After one at-bat, Adam Greenberg fights to get back to the majors
Adam Greenberg made the big leagues before one pitch changed everything
Now 28, he's playing with the Independent League Bridgeport Bluefish
Greenberg is realistic about his chances and also has business ventures
The Dom Perignon sat in an ice bucket, near a king size bed in the Ft. Lauderdale Marriott. It had been barely 12 hours since Adam Greenberg got The Call, the promotion to the big leagues.
It was July 2005 and the Chicago Cubs were, characteristically, struggling, having gone more than a week without winning a game. In a move designed both to prod some of the underperforming veterans and give a bright prospect a shot, the Cubs summoned Greenberg from Double A. "It was just like you dream it," says Greenberg. "You're about to get on a bus for some random place; then -- hold on -- you're redirected to fly first class and meet the Cubs in Florida for a series against the Marlins."
"Greenie," as he was inevitably nicknamed in every clubhouse he ever entered, cut an atypical figure for a ballplayer. A nice, Jewish kid from the quaint town of Guilford on the Connecticut shoreline, he spent three years in college at North Carolina before getting picked by the Cubs in the ninth round of the 2002 draft. While Greenberg's teammates played cards on the bus and PlayStation at the motel, he was day-trading stocks, flipping residential properties and setting up a high-tech company he vows could one day be "Google-huge." Greenberg stood only 5-foot-9 but conformed to cliché, compensating for modest stature by scrapping and hustling and diving -- performing all those other don't-show-up-in the-box-score gerunds that sports bosses admire. Plus, the kid was lightning. At the time of his promotion, he had stolen 15 bases and hit nine triples for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.
When Greenberg met up with the Cubs in Florida, he couldn't fake playing it cool. Showing off a mouth of jarringly white teeth, his face froze in a smile. He needed to remind himself he was a teammate, not a fan, of, say, Derek Bell, that the No. 17 jersey belonged not to Mark Grace but to him. And he couldn't entirely banish thoughts of his new salary, either: his wage of $316,000 was more than 10 times what he'd been earning in Tennessee.
Having scoured the Internet for the best fares, Greenberg's parents and three of his four siblings had flown to Florida to be on hand for what they hoped was his Major League debut. At the very least, they'd congratulate him in person. "It was just a monster occasion," recalls Adam's father, Mark, chief financial officer for a manufacturing firm. "Adam had been so dedicated, so determined to get there and, wow, he was 24 years old and he'd done it."
That first night Dontrelle Willis -- the Dontrelle Willis of 2005 -- was pitching for the Marlins. "Think we'll let you rest tonight," Dusty Baker, the Cubs manager, said to Greenberg, cackling. But the following night, in the top half of the ninth inning, Baker sent Greenberg into the game to pinch hit. It struck Greenberg as odd, given that he was a lefty and so was the pitcher, Valerio de los Santos. But the Cubs were winning 4-2, and besides, Baker knew that Greenberg's family had flown in.
With his boyish, clean-shaven face and an unruly thatch of curly black hair, Greenberg looked like a kid who'd defied orders to visit a barber. As he swung in the on-deck circle, his hair poked out from the bottom of his helmet. When Greenberg approached the plate and dug in, his mother, Wendy, ignored a security guard and maneuvered from her seat behind home plate to the front row to snap photos. Mark, the antithesis of a Little League Dad, took inventory of it all, figuring this moment was the culmination of all those nights he'd wake up and realize the banging noise was his self-motivated son working on his swing in the basement.
Then de los Santos reared back and fired a 92-mph fastball. The pitch was awful, a (mis)guided missile that whistled through the air, directly toward Greenberg's head. He twisted awkwardly but the ball drilled him behind his right ear, partially on his helmet, partially on his skull. Greenberg had been hit before in thousands of at-bats, but it never felt like this. He went down, almost as if he'd been shot, and instinctively he clutched his head, hoping to contain some of the contents that, he was sure, were seeping out. The crowd went silent. The Marlins catcher, Paul Lo Duca, cautiously reached out to Greenberg and told him to stay down. The pitcher, de los Santos, would later admit he feared he'd killed Greenberg. Mark stood numb. Wendy screamed. Greenberg's sisters started to cry and were comforted by the wives of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, seated nearby.
After a few minutes, Greenberg sat up. When Cubs trainers asked: "Where were you two days ago?" Greenberg responded lucidly. "I was in the minor leagues, and I'm not going back!" Whew. He was replaced with a pinch runner, and, after the game, Greenberg downplayed his pain. When de los Santos called -- ironically, his cousin, Roberto Novoa, was playing for the Cubs at the time and kept him informed -- Greenberg accepted his apology. That night, asked how he was feeling, Greenberg responded, "I'll be fine."
Except he wouldn't. The Dom Perignon, a gift from his agent, sat uncorked in the hotel room, and Greenberg had a rough night. The following day he went to the hospital and was told he probably had a mild concussion. Over the next few days, his headaches and dizziness worsened. The slightest maneuver and he felt his head imploding. Eventually, the Cubs assigned him to rehab, intending to recall him when his symptoms cleared. He was diagnosed with positional vertigo, an inner ear problem that affects balance. For the rest of the summer, Greenberg could scarcely brush his teeth, much less hit fastballs, without feeling like he'd just gotten off the Tilt-a-Whirl. Still, he was young and enthusiastic and motivated; he'd work over the winter to get to where he once belonged. He didn't consider that one pitch -- maybe half a second of action -- might represent the sum total of his Major League career.
The Ballpark at Harbor Yards is home to the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish and it's one of those venues that highlight the charms of minor league baseball. The average ticket price for this unaffiliated Independent League team is $10; and if half the 5,600 seats are filled, it's a respectable crowd. There's a goofy mascot and cornball giveaways and a scratchy p.a. system that belts out the usual sports playlist while scout troops and Little League teams and senior citizen groups dance in their seats. The outfield wall is adorned with placards for local car dealers and insurance agents. All that's missing is the "Hit Bull, Win Steak," promotion.