KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Allard Baird will not be rooting for Zack Greinke to win on Tuesday. It will mark one of the only nights this year that the former Royals general manager, now a member of Boston’s front office, will have anything resembling mixed emotions while watching the Cy Young frontrunner pitch.
Greinke, who will start against the Sox on Tuesday, can make a compelling claim to the title of baseball’s best pitcher in 2009. He also happens to be the sport’s best story this season.
In 2006, a consuming social anxiety disorder threatened to derail the young right-hander’s career. Then just 22, the pitching prodigy was ready to walk away from the game in spring training.
It is nothing short of remarkable to see the distance that the pitcher has traveled from that crisis point to the present. Greinke sits atop his profession, armed with a 14-8 record, a major-league best 2.14 ERA, a ridiculous 224-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio and nearly every other statistical marker of dominance.
Greinke’s emergence as one of the best pitchers in the game provides the same sort of inspiration as does cancer survivor Jon Lester. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates
that as many as 15 million Americans a year are affected by social anxiety disorder, which can render individuals unable to do their jobs and makes it difficult to impossible to maintain relationships.
In a professional environment where psychological issues have often been stigmatized or ignored, Greinke faced his personal challenges in a uniquely difficult setting. There is power in his example.
“I personally know what he went through. For him to be here, knowing what he went through, is pretty darn big. I don’t think he’ll ever get enough credit for that,” Baird said earlier this summer. “That’s outside of his baseball abilities, how he took this head on. We talk about mental toughness in this game, this guy has mental toughness beyond what could be imagined.”
In ‘06, in his fourth full season as a professional, Greinke had seemingly lost his passion for pitching, as well as any real interest in being a major-leaguer. He expressed this to Baird and then-Royals manager Buddy Bell.
In baseball, a blown-out elbow is a far simpler matter to address than a personality disorder. Pitchers and players are monitored by trainers on a daily basis to gauge their physical strength and health, with precise measures that offer early warnings of potential injuries.
There is no such infrastructure in pro sports to deal with matters such as depression and social anxiety disorders that touch the lives of millions of Americans on a daily basis.
And so, confronted with a pitcher dealing with a matter that had little to do with throwing or hitting a baseball, Baird (who now works for the Sox as the assistant to general manager Theo Epstein) had to puzzle through the best way to proceed.
“It was something that I was unfamiliar with,” Baird admitted. “I was in the dark.”
Greinke allowed during the All-Star festivities this summer in St. Louis that there were points when he “hated baseball” in the beginning stages of his career, before he was diagnosed. It was something that he had felt even as early as a stint in the Puerto Rican Winter League right after the Royals signed him as their first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2002.
Greinke was a prodigy, the first and only pitcher ever to be sent straight to the Puerto Rican Winter League in the same season in which he was drafted out of high school. He hated the seemingly endless days at the park, the eight hours of nothing.
“I like Puerto Rico a lot. It was just the baseball there I didn’t enjoy,” Greinke reflected at the All-Star Game in St. Louis. “It really drove me crazy there. I’d probably like it now.”
For much of his early life as a pro, Greinke succeeded and even dominated despite his growing distaste for the game. His first full season in the minors resulted in ridiculous numbers, as the 19-year-old tore through older competition in the High-A Carolina League while going 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA in 2003.
He seemed ready to cement that promise upon his big-league debut, forging a 3.97 ERA. Stories snuck out of Kansas City about a kid with Greg Maddux’ feel for pitching, with Greinke able to hit every digit from 88 to 96 mph on the radar gun with his fastball.
But in 2005, Greinke took his lumps. He went 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA, marks that were puzzling based on his stuff and his feel for the game. The next spring, the situation worsened. Greinke could not throw strikes in bullpen sessions. Something was amiss.
In a subsequent interview with the Kansas City Star, Greinke admitted that he was unhappy around the game. He would plead to become an everyday player rather than a pitcher forced to endure the maddening four days of nothing between starts. He thought about leaving baseball altogether, but the emotional issues that led to such sentiments went far beyond the sport.
At a time when his job was in jeopardy, Baird looked beyond the suck-it-up philosophy that has often characterized the manner in which sports have treated non-physical injuries. After contending in 2003, the Royals had suffered through a pair of utterly miserable seasons, suffering 104 losses in 2004 and 106 losses in 2005.
Baird’s job security – or lack thereof – was an open topic of conversation in baseball circles. A poor start by his club seemed a near-certain recipe for the general manager to be fired.
None of that mattered.
“This is a kid’s life,” explained Baird. “You’re talking about a young man with a future of being a father – having kids, having grandchildren – all these things were the focus at that point, for me.
“I’d be lying if I said I thought there wasn’t a chance that he’d (walk away from the game),” Baird continued. “The focus was not on baseball. The focus was on the person.”
Rather than having him try to “fight through” his disorder, Baird and Bell encouraged Greinke to step away from the game and to focus on his personal well-being.
