Adam Greenberg Earned His One At-Bat

Peter Gammons was on ESPN talking about 24-year-old Adam Greenberg, an outfielder from my hometown of Guilford, Conn., and 23-year-old Matt Murton getting called up from Double-A Diamond Jaxx. The Cubs were 40-44, 13 ½ games out of first place and Corey Patterson and Jason Dubois weren’t getting the job done. It was July 8, 2005.

The following night in Florida, the Marlins hosted the Cubs and Greenberg and Murton were in the dugout. Greenberg was called upon to pinch hit for Will Ohman in the ninth inning. The first pitch he saw was a 92-mph fastball from Valerio De Los Santos that drilled him in the back of his head. One day after getting called up to the majors, one plate appearance after becoming a major leaguer and one pitch after stepping into the box for the first time, Greenberg’s major league career was over. It was July 9, 2005.

I remember the at-bat, the pitch and the aftermath. I remember the photos in the local papers the next day with a concerned Paul Lo Duca hovering over Greenberg, looking like he might have to act as a paramedic rather than a catcher. There were images of Greenberg being helped off the field and looking like Scott Stevens’ elbow or Floyd Mayweather’s fist had found his head. I always thought he would wind up on the disabled list, get healthy and back on track and be with the Cubs again later in 2005. It didn’t happen in 2005, so I thought I would see him in the majors in 2006. Then in 2007. Then in 2008. It never happened.

In 2012, concussions have become a focal point of sports and the most talked about storyline of America’s most popular game. It’s weird and also concerning that just seven years ago concussions and head injuries were still going unnoticed and unattended to. Greenberg suffered from positional vertigo and post-concussion syndrome from that fastball and it was over a year until his vision returned to normal. During this time, his manager called him a liar in front of his teammates about his head injury and he was told his symptoms weren’t real. This wasn’t 1975 or 1988. This was seven years ago.

On Tuesday night, while watching the Yankees-Red Sox game, I flipped over to SNY between pitches and during every commercial break while also tracking the game on Twitter, so that I wouldn’t miss Greenberg’s one at-bat with the Marlins against R.A. Dickey. Ozzie Guillen originally suggested that he might start Greenberg in the outfield and let him lead off the game in the bottom of the first, but instead he decided on giving him one at-bat as a pinch hitter in the middle of the game. This was a better idea since the Marlins entered the game at 68-92, 28 games out of first place and sitting in the basement of the NL East. (Yes, the Mets are better than them.) So there was no reason to go with his original thought. This game was too important to the Marlins and at the top of the order they had the vaunted left fielder Bryan Petersen (.192) and center fielder Gorkys Hernandez (.189).

SNY showed Greenberg taking batting practice (where he hit one out) and mingling with David Wright and other players. On Tuesday morning, I had the chance to talk to Greenberg for CBS Local Sports and he told me that he and Wright have had a relationship. Years ago, Wright went on a recruiting trip to North Carolina and they had dinner and they also had the same agent. He told me he played against Wright in the Florida State League and Ronny Cedeno (now a Met). He was a teammate of Kelly Shoppach (also a Met) when the two were on Team USA. Of all the things Greenberg told me, his prior relationships with players in Tuesday night’s game resonated with me the most because there are people treating his one at-bat like he’s some guy who won a contest or sweepstakes to play in the majors by filling out a questionnaire for a ballot box at Dunkin’ Donuts. These people forget that the guys on the field last night don’t view Greenberg as a charity case because they know him, played with him and competed against him. These players are the people Greenberg spent his teenage and adult years with and on Tuesday night it was as if he had been kidnapped from the majors and was being reunited with everyone for the first time on the field at Marlins Park.

Greenberg isn’t some publicity stunt for the Marlins to make a few extra bucks before their gates close for 2012. He’s a baseball player who played at the collegiate and professional level with the guys on the field last night, competed against those guys and was better than some of those guys before it was all taken away from him. But not everyone believes that Greenberg should have worn number 10 for the Marlins last night and pinch hit against R.A. Dickey in the sixth inning. Two of those people are former players who have a much louder voice than any columnist or blogger because they broadcast Mets games for SNY, the station that aired the game across the Tri-State area.

Prior to the at-bat, in one of my 237 times hitting the “LAST” button to go between YES and SNY, I heard Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling taking away from Greenberg’s night and calling his one at-bat a publicity stunt and basically a joke. I don’t recall Hernandez or Darling suffering from experiencing the ultimate high of their life immediately followed by the ultimate low in the first moment of their major league career. I can’t remember hearing about Keith Hernandez or Ron Darling having trouble tying their shoes because a fastball got away and missed their batting helmet and hit the base of their head.

Darling, a first-round pick, enjoyed 13 seasons in the majors. Hernandez, a 42nd-round pick, played for 17 years. I’m not saying that Greenberg, a ninth-round pick, would have become a franchise player or a regular or if he would have been a fourth outfielder or if the summer of 2005 was just going to be a cup of coffee, but he never even had the chance. How is it fair to criticize the life and career and path to the majors of someone else who had it taken away from them because a hard-throwing left-hander couldn’t control a fastball?

The answer is it isn’t. But that didn’t stop the empowered Hernandez and Darling from sharing their thoughts on a topic they are as familiar with as Roger Goodell is with player safety. Baseball’s players and its stars feel more entitled than any other group of players in major sports and even retired players are part of this fraternity like Hernandez. It’s guys like Mark Teixeira and Josh Beckett who hold the torch now, but Hernandez (a clubhouse cancer dating back to high school) did at one point and clearly still wants to. He’s the anti-Ken Singleton the way that Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin are the anti-Teixeira, and everything was better and much harder when Hernandez played in the majors. Greenberg didn’t get his first official at-bat in the majors the same way Hernandez did and that makes it wrong. Hernandez is no better than the old-school minor league managers who told Greenberg he was fine when he wasn’t. I’m sure they would have told Sidney Crosby to take another shift or called Marc Savard a “pussy” for being unable to function with the lights on or pleaded with Mike Richter to play a few more years if they were involved in hockey.

I wonder how Keith Hernandez would feel if the first pitch he saw from Mike Caldwell on Aug. 30, 1974 found the back of his head instead of the plate and left him with positional vertigo at the age of 20.

Ron Darling would probably be singing a different tune if the first pitch he threw to Joe Morgan on Sept. 6, 1983 was a line drive back up the middle that drilled him in the back of the head, leaving with him post-concussion syndrome at age 22.

Greenberg’s at-bat lasted three pitches against a guy with the most unique pitch in Major League Baseball since Mariano Rivera’s cutter. It seems like it would have almost been better if Greenberg could have faced Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez or CC Sabathia as crazy as it sounds because while they throw hard, they don’t throw variations of the best knuckleball on the planet.

When Greenberg went back to the dugout after striking out against the 2012 NL Cy Young winner there was closure to what happened in Florida on July 9, 2005. From the time he grabbed a bat, to his introduction over the PA system with “Dream On” playing and Marlins fans having something to get genuinely excited about at home for the first time since the 2003 World Series, it felt like a one-second blur. I can only hope that the one at-bat wasn’t Greenberg’s last at-bat in the majors.

Prior to signing his one-day contract with the Marlins and getting his one at-bat, Greenberg said baseball doesn’t owe him anything. He’s wrong. He deserved the chance that was taken away from him seven years ago. He earned it.