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Greinke trying to bounce back from personal problems
After getting help last year, baseball finally looks good again to pitcher
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
* GREINKE’S ODYSSEY
* SPRING BUZZ | Everyone in camp
S URPRISE, Ariz. | It is time, Zack Greinke believes, to try to explain what plunged the Royals’ most-promising pitching prospect in more than a decade into such despair that he ran away from the game in hopes of saving his sanity and restoring his soul.
“I don’t know how good I’m going to be at interviews,” he offered, “but I’ll try.”
Beyond this exclusive interview with The Kansas City Star, Greinke plans only one more public discussion on the subject. “But only one,” he said, “and then I want to get away from it. I don’t want to keep talking about it over and over again.”
Right now, Greinke says he’s comfortable, that he’s doing OK. Then he sketches a past that was anything but.
He tells how baseball made him so miserable that he nearly quit before his 2004 summons to the big leagues. Deceptive success as a rookie hid the demons that seized control in 2005, when his on-field performance mirrored his private nightmare. He believed, at times, that becoming a hitter might bring contentment even as he knew the Royals would never agree.
It all came to a head last spring in a near-breakdown while throwing in a routine workout.
Greinke feels healthy now, thanks to antidepressant medication that eases his social anxiety. His only concern this spring is to regain a job in the rotation.
“If they send me down because I’m young or because they don’t think I’m mentally ready,” he said, “then I would have a major problem with that.
“But if they can say that I’m not good enough, then I’ll either think they’re crazy or I will have done a really bad job. Because I think I’m definitely talented enough to be here. It’s up to me to do it. If that’s the case, I shouldn’t have any problem.
“Yeah, I expect to make the club.”
That might be the medication talking, but it remains a remarkable transformation. For so long, Greinke regarded baseball as the enemy. Something to be endured until it pushed him over the edge.
So how bad did it get?
“I really don’t know what it is or what it was,” Greinke began. “Depression kind of runs in my family. Supposedly, it goes down through (genetically). But I don’t know if that’s what I was actually going through.
“The medicine I take is an antidepressant. So (depression) must have something to do with it. That and social anxiety. But I don’t think it was a serious case. I mean, I never thought about killing myself.
“It was always, once I got away from baseball, I was fine. So I didn’t think about it as (an emotional disorder). I just thought that, at the baseball field, I was unhappy.”
That misery reached such depths that Greinke often contemplated quitting baseball while still in the minors. His inability to handle the down time between starts heightened his turmoil and made him yearn to be a hitter or at least a relief pitcher.
“I’d talk to my agent all the time and ask him: ‘How can I tell the Royals that I don’t want to pitch? That I want to try hitting?,’ ” said Greinke, who added he knew there was no chance of that happening, which increased his frustration. “I thought that was why I hated baseball. I thought it was because I wanted to hit.
“It would be at least once a month that I’d be crying to myself while I’m going to bed with a bat in my hand, just swinging it. It’s stupid. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
His teammates didn’t know what to make of him or how to approach him. Greinke was always distant, burrowing through the clubhouse with his head down while often offering little beyond monosyllabic contributions to conversations. He was a lone wolf in a team sport.
“I think a lot of it was the losing,” veteran captain Mike Sweeney said. “That’s tough on anybody. But if you’re mentally unstable, and you get thrown into the fire at 19 years old, and you’re getting your butt kicked every night, it makes it that much more difficult.”
Finally, it became too much. Anger and anxiety raged into a destructive emotional cocktail. Greinke’s word for it: “Crazy.”
The end came last Feb. 25 on the bullpen practice mounds at the Royals’ spring complex. Greinke found himself throwing every pitch with an uncontrollable ferocity, as if he wanted to throw it through catcher John Buck.
Control was gone. The demons were loose.
“I could tell before that bullpen (session), that he just wasn’t right,” Buck said. “Normally, I’d be able to talk to him about golf or something. But not that day.”
Greinke just knew he had to get away.
“The whole entire offseason,” he said, “I was telling everyone back home that I didn’t think I was going back to baseball. They didn’t really believe me, but I really didn’t think I could do it.
“I had no desire to play anymore. It used to be I just didn’t like going to the field. But by last year, I didn’t even want to play. Nothing.”
Greinke tried to explain all of this after that bullpen meltdown, first to manager Buddy Bell and later to then-general manager Allard Baird. Both men blanched at what they saw unfolding before them: The franchise’s cornerstone pitching prospect was devolving into a scared kid whose raw emotional wounds screamed for help.
“At that point,” Bell said, “it didn’t have anything to do with baseball. It was a brother talking to a brother, or a friend talking to a friend.
“It didn’t have anything to do with, ‘Hey, do you understand what you’re doing? If you leave here, you’re messing your whole life up.’ There wasn’t any of that. It was just, let’s find out what the problem is so you can get on with your life, whether baseball is going to be part of it or not.”
Greinke went on personal leave and returned to his parents’ home near Orlando, Fla., where he underwent psychological counseling. The diagnosis was depression and social anxiety. Medications were prescribed, adjusted and seemed to bring immediate equilibrium.
Even so, it was nearly two months before Greinke felt sufficiently confident to begin rebuilding a career that now finds him battling to reclaim a spot in the Royals’ rotation.
“We’re pleased, certainly,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “that Zack came into camp early.”
It’s a start.
It bothers Greinke that some believe the Royals accelerated his emotional disorder by rushing him to the big leagues or by casting him as the organization’s savior.
“That had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I haven’t told people this … well, I told Allard because I think he was upset that he might have made things worse.
