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March 1, 2011
Adam Greenberg doesn’t see himself as a victim, but you couldn’t blame him if he did. On July 9, 2005, Greenberg walked up to the plate in what is thus far his only big-league at-bat, and what happened next is nothing short of tragic. He saw just one pitch from Marlins left-hander Valerio de los Santos, and the next thing he knew he was sprawled in the batters’ box fearing for his life.
David Laurila: For readers who aren’t familiar with your story, what happened?
Adam Greenberg: It was a Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN and it was my first major-league appearance. It was a dream come true and I was at the top of the world. The Cubs were giving me an opportunity of a lifetime.
Dusty Baker brought me up to pinch-hit in the ninth inning and I was really taking the moment in, because it was the culmination of a lot of hard work and all of highs and lows that come with working your way up. It was an opportunity that I felt ready for, but unfortunately, it didn’t last too long. I only saw one pitch, which was 92 mph directly into the back of my head. That’s where my story, in terms of the public, really starts. It’s basically what I’m known for. I really haven’t been able to move past that. To this point it’s the pinnacle of my career, but I’m doing the best that I can to push forward. I’m working hard to make that be just a part of my story, instead of the story of who I am.
DL: What do you remember thinking when you stepped into the batters’ box that night?
AG: I looked up and didn’t even know who was pitching, to be honest. I just knew that it was a tall left-hander. I looked out to center field and saw Juan Pierre shifted over toward left field. I was basically getting into the zone and getting focused on what I wanted to do in that at-bat. My mindset was to get on base, so I was looking at the alignment of the guys on the field and thinking about how the pitcher was probably going to start me off.
It went beyond, “Oh my god, this is my first major-league at-bat.” That feeling mostly happened when I was on the bench, getting my gloves, bat, and everything ready to go. When I got the call, it all happened so quickly. It was like, “Okay, it’s game time.”
There was nervous excitement prior to getting in the box, but I was more nervous to tell the umpire that I was pinch-hitting. That was something I wasn’t really used to. After I did that, I pretty much just dug in and was ready. I absolutely felt ready. Once I was in there, I felt that I could control what was going on. Of course, the one thing I couldn’t control was an errant pitch.
DL: Were you intending to take the first pitch, or swing away if it was in your zone?
AG: My mentality has always been to see a pitch and get comfortable, so usually I’ll be taking. I’ve always drawn a lot of walks and seen a lot of pitches. That said, I learned a valuable lesson in a spring training game when I faced Tom Gordon, as a pinch-hitter. He threw me a first-pitch fastball, maybe 95 mph, which was a pretty good pitch to hit. I took it and thought to myself, “I’m ready to go.” About five curveballs later I was walking back to the dugout after striking out. The fastball was the only pitch I saw that was anything worth hitting. From that point on, my approach when I’m pinch-hitting, or if it’s a situation where I really need to work the count, is to be aggressive. So the first fastball I saw, if it was a pitch I could hit, I was going to be swinging.
DL: Did you remember seeing the ball come out of the pitcher’s hand?
AG: Not so much. I was mostly thinking about getting started on time. I guess I can kind of remember it coming out of his hand, but I’m not sure if that’s from the moment itself or from seeing it on video. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t bail out,” because I didn’t want to look foolish if it was a breaking ball.
It’s not like I didn’t see the pitch—I knew it was coming up and in—and the rotation seemed like a fastball, but at that level there are a lot of guys who throw hard sliders that start off looking like that and break over. At 92 mph, it’s really… When you’re locked in it’s really hard to get out of the way, especially when you’re not expecting it. That’s kind of what happened, and it was lights out.
DL: What are your memories of the actual impact?
AG: I remember very, very vividly, thinking that my head was split open. If you’ve ever seen video of it, you saw that I took both hands and grasped the back of my head, because I thought it was split open and I was in big trouble. My eyes rolled back into my head. It was a very scary feeling, because I didn’t know how bad it was. The thought running through my mind was that it didn’t matter where I was, or what was going on, I was just telling myself to stay alive.
Paul Lo Duca was the catcher, and he stood over me, basically saying, “Stay down, you’ll be all right.” That helped to calm me down. I saw the umpire standing over me as well. Neither of them had an overwhelmingly scared look on their face, and that was also calming for me. I didn’t hear anybody say, “Get a towel,” or anything like that, which told me there wasn’t a lot of blood. My batting gloves felt wet, but I don’t know if that was just in my mind, or if it was sweat.
Dusty Baker came running over, as did a couple of trainers, and having them there made me feel like I was probably safe. It gave me an, “I’m going to be OK” feeling.
DL: You had family at the game. Did you think about them when you were on the ground?
AG: To be honest, it wasn’t my family that I thought of first. When I sat up, I was thinking more about how crazy it was. I felt kind of dumb. I was going to get walked off the field after my first major-league at-bat, which was kind of a funny feeling.
My family was obviously alarmed and concerned. I thought about them once I got into the dugout, but I knew that I was OK and I remember that I kind of smirked when I was marched back. I think it was Kerry Wood and Mark Prior—I’m not even sure—who carried me back, and my family would have seen me smirk.
