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A salute to Zack Greinke

If this is it for Zack Greinke, it has been quite a ride.

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Cleveland Guardians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Zack Greinke made me love baseball. I was a freshman in high school back in 2009 and for pretty much all of my conscious (and sub-conscious life, really) the Kansas City Royals were not a very good baseball team. Well, scratch that. For pretty much my entire life to that point, the Royals were among the very worst sports franchises in North America. They weren’t just among the bottom of baseball’s barrel — they were at the bottom of every barrel.

Since the turn of the century, the Royals had compiled a win-loss record of 607-851. They hadn’t won a World Series in 24 seasons, hell they hadn’t even had a winning record in 16 seasons, save for a strike-shortened 1994 campaign and a flash-in-the-pan 2003 season. For me, a kid from the Northland, there wasn’t much to take pride in for these Royals. Sure, it was really fun to see Carlos Beltran come and go, but he had been gone for five years by 2009. David DeJesus helped give some life to an otherwise desolate roster. Then Zack came along.

Zack Greinke was drafted sixth overall in the 2002 MLB draft. He was a high school arm out of Apopka High School, in Orange County, Florida. The Royals felt at the time that Greinke was a polished arm, despite his age, and convinced him to forego his commitment to Clemson and sign for $2.5 million. He pitched six games in the minor leagues that summer, and then debuted in 2003 with the Wilmington Blue Rocks. He dominated and before long found his way to Kansas City. 2003 would prove to be Greinke’s only full season in the minor leagues. He made his MLB debut in 2004 and the rest is history.

It wasn’t all so easy for Greinke, however. The future Hall of Famer nearly quit baseball entirely after the 2005 season. He was awkward in the Royals clubhouse in 2004, and the organization actually had him live with George Brett in an attempt to alleviate his anxiety and nerves. Jeff Passan, then writing for Yahoo Sports, outlined the living situation for Greinke at the time:

Greinke lived in an extra room at Brett’s house. He slept late, spent some afternoons by the pool at a local country club and others fishing on nearby lakes, went to the ballpark, returned home to play Xbox and went to bed. This was his life.

In March 2007, John Donovan of Sports Illustrated outlined Greinke’s struggle with depression. Greinke struggled immensely with depression and social anxiety, all of which compounded in a 2005 season that saw him lead the league with 17 losses. He did not finish spring training in 2006 and was placed on the 60-day IL in early April. He pitched just 6.1 innings that year but came back stronger in 2007. He started the year in the rotation but eventually moved to the bullpen. It was a success, however, as he pitched 122 innings that year with a career-best 3.69 ERA. 2008 saw him move back to the starting rotation full-time, making 32 starts with an 8.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and a 3.47 ERA.

Then came 2009. Manager Trey Hillman led the team to the usual disastrous loss totals. They finished the year 65-97 and ranked 13th in the American League in runs scored. They ranked 13th in OPS, and 12th in ERA. They did, however, rank 4th in the American League in pitcher strikeouts. Greinke had 242 of them, That total fell just two short of Dennis Leonard’s franchise record of 244 strikeouts in 1977. No other Royals pitcher has broken 200 in a season since.

Greinke was worth 10.4 bWAR that season, just ahead of Albert Pujols (9.7) for the most of any player in all of baseball. He led the league in ERA and FIP, finished third in strikeouts, and finished ninth with 16 wins. That, of course, was the biggest story in baseball come award season: should Zack Greinke win the Cy Young despite playing for one of the worst teams in baseball? The answer was of course the fourth Cy Young winner in franchise history, and the first since David Cone in 1994.

Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young was a magnificent achievement, overcoming both personal and professional odds. Zack showed the world that even the lowly Royals could have nice things. It didn’t matter if they lost 97 games, or if they had missed the postseason in 24 consecutive seasons. No, in that moment the Royals had the best pitcher in baseball and no one could take that away from us. That gave me hope, it gave me a reason to keep following and keep believing. It made me fall in love with baseball in a way I never had.

