Commentary

Zack Greinke's future is now

Former Royals standout, in first season with Milwaukee, gets first taste of postseason

Updated: October 2, 2011, 10:15 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

GrienkeMark J. Rebilas/US PresswireZack Greinke went 16-6 in the regular season with a 3.83 ERA.

MILWAUKEE -- At least he got wet. That much is known. The Milwaukee Brewers clinched the National League Central last month, champagne flowed, and somewhere in the melee, Zack Greinke internally celebrated. According to various clubhouse accounts, Greinke went unnoticed. He most likely did not jump up and down; that would be the equivalent of Dick Cheney diving into a mosh pit. He did not let the giddiness spill over to the rest of his weekend.

Roughly 24 hours later, Milwaukee was still awash with love over its hometown boys, tailgating deep into a chilly night. The Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" played in a happy clubhouse. And in the corner of the room, Greinke stood at his locker, shifting uncomfortably.

There were a hundred questions to ask him. How did it feel to be heading to the postseason after all those losing years in Kansas City? How would a man who internalizes everything handle such a big spotlight?

"It doesn't matter," Greinke said, "as long as I don't have to talk to people."

His hair is buzzed; his freshly scrubbed baby face has changed little since that day in 2002 when Greinke, 19 and suddenly a multi-millionaire, sat at his first news conference as a professional baseball player, slumping in his chair, fielding questions with one-word answers. He gave off the impression, some observers said, that he didn't care. But caring was never the problem.

If Greinke could just pitch, just come to the ballpark, throw 95-mph fastballs and go home, his job would be so much easier. He is not into idle chit-chat, not even with his teammates. He talks to the media in front of his locker after he pitches. He doesn't talk for long.

"Some things make me uncomfortable," Greinke said. "Some things don't bother me."

So to delve into the mind of Zack Greinke, a man who's been called everything from a genius to an oddball, perhaps the easiest way is to talk to people who know him. Or at least think they know him.

The catcher's view

Of course Jonathan Lucroy knows what is kicking around in Zack Greinke's head. Lucroy is the Brewers' catcher. It's his job to be a therapist and a friend; an expert and an ass-kicker. When the Brewers acquired Greinke in a trade last winter, Lucroy already had some reconnaissance work out of the way. He actually grew up in the same sun-splashed tourist haven in central Florida.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Lucroy
Scott Boehm/Getty Images"So for me," said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, "I've got to constantly be trying to communicate with him because sometimes he won't want to talk."

Back in the day, Lucroy said, Greinke was somewhat of a legend at Apopka High in Orlando. He wanted to be a position player. He was talented enough to do anything. Greinke occasionally tells people, with a straight face, that if he really focused on it, he could be a better catcher or hitter than them. He tells Lucroy that all the time.

But pitching was always the better fit, because of his rocket arm and the freedom it allowed him to be left alone. A pitcher is not relied on to give pep talks or build team chemistry. A starting pitcher can drift into the woodwork four out of five days.

Lucroy, for his part, wouldn't allow that. He'd make a point to constantly engage Greinke in conversation. Though he's a couple years younger, Lucroy ran in similar circles as Greinke and knew many of his childhood friends. That was his entry point of conversation back in spring training -- Hey, do you know so-and-so?

Familiarity eventually forged trust, and Lucroy kept going. He talked about fishing and babies and buying a diamond for his wife, anything to include him.

"Zack, he doesn't mean to, but he kind of puts himself on an island because of his personality," Lucroy said. "You have to swim to that island.

"I wanted to create that relationship with him because I knew that this was going to be a very important year to have that, that mental trust. You need that with any pitcher, but with him especially. He distrusts easily. He'll withdraw fast. So for me, I've got to constantly be trying to communicate with him because sometimes he won't want to talk. But I don't care, and I tell him that. He's a very honest guy, and he expects honesty in return."

Lucroy knew last winter how important the Greinke acquisition could be. The Brewers struggled in 2010 with one of the National League's weakest rotations, and Greinke was the best pitcher on the market after the Phillies scooped up Cliff Lee. Greinke, a first-round draft pick for the Royals in 2002, earned the American League Cy Young Award in '09. He averaged 13 wins a season from 2008 to 2010, a huge feat considering that the Royals lost an average of 93 games a year during that span.

But none of that success surprised Lucroy. Greinke is a different man on the field, and is nowhere near awkward. He knows he's better than the hitter, even on the nights when he's not. He's emotional. He grunts when he pitches, Lucroy said, and occasionally yells when he messes up.

He cares. Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz called Greinke "fiercely competitive." Why else would he have left Kansas City, a place where he felt relatively comfortable, to come to Milwaukee?

Greinke fractured a rib in February playing basketball. It was, according to a friend of Greinke's, a chippy and hotly contested pickup game. It killed him to sit during his first spring training with the Brewers. He pushed himself to return early, probably earlier, Kranitz said, than he should have. But Greinke still managed to win 16 games and went 11-0 at home.

"I think he loves the competition," Kranitz said of the 27-year-old. "He loves that one-on-one battle with the hitter. He gets out there and competes as well as anybody I've been around."

The venue or the stakes don't matter for Greinke. He locks into his catcher and focuses.

"He doesn't see anything else," Lucroy said.