“I told him, ‘Give up the game right now. That’s the last thing you need to be worried about,’” said Baird. “We realized that it was in his best interests to go home, get away, and let’s try to get some help. He bought into that.”
Greinke spent the coming months seeking counseling and treatment. The benefits became evident almost immediately. Even so, by the time that he returned to the mound for a team – joining Double-A Wichita in June – the Royals were once again out of contention, and Baird had been fired.
Even so, one of Baird’s last acts as a Royals general manager has since proven one of his most important for the franchise and, more importantly, the person.
“If [Baird and Bell] didn’t [tell him to step away from baseball], I wouldn’t be here,” Greinke said at this year’s All-Star Game. “I wouldn’t be here if [Baird] didn’t do that, for sure.”
Greinke made a brief big-league cameo by the end of 2006. Since then, he has come to fulfill the promise that seemed so apparent at the start of his career. He split time between the bullpen and rotation in 2007, going 7-7 with a 3.69 ERA, and then established himself as a fixture in the Royals rotation while going 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA last year.
The time away from the game thus came to represent an interruption, rather than a derailment. That notion was reinforced when the Royals signed Greinke to a four-year, $38 million deal prior to this season.
Had he waited until free agency, or even just until the end of this year, he would have been in line for tens of millions more. But security had substantial appeal, especially given that Greinke recognized that Kansas City offered him a comfortable environment, on and off the field.
Even so, Greinke’s growing confidence becomes evident in hearing him suggest that he could succeed outside of the cocoon of the only organization that he has ever known.
“[The environment] had a lot to do with [signing the extension], for sure,” said Greinke. “Now, maybe New York would bother me, but I don’t think anywhere else would bother me anymore. Even though I’m in Kansas City, I’ve gotten used to it a lot more. New York, I still might have trouble in New York. I probably would. But I think almost everyone does.”
This year, Greinke has not encountered trouble anywhere. He has taken his performance to new pinnacles, as evidenced by the fact that his name occupies virtually every leader category.
Greinke’s arsenal is ridiculous. He will add and subtract to a fastball that he throws from 91-97 mph, and complement that with a devastating slider, a curveball that he can spin at different velocities and with pinpoint precision to both sides of the plate and a changeup that he integrated this spring.
Already, he has set Royals’ records for most strikeouts in a game (15), and with 224 punchouts this year, he is all but certain to break the Royals record for strikeouts in a season (244 by Dennis Leonard).
His total of 14 wins should be much higher, since he has a 1.95 ERA in eight no-decisions; he has not been credited with a victory in an astonishing six games in which he has allowed one or no runs.
Perhaps because his numbers have been dampened by the lack of run support from his teammates, Greinke’s accomplishments – which would likely make him a unanimous choice for the A.L. Cy Young on a more prominent or successful team – have received less attention than they should.
More importantly, Greinke’s ability to manage his social anxiety disorder in order to achieve exceptional success may not have received enough notice. The disorder remains something that the pitcher has to deal with. But that is precisely why his performance this year has been so impressive: he is excelling while living with and managing the condition, rather than ignoring it.
“He still needs his time, needs his space. I think that will always be the case, something that’s there,” said Kansas City skipper Trey Hillman earlier this year. “Having had the challenges he has had in the past, I’m really encouraged by how he’s embraced it rather than fought it off.”
Baird, who stays in touch with his former pitcher through text messages and occasional phone calls, cannot help but express his excitement for what the pitcher has done.
“I’m extremely proud of him and very happy for him. The one thing, for me, that’s the biggest thing, is he took a very private thing, very personal, at a young age, and dealt with it in the public’s eye,” Baird said. “To me, that’s the bigger accomplishment than whatever he’ll do in baseball. Quite frankly, I don’t think that gets talked enough about.”
Of course, Greinke seems to harbor little frustration about that fact. To the contrary, he treats his success as matter-of-fact. He carries himself as someone who has separated himself from the dark days of his past.
The social anxiety disorder is one that has proven treatable and manageable for the young right-hander, and so there seems little reason for him to dwell on a time when that was not the case. That he is now a Cy Young frontrunner and as dominant a pitcher as there is in the game is more satisfying than surprising.
“I’ve thought about it a couple times, how much different it would be if I never came back,” Greinke said at the All-Star Game. “It’s been awhile now that I’ve been back playing (since returning).
“You kind of expect to do it your whole life. You just expect to do good. You kind of think you’re going to. It’s not really a big surprise when you do, at least for me. You’ve got to think you’re good, or else you won’t be good.”
That is part of the thought process that now guides Greinke to overmatch opposing hitters. It is the sort of attitude that was nowhere in evidence when pitching for the Royals was the last thing he wanted to do in 2006.
It is part of the reason why Baird pays attention anytime Greinke is going to pitch, and why he is elated for the 25-year-old’s success. While Baird will no doubt have to spend Tuesday rooting against his former player as he pitches against the Red Sox club that signs his paychecks, he can be forgiven if at least a part of him is rooting for the Kansas City hurler.