Commentary

Greinke shows he's ready for L.A.

Updated: December 13, 2012, 5:11 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

To see him at the podium Tuesday at the news conference that officially introduced him as the most expensive centerpiece of the Los Angeles Dodgers' offseason spending spree was to miss the point. The dollars that Zack Greinke just pried away from the Dodgers should not be paramount in this story.

Yes, his six-year, $147-million contract made him the highest paid righthander in the history of baseball. And sure, 55 years after leaving Brooklyn, a sort of psychic loop seems to have closed for the Dodgers during the $600 million overall binge they've been on since ownership changed hands: It feels like they've finally returned to their New York roots, only this time as the Yankees of the West.

But that's still not the only story here. To say only that buries the most notable news about where Greinke finds himself now. The fact that he was confident enough to tweak Stan Kasten, one of his new bosses, at the news conference said a lot more.

Remember how as recently as last year there were still whispers were that there was no way Greinke could go to a big market like Los Angeles and thrive? Even at his news conference Tuesday, the reason for those doubts -- the fact that Greinke takes medication for the belatedly diagnosed social anxiety disorder and depression that nearly ended his career -- was hovering in the room. They finally surfaced when Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said he hadn't anticipated that Greinke would show up for his free-agent talk with team management with only his wife, Emily, in tow. No agent. No mouthpiece? Not a single wingman to make sure nothing went awry?

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
Rick Yeatts/Getty ImagesThe Angels gave Zack Greinke a trial run in the Los Angeles market.

How many times had that ever happened to Colletti in such negotiations before?

"I can't remember one," he said.

If arriving alone was intended as a negotiating strategy, it was a masterstroke by Greinke and his agent, Casey Close. In his three hours of meetings with Colletti, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and part-owners Magic Johnson and Kasten, Greinke came across as a man with so much confidence he has his disorder under control, and that he was willing to trust himself rather than some surrogates to prove he could be trusted with that historically rich contract he later signed.

Nobody in baseball is likely to tell you Greinke is the absolute best pitcher in the game. He was just the best available free agent pitcher this offseason.

By the time he arrived at their offices, the Dodgers still seemed to be looking for a sign that they weren't just seeing what they wanted to see after Milwaukee traded him to the Angels last season and, in his first big market go-around, he went 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA in his final eight starts during the Angels' playoff push. The Dodgers wanted to feel reassured they were getting the real deal: a 29-year-old pitcher in the prime of his career with the mindset, not just arsenal of pitches, to pair up with fellow Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

Colletti imagines them as a sort of updated version of the Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling lefty/righty duo that led Arizona to the World Series success the Dodgers are chasing.

So how did Greinke come across?

"It was probably the best free-agent meeting I've had in decades of doing this -- it was just pure," Colletti said Tuesday. "He was stunning.

"When he left that day, we all looked at each other and said: 'We've got to figure out a way to get this kid here.' "

This is a long way from 2006 when Greinke, then just four years removed from high school, nearly quit the game because of his still-undiagnosed condition. He has frequently said he "hated" baseball then. He felt depressed about merely going to the ballpark and found it painful to have to interact with his new teammates. One residue of his anxiety disorder is workaday social conventions the rest of us might take for granted -- idle chitchat, conversations that fill dead time in the clubhouse, the team's postgame caravans to dinner or a bar -- all left Greinke feeling anywhere from exhausted to disinterested to "annoyed," a description he uses a lot. Quite often, even now, he'll startle people by bluntly letting them know exactly what he feels.

On top of all that, Greinke was an accidental pitcher who was rushed to the big leagues. He really dreamed of being a shortstop and didn't seriously try pitching until his senior year of high school in Apopka, Fla. But he was so good so fast, and Kansas City made him the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft after Tampa Bay took B.J. Upton, the other player the Royals were smitten with.