“But when he decided to call me up (in May 2004), I was already planning to leave Triple-A. I had already packed up. I was eating dinner with my roommate (reliever Mike Venafro), and I was going to leave as soon as we were done.”
Greinke was fed up at being babied, in his view, by the Royals, who were protecting their prodigy through the opening weeks that year by skipping his every third turn at Class AAA Omaha. If anything, that cautious approach made things worse.
“We were about to go on a 15-day road trip,” Greinke said, “and I wasn’t going to be pitching at all. I was thinking, ‘I hate this. There’s no way I’m going on this road trip and just sit around the whole time. I’m done.’ ”
By chance, Baird chose that very moment to call Greinke with the information that, as plans stood, he would be called up to the big leagues in two weeks.
“He was bored,” Baird said. “I knew that. That’s how it seemed. The rest of it, I didn’t know until he told me later. Last year, I think.”
Greinke phoned his parents after Baird’s call and told them he still wanted to leave.
“They told me: ‘You’ve been waiting to get to the big leagues forever,’ ” he said. “‘You’ve got to see if it’s different there, at least.’ And it wasn’t.”
It seems puzzling now that Greinke pitched so well after reaching the big leagues, which seemed to validate the high expectations that once labeled him as the next Greg Maddux. He was 8-11 for a 104-loss team, with a 3.97 ERA — good enough to enable him to join Dennis Leonard as the only rookies selected as the club’s pitcher of the year.
Even so, Greinke grew to despise it all without really knowing why. By 2005, he knew he was losing his grip, and it only made it worse when the Royals plunged into another early-season death spiral on their way to a club-record 106 losses.
Greinke feuded with new pitching coach Guy Hansen about adjustments to his delivery; his effectiveness plummeted. He stood 1-11 at the All-Star break and was a shell of his former self.
“I was waiting for a bad season,” Greinke said. “I was even hoping I’d have a bad season just so I could be a hitter or be done with baseball period.”
The season couldn’t have been worse, and it couldn’t end fast enough. When it did, Greinke was 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA that was the second-highest in franchise history. He spent the winter in dread of the coming spring.
“When Ricky Williams quit (the NFL), and everybody was giving him a hard time,” Greinke said, “I was thinking, ‘That’s going to be me tomorrow.’ His situation was a little different, I guess. But I understood.”
By early last April, shortly after the big-league team broke camp, Greinke felt ready to return to Surprise.
“As soon as I started taking the medication,” he said, “I started feeling better … and I really didn’t have any desire to go back to being a hitter any more. I like pitching now.”
The process had bumps. Working out for half-days in extended spring training was one thing. But when Greinke moved to Class AA Wichita in early June as part of a rehabilitation assignment, it triggered a stirring of old anxieties.
It didn’t help that Baird, who had become a confidant throughout the ordeal, had just been fired in the wake of another dismal start. The “Greinke situation” became just one more mess that Moore inherited.
The general feeling throughout the organization — Greinke certainly believed it — was that he would return to the majors once his 21-day rehab assignment expired.
He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. He drove to Kansas City in order to say that face-to-face to Moore, who ended speculation of an immediate recall by optioning him to Wichita.
“It was a relief,” Greinke said. “Before that, I had to talk about it every day to my agent. I was talking to Dayton and other front-office people every day. I was just talking so much business to everyone, and people wanted me to talk about whether I had problems.
“But as soon as that was over and they sent me down (officially), I was done talking about it. Now, I’m just playing baseball. Now, I’m just going to the field. It was better after that.”
Greinke went 4-1 while allowing just 13 earned runs in 48 innings over his last seven starts. That helped Wichita reach the Texas League playoffs, and that success proved a tonic in itself.
He found it hard to believe that he enjoyed baseball so much. He kept wondering if the joy would dissipate. It didn’t.
“Usually with me,” he said, “a month or even two months before the season is over, I’d be counting days. More than counting days. I’d be begging for it to be over. As soon as the last game was over, I’d be showered and gone.
“Last year, it was like I’d like to stay a little longer.”
There are no guarantees this spring for Greinke — only opportunity.
“Here’s the way I feel,” Bell said, “and I think it’s going to be good for Zack. He just becomes part of the pool. He’s not the golden child anymore or anything like that. He’s just here like everybody else. He’s not getting any special attention.”
Greinke agrees, “That’s how it should be, and people just shouldn’t be given a million chances. I had that one whole year when I did absolute crap, and I shouldn’t have been here.
“Now, I’m 23, which isn’t old. But if I can’t pitch in the big leagues at 23, then I shouldn’t pitch in the big leagues at 23. If I’m not one of the best 11 pitchers here, then that’s a problem with me.”
The sense in camp is Greinke faces an uphill battle with new acquisition Brian Bannister for the final slot in the rotation behind Gil Meche, Odalis Perez, Luke Hudson and Jorge De La Rosa.
Club officials no longer view Greinke as an untouchable trade commodity but privately say he wouldn’t bring much, at this point, in return. Since he still has options remaining, he can be sent to the minors if he fails to make the club.
There is no need, this spring, to force the issue or walk away from the potential of what he could yet become.
“Zack is a big part of our future, really,” Moore said. “In the economics of today’s game, a young starting pitcher is the most important commodity out there. Expectations are high for him. No doubt about it. But he’s got to go out and do it.”
Everyone else is watching, too. Greinke seems at ease with that even as he finds a growing comfort zone with everything else about life in baseball.
“I used to be so into not talking to people,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to people because I would think that they don’t want to talk to me. I mean, I didn’t want them to talk to me, so why would they want me to talk to them?
“Now, I can see that people actually do want to talk to people. I’m sure the medication has something to do with it. Right now, it’s early, but it’s good. I just know I enjoy it.”