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Friday, October 5, 2012
Lo Duca remembers Greenberg's nightmare

By Bob Ehalt

Paul Lo Duca may now spend his days dealing with overlays and Pick 3’s as an on-air analyst for the TVG horse racing network.

Yet some 10 years ago, it was all about fastballs and curves. He spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, catching for the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets and Nationals from 1998-2008 and batting .286 over the course of 1,082 games.

He appeared in four All-Star games, but for seven years he has been haunted by the disturbing image of a single at-bat that was finally soothed this week by one of baseball’s most heartwarming moments in recent memory.

When that ball hit his helmet, the sound it made was different. Then when I saw him on the ground holding his head, I told him not to move and to stay on the ground.

-- Former MLB catcher Paul Lo Duca

On July 9, 2005, Lo Duca was catching for the Marlins against the Cubs in a Sunday night game on ESPN. In the ninth inning, a 24-year-old rookie, called up from the minors just two days earlier, stepped to the plate for his first major league appearance.

Lo Duca had heard about Adam Greenberg, as they both were represented by the same agency, Aces. The veteran catcher wished the rookie good luck for a prosperous career as he settled into the batter’s box to face Marlins reliever Valerio de los Santos.

Seconds later, Greenberg’s career was over. The very first pitch from de los Santos -- a 92-mph fastball -- struck him in the head with a sickening impact. Greenberg immediately dropped to the ground. Lo Duca took off his mask, bent over the stricken player and quickly began signaling to the dugouts for help.

“I knew he was hurt badly,” Lo Duca said Thursday. “When that ball hit his helmet, the sound it made was different. Then when I saw him on the ground holding his head, I told him not to move and to stay on the ground.”

Greenberg suffered a concussion that later led to severe headaches and vertigo. The effects of the injury sapped his baseball skills and ended the Guilford, Conn., native’s dreams of playing in the major leagues.

The incident has been replayed numerous times over the years, but not once has Lo Duca watched it.

“It makes me sick to my stomach to think about it. It was my worst moment in baseball. I was so worried about the kid,” Lo Duca said. “If I see it on television, I just turn away. I can’t look at it.”

On Tuesday night, though, the 40-year-old Lo Duca happily watched as Greenberg once again stepped into the batter’s box in a major league game. Supported by an online campaign to give him an official at-bat, Greenberg’s toiling in minor and independent leagues for the past six years was finally rewarded when he was granted a one-day exemption to play for the Marlins in their otherwise meaningless game against the Mets.

“I was so happy to see him get that at-bat, and was really pulling for him to get a hit,” said Lo Duca, who will be covering the Keeneland meet for TVG this month. “It was so amazing. You have to admire his perseverance. He never quit, even after all the medical issues. Not many people would keep battling to make it back to the big leagues after a moment like that. He’s a winner.”

Of course, a baseball diamond is not a storybook, and Greenberg’s at-bat did not end as Hollywood would have scripted it. Facing Mets ace R.A. Dickey, the probable NL Cy Young Award winner, Greenberg was retired on three pitches.

But in a rather fitting end to the tale, he went down swinging at strike three.

“I would have loved to see him hit a home run. There’s a part of you that wants R.A. to give him an easy fastball down the middle, but that’s not what the game is about,” Lo Duca said. “You have to be a highly competitive athlete to make it in the major leagues, and R.A. just couldn’t do that. I don’t think Adam would have wanted him to do it, either. After all he went through, I’m sure Adam didn’t want a pitch handed to him. If he was going to get a hit, he no doubt wanted to earn it. He was probably happy to get that at-bat, but like any ballplayer was upset that he didn’t get a hit.”

Regardless of what happened in that at-bat Tuesday, for Lo Duca, there’s satisfaction that fate finally atoned for that cruel trick it played on Greenberg. That night in 2005 might still be vivid in Lo Duca’s memory. He can still recall scenes like going out to the mound, asking de los Santos how he was handling what happened and seeing the dazed pitcher stare through him as if he wasn’t there.

But at least now there’s an accompanying moment that can blot out some of the sting of that harsh night for both Adam Greenberg and the catcher who was behind the plate.

Some good news for Mets fans

The 2012 season may have been another disappointment for the 74-88 Mets, but their former catcher says he saw some signs indicating that the team’s beleaguered fans will finally have something to cheer about in 2013.

“It was a definitely a rebuilding year for the Mets,” said Lo Duca, who played for New York in 2006 and 2007. “But when you look at their pitching, the rookie [Matt] Harvey has a huge arm. Dillon Gee has some potential if he comes back OK. [Jonathon] Niese is fine. You put them together with R.A. for a whole season and fix up the back of the bullpen, and they can have a big year.”

As for his new career in a sport he’s followed for years, Lo Duca looks at his job at TVG like a kid working in candy shop.

“I love what I’m doing,” said Lo Duca, who joined TVG full time in 2010. “I grew up around racing, and to analyze races for a living is really fun. There’s actually a similarity between baseball and horse racing because of the statistics and the preparation that goes into both a game and handicapping. There’s a strategy you need to employ to be successful in both of them, and that’s why both sports are so much fun.”