Greinke got his first taste of the majors by 2004, and looked like he could be the rising star of the Royals' rotation in 2005. But he was just 21. He wasn't pitching well. He was still feeling depressed and anxious, and though he often hid it well, that was draining, too. Is there anything in the world more exhausting than having to pretend you're someone you're not?

"People take their own interpretation of what would make me comfortable and what wouldn't, and that's not necessarily true," Greinke told an MLB.com reporter at his Dodgers news conference Tuesday. "This [attention] doesn't bother me. What bothers me is one at a time, and answering the same questions over again. The answers are just going to get worse each time you ask it."

It all caved in on Greinke at spring training in 2006. He had a bad bullpen throwing session one day, and when he came back for his next bullpen, all the feelings he had been tamping down finally came out. He started throwing hard, then harder, then harder yet, in sort of a blind rage that seemed so over the top that his catcher, John Buck, stopped everything. Manager Buddy Bell was quickly called. Then general manager Allard Baird, too.

Greinke broke down in a meeting with the two men. The date was Feb. 25, 2006, and something life-altering happened for him: Rather than have all the insensitive things that sometimes get said in sports thrown at him -- suck it up, pull yourself together, for God's sake, show a little spine, kid -- Baird and Bell told Greinke to take some time off. Seek help. See what he found out.

That's how Greinke came to be diagnosed. That's how he started this long climb back -- and then up. That's how he saved his career.

[+] Enlarge Zack Greinke
G. N. Lowrance/Getty ImagesZack Greinke left a lot of games on the hook for the loss in 2005.

He returned to the Royals briefly in 2006 as a reliever (also his role for much of 2007). By 2008, he was a fixture in the rotation again. The next offseason he developed a changeup to offset his 95 mph fastball and devastating slider. He flummoxed hitters so much in 2009 that he rang up an American League-best ERA of 2.16 and finished 16-8 and made the All-Star team. To his astonishment, he also won the Cy Young Award in a landslide over runner-up Felix Hernandez, though Hernandez had three more wins.

Medication that Greinke takes helped make all of that doable. But so did his toughness and an epiphany he had back then when he contemplated quitting.

"I just want to make this clear -- I can't live without baseball," Greinke said when he returned to the Royals.

Looking forward now to Greinke's stay with the Dodgers, it can't hurt that Los Angeles bench coach Trey Hillman was Greinke's manager the season he won that Cy Young in Kansas City. If Greinke still comes across as a mixed bag to teammates -- aloof or abrupt one minute, enthusiastically willing to shoot the breeze about how he uses sophisticated sabermetrics to inform his pitching approach the next -- Hillman is someone who can put it in perspective.

In Kansas City, as one nod to Greinke's condition, he and Greinke used to have an agreement that they would speak only every three or four days. Hillman was astute enough to let Greinke be the only one to break the bargain by talking more. And he was thrilled when the kid did it on his own.

So it looks like yet another good sign of how far Greinke has come that after the Dodgers introduced him Tuesday and he began to take questions about why he chose the Dodgers over Texas, he made a crack about his new boss, Kasten, that also revolved around talking extra long.

"I don't want to make his head too big, but I thought Stan Kasten was like, the smartest guy I've ever talked to," Greinke volunteered with a laugh.

The TV cameras cut to Colletti and Magic just in time to catch how their eyes widened in surprise -- and then how they all broke up in shoulder-shaking laughter.

Kasten, whose affectionate nickname among the L.A. press is "Blowhard," would not seem to be the obvious choice to hit it off with Greinke.

Speaking to reporters later, Greinke answered a follow-up question about the Kasten remark with another allusion to his social anxiety disorder.

"Maybe I just haven't met a lot of people," Greinke joked, smiling again.

Perfect, right?

The Dodgers should feel good about the man they just signed.

The loneliest job in baseball is being on the mound and knowing a game, a pennant, a World Series can hinge on every ball that you throw. And more than ever, Zack Greinke looks like a pitcher in command of himself, not just all those pitches he throws.

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