Second chances: Adam Greenberg’s inspirational baseball journey

Adam Greenberg had been waiting for this moment since he was just a kid playing Little League baseball in Guilford, Connecticut. Back then, his dream was to play for the New York Yankees. He was a three-sport star at Guilford High School, but it was baseball where Greenberg, at only 5 feet 9 inches, stood tall. The first player in Connecticut history to be named to four all-state teams, he went on play college baseball for the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where, as a junior in 2002, he hit .337, stole 35 bases, scored 80 runs, homered 17 times, and led the ACC with seven triples. That caught the eye of the Chicago Cubs, who selected him in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball Draft that same year. The kid from Connecticut was a step closer to realizing his dream.

Over the course of the next three years, the speedy outfielder steadily climbed through the Cubs’ minor league system. He didn’t dazzle, but he was solid and often used his base-running skills to steal that extra base. In 2004, his 14 triples tied him for third in the minor leagues.

By mid-season in 2005, the Cubs’ major league team was scuffling. After dropping a twin bill to the Atlanta Braves on July 5, 2005, the North Sider’s losing streak had hit eight games. A team that had been four games over .500 just a week earlier was now four games under. One-time hot prospect Corey Patterson was flaming out. The team needed an injection of new blood, so it shipped Patterson and Jason Dubois to their Triple-A affiliate in Iowa and called up two outfielders from their West Tennessee Double-A affiliate to fill their shoes: Matt Murton and Greenberg.

“Excited doesn’t even begin to explain it,” Greenberg said in an article originally published on NorthSidersReport.com. “It’s just a dream come true. It’s the opportunity we’ve been waiting for our whole lives. Now it’s time to go out and make the most of it.”

Two days later, on July 9, 2005, the Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins at Dolphins Stadium, leading 4-2 in the 9th inning, when Greenberg, then 24, was called in to pinch hit for reliever Will Ohman. On the mound for the Marlins was reliever Valerio de los Santos. The first pitch – a 92 mph fastball – sailed, hitting Greenberg on the back of the helmet. On a video capture of the play, you see Greenberg crumbled on the dirt by home plate. Marlins’ catcher Paul Lo Duca must have known right then how bad it was, because you see him rush to Greenberg’s aid. In the background, de los Santos appears shaken as he wanders off the mound. “The first thing going through your mind is, ‘This guy’s dead,’” de los Santos said in a 2007 “Outside the Lines” segment about the pitch that aired on ESPN.

Greenberg holds the dubious distinction of being one of two players in league history to be hit by a pitch in their only plate appearance without taking the field, the other being Fred Van Dusen of the 1955 Philadelphia Phillies.

Greenberg went on the disabled list and didn’t return for the rest of the season. Doctors initially diagnosed a post-concussion syndrome. Greenberg thought it was something more. “Just bending over to tie my shoe left me with headaches for hours,” he said in that ESPN special. For weeks, he slept upright, the only way to tolerate the excruciating headaches. Eventually, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed him with positional vertigo, a condition that he still suffers from today.

“This was before concussions became a major story in sports,” Chicago Tribune Cubs’ beat reporter Paul Sullivan said in a 2012 video interview. “Back then a concussion, no one really thought twice about it.”

Despite the bouts with nausea, headaches and dizziness, Greenberg refused to give up on his dream. He returned to minor league baseball the following season but often struggled with his vision and fears. Still, he persisted. In 2011, while playing for the Independent League Bridgeport Bluefish, he came to bat for the second time against de los Santos, the pitcher who threw that one fateful pitch. De los Santos, who was pitching for the Long Island Ducks, was fighting to resurrect his own baseball career that had gone south ever since he threw that pitch to Greenberg. This time, Greenberg singled. “It was a big deal,” Greenberg said. “As much as I might try to pretend it wasn’t. It’s been five and a half years, and to face him again in a game that meant something and get the result, to get a hit off him, it was a special moment. It brings things full-circle.”

Matt Liston, a lifelong Cubs’ fan who made a documentary, “Chasing October,” about the team’s 2003 season, had been watching the game on TV when Greenberg went down. Inspired by Greenberg’s quest to get back to the big leagues, Liston, in 2012, started an online petition, the One at Bat campaign, to get Greenberg his first official Major League at bat.

To the surprise of many, the campaign succeeded, though it wasn’t the Cubs that gave Greenberg another shot. Instead, it was the team against whom he was hit seven years earlier, the Marlins. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was in attendance at the game the night Greenberg was hit. He offered Greenberg a one-day contract to play in their October 2, 2012, home game against the New York Mets. The contract was worth $2,623, which was donated to an organization that researches brain trauma in athletes.

To Greenberg, this was more than a publicity stunt. “This was never a gimmick,” he said. “I got to the major leagues on my own merit. I worked up through the ranks as a little kid and all the way up. I earned that spot seven years ago.”

The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Fred Van Dusen, then 75, the only other player in baseball history who had been hit by a pitch in his only plate appearance without taking the field. More than anyone else, he understood. In an interview before the game, he told the Palm Beach Post that after Greenberg took his official at-bat, he would be happy to stand alone in the record books again. “I didn’t like sharing it,” Van Dusen said jokingly. “But I’m happy for Adam. It’s his dream to get up there and maybe get a hit. It would be nice.”

Greenberg led off the bottom of the sixth inning as a pinch hitter. The Aerosmith song “Dream On” was played through the stadium’s public address system as Greenberg walked to home plate and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He was struck out by Mets knuckleballer and eventual Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey on three pitches and was removed from the lineup at the end of the inning.

Never before had a player seemed so happy after striking out. “It was magical,” Greenberg said after the game. “The energy that was in the stadium was something that I have never experienced in my life, and I don’t know if I’ll ever experience that again.”

Greenberg had hoped that there would be more chances but they didn’t come and he officially announced his retirement from baseball in February 2014. “Life throws you curveballs,” Greenberg said. “Mine threw me a fastball at 92, and it hit me in the back of the head. I got up from it, and my life is great.”

 

The One at Bat promotional video

 

Adam Greenberg on NBC’s Today Show

 

Video of Greenberg’s One at Bat on October 2, 2012

Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, was released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.