If it doesn’t get better, then I’m gonna have problems for a long time.”

Since arriving in Arizona on Monday, he’s worked out, easing back into it. They’re taking it slow. Greinke is trying to feel at home.

He’s not there yet.

“I don’t feel right in the clubhouse,” he says. “I’m pretty much comfortable everywhere besides here. … I’m not ready to throw a bullpen yet. I don’t know how long it will be. I would assume it would be pretty soon.”

There’s no schedule or projected return date. Just hope.

“This is a process,” Baird says. “It’s gonna take some time. No one knows how much time. He’s taking steps to move forward. Is he better now than what he was? Yes. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s a day-to-day approach. The focus is for him as a person. Today brings tomorrow, and tomorrow brings the next day.”

So with only today in front of him, and with Baird and an organization behind him, Greinke walks down the sidewalk toward the clubhouse. He pauses for a moment, then goes through the open door.

“I’m not afraid to play baseball,” he says.


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To reach Wright Thompson, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-4856 or send e-mail to wthompson@kcstar.com.