DL: What happened next?
AG: That night, after the game, I went back to the hotel. I slept upright in a recliner because if I tried laying down my eyes would shift uncontrollably side to side. It was very concerning, having never had a concussion before, I felt something else was going on. In the morning I remember going to the field. The sunlight gave me a splitting headache and a nauseous feeling. I spoke to the trainer and was brought to the local hospital for testing, including an MRI and a CT scan. I was back playing 21 days after the hit-by-pitch. I rushed back way too soon, because I was still experiencing ill effects.
For over a year and a half following the incident, I suffered with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, along with intense headaches. It wasn't until spring of 2007 that I was tested by a vision doctor, Dr. Barry Seiller, from Vizual Edge, where it was uncovered that my visual alignment was thrown off due to the incident and I needed to begin intense eye training.
DL: Were you gun shy when you first came back from the concussion?
AG: In the very beginning, I was actually comfortable against anybody. I don’t know if that went as deep as my subconscious, or if I was just convincing myself, but I felt fine when I first came back. But then, after the season, I went down to play in Venezuela and that’s when the mental thing started coming into play. In winter ball, it’s a very different roster situation than here in the States. You have a lot of new guys coming in all the time, including lefties just to face lefties. They were mostly Latin guys that I had never seen before, and they threw hard. That got in my head a little bit.
I developed some bad habits against left-handed pitchers. I began to pull out early with my front shoulder, dip my back shoulder, and not stay on pitches. That left me very susceptible to pitches away. It was a very frustrating thing to go through. Even though I knew some of these habits were forming, I couldn't seem to get rid of them.
DL: Have there been any serious issues with hit-by-pitches or brush-backs since the beaning?
AG: There was one. A few years ago I was playing in a game where one of our pitchers threw a pitch that got away—I don’t think there was any intent—and it sailed about five feet over the batter’s head. I was playing center field and I looked in their dugout and noticed their catcher coming over to the pitcher who was going to be in the game for them. Right away I thought, “This better not have any implications, they better not throw at one of us.” When I came into the dugout, I told the guys what I saw and said that if I’m thrown at, I would consider going out to the mound.
Sure enough, that’s what happened. I came up with two outs and nobody on—it was a hard-throwing, three-quarters left-hander—and the first pitch was over my head and behind me. I didn’t charge. I threw my bat down and pointed at him, yelling. That was the angriest I had ever been in my career, because it was thrown intentionally and it was thrown high. Especially with my situation, how I’d had my career set back by what happened, it kind of hit a nerve. The benches cleared, although there wasn’t a brawl, just some yelling back and forth. I was saying, “Hey, if you’re going to throw at me, throw at me low.”
Things got settled down and the at-bat continued. We ended up having a good battle. The count got to 2-2, I fouled off a couple of pitches, and then he threw a fastball that rode in and caught me on the right elbow. I was still heated, so at that point I did charge the mound.
On the way out there, I actually veered off to the side, because I realized that my arm was completely numb and I couldn’t use it. I didn’t think that it was going to be a very fair fight if I’m out there with only one arm.
The benches cleared again, with everyone anticipating a brawl, but because I veered off, things didn’t get out of hand. There was mostly just a bunch of yelling and screaming back and forth. It wasn’t anything out of control.
Once everything clamed down, I went down to first base. By then I was getting sensation back in my elbow and I stole second on the first pitch. That was my payback for getting hit.
DL: Do you ever look back and feel that you were cheated out of a big-league career?
AG: Cheated is not the right word. I’m a believer that things happen for a reason, and that when things happen you have an opportunity to go one of two ways. You can sulk about what might have been, or you can make the best of it. I actually look at it as an opportunity of a lifetime. As BS as that might sound, I’ve had to push and persevere, and work my butt off, just to get back to having the feeling I did when I was 24 years old.
Who knows what my career, or my life, would have been? I’m in position where I’m happy with where my life is and I feel that the experience I went through has made me a stronger person. I still have a jersey on my back.
I have a deep-rooted passion for this game and I have perseverance. I’m trying to accomplish something that people around me, whether they say it publicly or in private, believe, which is that I can’t do it. But maybe I can. Playing in the minor leagues, and even in an independent league, giving up has never been an option for me. So far I’ve had an opportunity to keep playing, and I feel I can make it back. [Editor’s note: Greenberg was released by the Cubs in 2006 and has since played in the Dodgers, Royals and Angels systems. He spent last season with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.]
DL: What comes next?
AG: I have a tryout with the Mets on March 1 and hopefully that will result in me at least staying with them for spring training. I’m getting an opportunity to showcase to the Mets organization what I can bring to the table and I’m fairly confident in my ability to do that.
If it doesn’t work out, I’ve signed a contract to go back to Bridgeport to play another year of independent ball, but right now my mindset is 100 percent to make the best of my opportunity with the Mets. All I can do is take it one day at a time, but regardless of what happens, I’m not giving up on my dream to my make it back. I want to be known for more than what happened on one pitch.