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There's a riddle that has followed Zack Greinke ever since he made it to the big leagues five years ago. He was a 20-year-old Kansas City Royals pitcher who was being called, among other things, a genius, a prodigy, the future of pitching. The riddle was posed by Greinke himself: What do you follow, your mind or your arm?
"Sometimes my arm wants to throw a hard fastball," he says, "but my brain doesn't want to throw it that hard."
This was typical Zack Greinke. He was unlike any 20-year-old major leaguer anyone had ever seen. From the start he could do magical things with a baseball. He was the Royals' pitcher of the year as a rookie, the youngest in franchise history, and that's rare enough—a quick glance through history shows how few 20-year-olds there are who have been ready to retire big league hitters.
But it was the way that he got hitters out that distinguished Greinke: He worked out of his first big league jam by throwing a 58-mph curveball that Oakland's Eric Chavez dribbled to second base. That season he fooled Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and home plate umpire Doug Eddings with a quick pitch that Eddings later allowed he might have missed. Most of all, he refused to throw hard.
"Let it go," everyone told him. Greinke readily admitted that at his unleashed best, he could throw his fastball 95 mph, maybe 96. But in games, facing the best hitters in the world, he would instead throw the ball 89 or 86 or 84, depending on his mood.
Let it go. That's what the coaches said, what his teammates thought, what they barked on talk radio and scribbled in the paper. But they didn't understand that Greinke had control at those lesser speeds. He could make the baseball do what he wanted at those speeds. If he really unleashed himself, well, there was no telling what would happen.
"Who wins the clash between your brain and the arm?" reporters once asked him.
"I dunno," he said.
Five years later, so much has changed. Zack Greinke has been a phenom, and he has been a bust. He has walked away from baseball, and he has come back. He has been a starter and a reliever, a genius and a flake, and even now he's still only 25 years old.