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I’m the baseball fan I am because of Zack Greinke

A 10-year retrospective on one of the greatest Royals seasons of all time

Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke (23) delivers a pitch during the Royals win against the Chicago White Sox 3-0 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Greinke (6-0) struck out 10 batters in the complete game shutout.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke (23) delivers a pitch during the Royals win against the Chicago White Sox 3-0 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Greinke (6-0) struck out 10 batters in the complete game shutout.
Photo by Kenny Felt/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

In the summer of 2009, the Kansas City Royals would play another season. To say that baseball is timeless is both cliche and technically incorrect. On a macro level, baseball is simply there, a comforting sea of athleticism, competition, and living nostalgia that ebbs and flows regardless what is happening elsewhere in the world. Baseball is the waves crashing against America’s shores.

But to the players, coaches, and staff involved in each season, it is their career. Their livelihood. And to the fans, individual moments and individual years sometimes leap out of the ocean to grab us by the shoulders, demanding to be felt and impressing upon us something in the process.

I was a different person a decade ago. That happens to everyone. But it was a particularly transitional period in my life. In April 2009, I was a month away from graduating high school, half a dozen months away from starting college, where I would meet my future wife and gain the professional and personal skills to become who I was today.

That year, for the first time in my life, baseball grabbed me and demanded attention. And I was willing. Zack Greinke was pitching. And it was transcendent.

On April 8, one day after Kyle Farnsworth gave up a walkoff home run to future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, Greinke stepped to the mound. He threw six scoreless innings, striking out seven and walking three. Over his next two starts, Greinke pitched like the best baseball. In Greinke’s third start, against the Texas Rangers, he threw a complete game shutout against the Texas Rangers. Zero walks, 10 strikeouts. Two of his brilliant outings were played away from the confines of Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City was ravenous for baseball success, starved for a star. And here he was: Greinke, making himself known.

The Royals drew an astonishing 36,363 fans on Friday, April 24. Greinke was why. He was set up for failure, in hindsight. Too much hype. Too much hope thrust on his shoulders.

It was that night when everyone knew that Greinke was truly special. He didn’t just meet expectations—he surpassed them. Nine innings, 10 strikeouts, and four baserunners later, the enigmatic righty had thrown his second consecutive complete game shutout. After four starts and 29 scoreless innings, Greinke’s ERA stood at 0.00.

As the summer wore on, my interest in the Royals began to deepen. Sure, I’d seen games before. Been to some. But why would I really care about the Royals, a team that had exactly one winning season since my family moved here from the Cleveland area in 2000. I distinctly remember asking a classmate of mine in fourth grade if anybody interesting played for the Royals. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. They’ve got a lot of new players. It happens every year.”

It took Greinke for me to take an active interest in the Royals beyond watching them occasionally or seeing some clips on ESPN. And it took Greinke for me to realize that there were other stats than batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average, and to realize their value. On a Royals fan Facebook group sometime in the middle of the summer, I remember commenting that ERA was obviously the best way to evaluate a pitcher. I didn’t know about Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). But once it was explained to me why these advanced stats were the best signifiers for Greinke’s incredible success, I was hooked. Who knows if that would have happened otherwise.

We know how the baseball story ends. Greinke won the Cy Young in 2009, the first Kansas City athlete to win a major award in any of the four big professional sports leagues in seemingly forever. The Royals continued to be awful, and Greinke demanded a trade after the 2010 season. He turned into Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, and part of his return turned into James Shields, Wade Davis, and then Jorge Soler. The Royals won a World Series without him. Greinke is still searching for his first, and is on his sixth MLB team, the Houston Astros.

Baseball goes on. But nothing quite beat a Greinke Day in 2009—not even most of 2014 and 2015. At the height of his powers, Greinke would use a blazing fastball, a destructive changeup, a devastating slider, and an insane curveball to make batters look like they were children wielding their parents’ tools as toys. I’ve seen nothing like it in Kansas City. I certainly won’t experience anything like it again. You’re only young once. Even if another Royal wins the Cy Young in the next few years, it just won’t be the same.