Adam Greenberg fights to get back (cont.)
But, as the Amtrak trains whipping by behind rightfield and the I-95 traffic behind left seem to underscore, the minors are all about transition. The clubhouse is a mix of Major League has-beens -- easily identifiable by the showy rides in the players' lot and the gold medallions hugging their breastbones -- and Major League hopefuls, scraping by on their salary of two grand or so a month. The team's ace, Estaban Yan, pitched for seven big league teams over 11 seasons. The manager earlier this season was Tommy John. Even the current manager, Willie Upshaw, notes that he recently was the first base coach for the San Francisco Giants and was the first man to slap five with Barry Bonds when he hit his record-breaking home run.
On a cool spring night, as the first 1,000 fans were being presented with Bluefish foam fingers, the team's starting centerfielder sat in the dugout, holding forth on the strange vibe. "These are your teammates and you support them, but, let's be honest, they're also guys you're competing with," says Greenberg. "You make the best of it, but everyone involved wants to get to a higher level. It's weird like that."
It's been four years since Greenberg faced his one and only big league pitch, enough elapsed time so that some of his current teammates know nothing of his backstory. His hair has long since been shorn -- "New chapter, now look," he says -- and he's now engaged. Bridgeport is the latest stop in his quest to return to The Show. If Harbor Yards is a long way from a big league park, there are enough sources of hope -- a teammate recently signed by the Angels organization; the alleged presence of a Mets scout this night -- to nourish his spirits. "I just know good things are going to happen to me," says Greenberg, now 28. "As long as I'm wearing a uniform, I still have a chance. As long as I'm competing I'm happy. And I'm still competing."
After being struck in the head, he was left to confront a dilemma common to athletes in all sports: do you articulate the full extent of your injury, thus running the risk of losing a spot or being considered soft or, worse, damaged goods? Or do you play through it, although diminished abilities that might reflect in your stats? Greenberg chose the latter. Despite impaired vision and lingering spells of dizziness and disorientation, he began the 2006 season, back in Double A ball in Tennessee. He hit .179. He was then "promoted" to Triple A, where he played three games in three weeks and hit .118. When he asked for his release from the organization, the Cubs were happy to oblige.
He signed with Dodgers and played for their minor league affiliate in Jacksonville, but his struggles at the plate continued. The vertigo eventually subsided, but standing in the box, Greenberg says that he would, reflexively, "bail" on inside pitches. "Eventually the subconscious became conscious," he says. Marooned in backwaters of Arkansas or Tennessee, he would analyze and re-analyze his game. Never one to let his thoughts go unexpressed, most every night, he'd call his father with a Eureka! revelation. I need a different bat. My hands are wrong. I have a little hitch in my hitch. 'I got it, dad. I know what I'm doing wrong!' he recalls. "Then I'd go 1 for 5 and do it again."
Talk about having your equilibrium thrown out of whack: With his winning attitude and advanced baseball cortex, Greenberg had always mastered the mental side of the game. Now, it was his nemesis. "I've learned about the psychology of baseball," he says. "At the end of the day, was I depressed? Yes. What kid wouldn't be? You go from the big leagues, realizing your dream, to nowhere to be found."
By 2007, he was in the Royals' farm system. As centerfielder for the Double-A Wichita Wranglers, he played capably, leading the league in triples, ranking fifth in steals and patrolling centerfield. But after he failed to make the Royals' Triple A team in spring training 2008, the organization cut him loose. He'd heard the speech before. He was a "great guy" and "a credit to baseball," but ultimately, "it was a numbers game," and the calculus wasn't working out for him. It was around that time, the Greenbergs popped that bottle of Dom Perignon at a family function. Suddenly unemployed (and losing on his real estate investments), Greenberg was at a low point. Unexpectedly, he received a voicemail from Baker, his old manager. It was a garden variety "keep your head up" message of inspiration. But Greenberg was sufficiently touched that he still has the message stored on his phone, resaving it every 21 days. He and Baker, by this point the manager of the Reds, started to communicate -- everything from one-sentence emails to meaning-of-life conversations. "What happened to him is one of the low moments of my career," says Baker. "He's one of the finest young men I've met, confident and humble at the same time."