Every little boy dreams of playing major league baseball. Very few get to live out that dream. 3 pitches is all Adam Greenberg saw in what will be his only official MLB at bat on Tuesday. They were all knuckleballs thrown by a Cy Young candidate in the final start of a storybook season and they were all strikes. That doesn’t sound like how the fantasy usually goes for little leaguers but those 30 seconds were everything Greenberg could have dreamed of and more.
Greenberg grew up in Guilford, Connecticut and was a high school sports standout. He was a 4-year letterman in baseball, basketball and soccer and was even named Connecticut male athlete of the year in 1998-1999. He went on to play collegiate baseball at the University of North Carolina and won ACC Rookie of the Year. As a junior, he hit .337 with 17 HR, stole 35 bases and scored 80 runs en route to being named to the All-Conference team. His impressive college numbers caught the attention of the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in the 9th round of the 2002 MLB draft.
Greenberg’s baseball future was bright and and after 3 seasons in the minor leagues, he got the call to the majors on July 7, 2005. In the 9th inning of a nationally televised Sunday Night Baseball game, Greenberg walked up to the plate to make his major league debut. Batting left-handed, he stood in the box eager to see his first major league fastball. Marlins left-handed pitcher Valerio de los Santos wound up and threw a 92 mph fastball that hit Greenberg square in the back of the head. Greenberg was able to turn his head just enough so that the ball avoided his face, but it struck him directly on the back of the helmet and he fell to the ground. He suffered a minor concussion and was immediately removed from the game. It was not an easy replay to watch. De los Santos later said “The first thing going through your mind is, ‘This guy’s dead,'”
After a few weeks of rehab, Greenberg tried to return to the minor leagues and of course hoped to eventually return to the majors. He continued to suffer severe headaches and realized that the effects of getting hit by a pitch in the head had not yet faded. After bouncing around the minors for a couple of years in a couple of different organizations, Greenberg played in an Independent League until 2011 – excelling and even leading the Independent League team in triples, walks and stolen bases. He also faced de los Santos again in that Independent League – coming full circle in his career.
Greenberg’s story was far from over though. Matt Liston, a filmmaker in California and a Cubs fan, remembered Greenberg and his place in baseball history as 1 of 2 major leaguers to get hit by a pitch in their only plate appearance without playing in the field. Liston started a campaign to get Greenberg one major league at bat. (Getting hit by a pitch, like Greenberg did, counts only as a plate appearance and not an at bat). It quickly gained steam and the Marlins signed Greenberg to a one-day contract.
Tuesday, he got his at-bat against the Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey. Dickey was the perfect supporting cast member to be a part of this uplifting story. His narrative is an unprecedented one of patience and perseverance that rivals Greenberg’s. He also happens to be one of the nicest, smartest and well-spoken players in the league – like Greenberg. Dickey treated him like a big leaguer because Greenberg earned that respect. Unfortunately for Greenberg, not many big leaguers have been able to hit that knuckle ball this year as evidenced by the fact that Dickey leads the NL in strikeouts.
The outcome of his at bat doesn’t matter all that much. His will to continue playing baseball and determination to achieve his goal of getting back to the big leagues inspired millions. After striking out to a standing ovation, he sat down in the dugout next to Marlins hitting coach Eduardo Perez. Perez, who has been around the game for his entire life, told him that he had never experienced anything like what he just witnessed. It was a special moment that made a meaningless October game the talk of the sports world.
Greenberg will donate his paycheck of $2,623 to an organization that researches brain trauma in athletes. He will have a Topps baseball card and finish his MLB career with .500 on base percentage. He fulfilled his dream and overcame extreme adversity that stemmed from nothing else but sheer bad luck. His story will continue to inspire and when any kid asks him what it’s like to play in the majors, he will be able to give a first-hand account. You can bet it will be the first time that those kids hear a story about a ballplayer who was such an inspiration that he received a standing ovation after striking out on 3 pitches.