On the last Sunday morning of the regular season, hours before an afternoon game with the Florida Marlins, teammates bantered and prepared last-minute fantasy football lineups while Greinke sat alone at his locker, his head buried in a laptop.

Lucroy noticed. He walked across the room and took a seat next to Greinke, who leaned back and smiled. It was time to talk.

The K.C. days

John Buck is considered one of Greinke's close friends, and that's a special club. They grew up together in the Royals' organization, Greinke on the mound, Buck behind the plate. Buck went to Florida, Greinke headed north, but they still talk or text before every game. Buck was in Milwaukee over the weekend for the series, but they didn't chat much. They exchanged a few quick words in person, then Greinke later sent his friend a long text.

"I guess that's what's comfortable with him, which is fine," Buck said. "That's kind of how you communicate with him sometimes."

[+] EnlargeZach Greinke
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesGreinke gathers himself before a start against Arizona in July.

It was Buck who was there in 2006, when Greinke's struggles spun out of control during a wild throwing session at spring training. Greinke broke down, and he left the team for personal reasons. Eventually, it was revealed that he suffered from social anxiety disorder and depression, and Greinke sat out the season.

Buck declined to talk about that day in Arizona out of respect for Greinke. But he said his friend is happy now and is in a better spot. He said Greinke is a normal guy, even though the media have fixated on his personality more since he won the Cy Young.

Social anxiety disorder, like many mental issues, is something that for years wasn't talked about, said sports psychologist Jack Stark. It was considered a sign of weakness. But Stark said he's treated a number of athletes who suffer from social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by intense fear in social situations. In severe cases, Stark said, some patients cannot even get out of bed.

Years ago, Greinke told reporters that it got so bad at one point that he despised baseball and considered leaving the game. Greinke was prescribed antidepressants, and he showed marked improvement in 2007, going 7-7 with a 3.69 ERA.

"Zack's always just been a cool friend to me," Buck said. "Because of who he is, the Cy Young and everything, everybody's a lot more interested in him than your average Joe.

"He's a little more to himself than the norm, but I don't think you have to work extra hard to be his friend. I've never thought that. He's pretty sincere in everything he does. To see him be able to go to the playoffs and play in meaningful games is probably going to bring out even more in him."

Next up: The postseason

Is he ready for this? Nobody doubts his talent. The confidence seems to be there, too. Quick story: In Greinke's early days in Kansas City, he used to go golfing on road trips with former Royals media relations director Aaron Babcock and pitcher Jose Lima. Now, it might be downright impossible to find two pitchers on opposite sides of the personality spectrum more than Greinke and Lima. But on these peaceful mornings so many years ago, it was somehow perfect and entertaining.

The first time they played together, Greinke showed up in a pair of flip-flops. Lima, who was loud, free-spirited and flamboyant, told Greinke he'd better go buy some golf shoes.

"I don't need any golf shoes," Greinke said.

He'd never played the course before, and he didn't take a practice swing.

"He hit his first ball about 330 yards right down the middle of the fairway wearing nothing but flip-flops for shoes," Babcock said. "Lima about fell over laughing. He couldn't believe it. [Greinke] was such an incredible athlete. He could pretty much do whatever he wanted."

'He'll always be a Royal'

They don't really know him anymore in Kansas City. Sure, there are front-office people and a smattering of teammates that can tell you what makes Zack Greinke tick. But this team, 10 months later, is so different.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesGreinke was formidable early in his career with the Royals.

The hot young prospects who were part of a farm system ranked No. 1 by Baseball America were called up, veterans moved on, and Royals general manager Dayton Moore looked to the future. It's baseball. Greinke didn't want to be part of this and said last year that he couldn't bear another rebuilding project and all the losing that would come with it. But who would've known that the project might be zooming along much quicker than scheduled?

Last Tuesday night, five hours away from Miller Park, the Royals played the middle game of a season-ending three-game series against the Minnesota Twins. The air was humid, balmy almost for late September in Minnesota, and the Royals ran around as if it were April. There was an energy about them. They'd made big improvements since the All-Star break. They won seven in a row in September.

"We're just very encouraged," Moore said as he stood in the dugout. "They're transitioning into the major leagues a little earlier than we expected, and they're having some success."

But the future is now for Greinke. The quiet man spoke, and 10 months later, he's in the playoffs, scheduled to start Sunday. By all appearances, there are no hard feelings on either side. "He will always be a Royal," Moore said, and the GM is genuinely happy for the pitcher who, five years ago, looked as if he might never play baseball again.

In the days last winter when a deal was in the air, there was widespread speculation about where Greinke could or couldn't go. He couldn't play for the Yankees, critics said, because he couldn't handle all the pressure, the tabloids and media scrutiny. But the people who know Greinke don't subscribe to that thinking.

For starters, being in Milwaukee is, in some ways, harder than New York for a private man like Greinke. Everywhere he goes here, he's recognized. In New York, he would most likely just blend in with all the other stars.

The playoffs, Greinke said, shouldn't be all that different. He will block out 40,000 fans and focus in on his catcher. He knows it will be more intense. But hasn't his career been pretty intense? Greinke can't wax on about that. He wants to go home, because everything is about to get much bigger.

"It should be fun," he said.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.