Cy puts Greinke in spotlight (cont.)
"The one thing that stands out to me," says Baird, "Is when Zack was going through this process I had a lot of people -- scouts, managers, coaches, players, ex-players -- come up to me and say, 'Hey, I went through this.' He's opened the door to a real comfort level that there's a lot of people out there with this. Through that exposing some of these things he's made a difference in people's lives."
The difference in Greinke's life was obvious when he returned to the majors at the end of the 2006 season. He pitched in only three games, but he has since had no known recurrences of the disorder. He was effective pitching mostly out of the bullpen in 2007, and before the 2008 season, the Royals hired Trey Hillman as manager. Initially, Hillman wasn't sure exactly what he had in Greinke. He was getting a young pitcher, yes, but one who to that point had never had so much as a winning season in the majors. He was getting a superior talent, but one who had regressed after an eye-opening debut season in 2004. And he was getting someone who had endured a lengthy and public bout with a mental illness. So when Hillman approached Greinke, he had a simple and direct message. "I know you're a man of very few words," Hillman said. "We'll interact only when we need to. If you need something from me, come to me. I don't want you to think I need you to talk to me more than I do."
That arrangement worked flawlessly as Greinke put together a fine 2008 campaign, going 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA that went mostly unnoticed. But when he began the 2009 season by dominating one opposing team after another -- he would go 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA in his first 10 starts -- in what quickly took on the look and feel of a historic season, Hillman thought he might need to adjust his relationship. "I took it a step further this year when he started getting so much attention," says Hillman. "I said, 'I don't want you to think I need to talk to you more just because everybody else wants to talk to you more.'"
In the end, Hillman wound up treating Greinke just as he had the year before. Their conversations, normally "one or two minutes," says Hillman, stayed just as brief. He's still never asked him about the social anxiety disorder, relying only on the information he got from pitching coach Bob McClure when he arrived in Kansas City. In fact, in two years as manager, Hillman says he and Greinke have only had one long conversation -- a spring training debate in 2008 about whether tennis players or NBA players were the superior athletes -- and the rest of the time, "He doesn't like to talk about it. But there aren't many things he does like to talk about for any length of time."
One subject Greinke has always been enamored of is baseball, but he was so good as a high school pitcher at Apopka High near Orlando, Fla., that he quickly became bored. He would try out new pitches, new windups, in the middle of a game, just to try and give him something else to compete with. He preferred life as a position player (even now, he tells Hillman, "If I were two steps quicker, I'd be your starting shortstop") but he nonetheless took his craft very seriously.
"What I find amazing to this day about him is he had that at such a young age," says Baird. "He was a good evaluator, and I know that sounds crazy, but he could break down hitters, talk about their limitations, bat path, bat speed, bat weakness. He could talk about it and then pitch to that. With his body and stuff very few pitchers can go to a hitters weakness the majority of the time. The classic thing is if you're gonna get beat, get beat with your best stuff. He has the ability to manipulate the baseball to a very high degree with an incredible feel for hitters, ability to break down a hitters strengths and weaknesses."
After spring training workouts when he reached the majors, Greinke would go watch local high school and college teams to see how their pitchers got hitters out, then report back to Baird that he should really take a look at some of them. "Eddie Bane, who is the scouting director for Angels, called me one day and said, 'Is this kid for real?' I said what do you mean? He said, 'He's here, breaking down hitters at a high school game here in Arizona.'"
Greinke continues to follow the game as few players do. On June 24, the Royals played an extra-inning game in Houston. "I'll tell you how smart he is and how much he stays in tune," says Hillman. "Unbeknownst to me, he was managing the ballgame right alongside me. We got into the 10th or 11th inning and we had only one player left. He very casually walks past me and goes, 'Skip, I'm gonna go put my spikes on.' You hope players are paying attention. It was a moment I'll always remember."
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