A one of a kind personality and a bittersweet goodbye

Zack Greinke is a magnificent pitcher and the results speak to that, but he’s so much more than a great player. He’s truly a one-of-a-kind personality as well. Rustin Dodd and Jayson Jenks of The Athletic ran a piece back in March 2021 outlining what they called Greinke’s “blunt brilliance.” In it, they attempted to capture the best Greinke stories from teammates he had had over the years. One story in particular was one from Former Royals catcher, Brayan Peña.

We were eating together and I was eating ice cream. He is very lean, great body, he’s in ultimate shape, he really takes care of himself, right? We were talking and he says, “You want to know one reason why you’re not an everyday big-league catcher?” I thought he was going to say something about my framework or blocking balls or game-calling or hitting. He goes, “Because you eat too much ice cream.” I was like, “Zack, seriously?” The room was full of players. Everybody started laughing. So I got up and hugged him. Every time that we went to a city after that, he made sure I had the best ice cream they were selling in that city.

There were plenty of others, too. The number of priceless Zack Greinke stories is seemingly endless. He’s touched so many players and fans in the game in such a unique way. One time, Zack’s socially awkward and brutally awkward nature caused him great anxiety and depression playing the game of baseball. Nowadays, those same traits make him the unique person we’ve all grown to love.

Another quote from the Athletic piece was from Tony Arnerich. Arnerich was a career minor leaguer, playing in the Royals system from 2001-2004. He played with Zack in 2003 for the Class-A Wilmington Blue Rocks. That year in spring training, he was facing Greinke and got hit by a pitch. Arnerich asked Greinke about the pitch later that night, asking if he hit him on purpose. Greinke’s response was classic Greinke: “Well, I only had so many pitches, I didn’t want to waste them all on you. I wanted to face other hitters so I had to get you out of there.”

I’m not exaggerating to tell you that I could spend hours reading Greinke stories like those above. He’s a national treasure and a testament to perseverance and hard work. He could have given up after that 2005 season, or in the midst of a lost 2006 season when everything looked like it was trending in that direction anyway. Instead, he came back stronger than ever and took his place as the best pitcher in the major leagues.

Soon thereafter, he was gone. The Royals traded Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason following the 2010 season. The return, of course, was historic. It is perhaps the best trade in franchise history, and certainly one of the best in recent league history. The Royals received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress in the deal. Odorizzi was later traded as part of a package to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. Escobar, of course, was named the 2015 ALCS MVP and Cain was arguably the best player on those 2014-2015 World Series teams.

I owe my baseball fandom to Zack Greinke, and the Royals owe their 2015 Commissioner's Trophy — at least in part — to Greinke. Without that trade, it’s hard to see Kansas City going on the magical run that we saw nearly ten years ago. That fact wasn’t lost on those in the clubhouse either. Alcides Escobar put it simply during the 2015 World Series Parade.

It was a bittersweet goodbye, to see Greinke leave for Milwaukee. He continued to put together a Hall of Fame career after his departure from Kansas City. Perhaps his best season of all, in 2015, saw him finish second in Cy Young voting and seventh in MVP voting. By then, he had signed a six-year, $147 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2015, he pitched to a career-best 1.66 ERA over 222.2 innings pitched. He led the league in ERA, pitcher winning percentage, strikeouts, and WHIP.

As it stands now, Greinke is the active career leader in games started and innings pitched. His career strikeout total of 2,977 ranks 20th all-time, just behind Hall of Famer John Smoltz. It’s still unknown if this is truly Zack’s last season. He hasn’t stated as much, nor has the team or anyone close to him. He will, however, make the home start for this Sunday’s season finale against the Yankees. The Royals shuffled the starting rotation some this week to line that up.

Granted, if it truly is his last hoo-rah, he isn’t the type to look for the spotlight anyway. Zack Greinke doesn’t want a farewell tour or a grand goodbye. He just wants to finish a masterful career in the only way that makes sense — in his own way and on his own terms. I’m so thankful to have watched Zack pitch. I’m thankful that he spent so much of his career pitching for my favorite team, and I’m grateful that he helped me fall in love with the game of baseball. In an era filled with Hall of Famers, from Clayton Kershaw to Max Scherzer to Justin Verlander, Zack stands out above all the rest for me.

Thank you, Zack.