Greinke's story rivals first-half greats
Right-hander's road to redemption didn't come easily
ST. LOUIS -- What big star would you suppose that Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, in his first All-Star Game, would look forward to meeting in St. Louis?
Albert Pujols? Ichiro Suzuki? Anyone in particular?
"Naw," Greinke said. "If Michael Jordan was going to be there, that'd be pretty cool. And [President] Obama will be pretty cool, too. So that's about it. If I get to meet Obama, that'll be the coolest part about it probably."
Greinke is obviously a big fan of Jordan, but Obama, scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Tuesday night's game, would be the first president to press the Greinke hand.
Greinke's road to the All-Star Game was marked by a huge buildup for a first-round Draft choice, a good rookie season and a miserable sophomore year, an absence to solve a social anxiety condition, and a comeback that took time but was obviously worth it.
"I think it definitely helps [for things] not to be so easy all the way through," Greinke said Monday. "It's just a lot better. You learn so much more when it's just not easy all the time."
It was widely believed that Greinke might be in line for one of the game's highest honors -- to start for the American League at the All-Star Game. Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, who has had a lesser first half but has a better resume overall, was chosen instead.
"I've done it for half a season," Greinke said. "Halladay's done it for like six seasons. It's a decent argument, do you look at it for one half, or do you look for his whole career? And I would think the other guy deserves it more if he's done it consistently than just for doing it for one half."
It's been a pretty magnificent half-season, though. Greinke got off to a spectacular start, 6-0 with a 0.40 ERA, numbers that had been bested only by two legendary pitchers, and then just slightly: Fernando Valenzuela, 6-0 and 0.33 in 1981, and Walter Johnson, 6-0 and 0.35 in 1913.
At the time, Greinke was quizzed about those two historic figures. He had heard of "Fernandomania," which swept the country when the Dodgers' left-hander was lifting his eyeballs to the heavens. And he was even aware of Johnson, the fireballing Big Train of the Senators.
"Yeah, he was probably a pretty good pitcher," Greinke said. "Christy Mathewson was probably my favorite, though. He just seemed more like a pitcher, and Walter Johnson was just domination."
So Greinke pays attention to history and also to his pitching coach. Bob McClure has aided his student's progress with a laid-back approach.
"I've allowed him to grow, not just shove it down his throat," McClure said.
"When I first met him, one day he told me, 'Mac, I'll never throw a two-seamer -- ever. I just wanted to let you know that. I'll never throw a changeup -- I had a bad change. It's not a good pitch. And that was four years ago."
Now Greinke is starting to use both of those pitches along with his usual devastating assortment that includes a fastball that can, if he feels like it, reach 99 mph.
"He's just scratching the surface," McClure said. "Wait till we ever get to a cutter. Oh! I've never mentioned it to him yet but if we ever get to where he can throw that pitch, look out."
He's scratched the surface pretty well this season: He's 10-5 with a 2.12 ERA, best in the Majors. And he's tallied 129 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings with just 21 walks. He gives a great deal of credit to McClure's patient approach with him.
"There's been a couple things, just slowly getting better and better," Greinke said. "I don't know what the main thing is, but right now he's just talked to me about pitching inside a lot. ... He's slowly helping me out. It's been a couple different things. And your body just getting more mature, and a lot of it is your mind. When you're young, your mind doesn't just think about one thing. It kind of wanders and stuff. Now I can control it a little bit better. And I kind of know how to get ready and prepare."
Greinke is accompanied at the All-Star Game by Royals manager Trey Hillman, serving as an AL coach. The 'Zack Effect' on the Royals this year has been considerable.
"There's just confidence when he takes the mound because of the start he got off to," Hillman said. "He's had some losses, some days where he hasn't commanded the ball as well as he did early on. But he's been so durable and chewed up so many innings, he's saved a lot of innings for the bullpen, and at the same time, been very effective as a starter. A very, very positive domino effect on the rest of the pitching staff."
Now Greinke is hoping that that effect can help bring some more teammates to the next All-Star Game.
"I think it would be cool if someday we get a couple guys making the team instead of just the token one guy," he said. "But it's going to be hard to do in Kansas City. [Joakim] Soria might have had a chance to deserve it this year, just he got hurt for a little bit. It will be a lot better when there's a couple guys here for Kansas City."