OAKLAND -- A ray of sunshine zapped through the dark cloud that hovers over the Royals these days. His name is Zack Greinke.
Greinke pitched five solid innings in his highly-anticipated Major League debut on Saturday, providing some fresh hope for a club that has never been so bad after the first 40 games.
When the Royals lost an 11-inning, 5-4 decision to the Oakland Athletics, their record wilted to 13-27, worst record at this point in franchise history.
That was my lede to the MLB.com game story on Saturday afternoon, May 22, 2004. That was the way I always saw Zack Greinke, even in his darkest days -- as a ray of sunshine and hope for the Royals.
That day, I remember Zack as a somewhat shy but obviously very bright kid -- he was the Majors' youngest player at 20 years, 7 months -- with tousled blond hair and a little, rather mischievous grin. That never really changed. And he always seemed able to explain his pitching to us.
Take that first game at Oakland. In his last inning, the fifth, he faced a two-out, bases-loaded jam. Dangerous Eric Chavez, who'd rifled a shot back at the pitcher earlier on a fastball, was up. After the game, an 11-inning, 5-4 loss to the A's, Greinke discoursed on the situation.
"He was on everything, you know, so I was just like, 'Hey, I'm going to throw it as slow as I can instead of as hard as I can,' " he said. "Because he was on that one I threw as hard as I could. So I tried the opposite philosophy."
Greinke lazed a curveball in at about 62 mph and the surprised Chavez rolled out to second. Yep, on a floater that Greinke, in his early years, used to trot out occasionally to amusing and successful effect.
His next start, on May 28, 2004, was a Fireworks Friday night at Kauffman Stadium with 30,614 fans in the stands. He won their hearts, pitching seven innings and allowing just one run (Michael Cuddyer's homer). He had no decision but set up a 2-1 Royals victory.
During a seventh-inning crisis, first baseman Mike Sweeney went to the mound and saw no fear, no glazed look in the young pitcher's eyes. Just an "OK, I'm in control" look. Greinke escaped the jam with a popup and, with the crowd on its feet and roaring, a strikeout.
"He's well ahead of his years, definitely," Sweeney said.
Pitching-wise, for sure. He was confident, extremely athletic. Yet, some days hours before a game you'd see him just wandering the outfield all alone, maybe just flipping a ball in his hands, lost in thought. Always he was his own, rather different man.
Certainly the young man had compassion. After I'd had some health problems one year, that winter Greinke often checked with my wife, Betty, who worked for the Royals, to see how I was doing. C'mon to dinner and see, she said, so he and girlfriend Emily went with us to a little Mexican restaurant near our home. They were an absolute treat, telling us how as Floridians they delighted in lying in the Kansas City snow and making snow angels.
Greinke, of course, had his own health concerns and left spring camp in 2006. Later we found out he'd had an awful bullpen session and that, compounded with a much more serious matter diagnosed as social anxiety, sent him home. He wasn't sure if he'd return and neither were any of us.
Two months later when he did come back, I went back to Surprise, Ariz., to see him. The old, sly grin was back and he looked happy. He didn't talk much about his condition but he was emphatic about one thing.
"I just wanted to make this clear: I can't live without baseball. Up till this last offseason, I couldn't go a day without playing it," he said. "It's to the point where it caused problems with my girlfriend [Emily] because she knows baseball is more important than her. I say, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I love the game that much. You're not even close to being No. 1 -- that's how much I love baseball. I couldn't live without it.'"
Money and fame never seemed to mean much to Zack, but he loved the game and fought his way back through the Minors and the bullpen to regain his spot in the Royals' rotation.
When he had that amazing Cy Young Award season in 2009, it wasn't really that surprising. From that first day in Oakland, there was the sense that this kid was something special.
Perhaps his most dominating performance that season came on Aug. 25 at home when he struck out 15 Indians in just eight innings for a Royals record. He had a simple explanation: "My plan was to get ahead with pitches, and once you get ahead, to finish it."
That was Greinke -- he could be right to the point or ramble a bit, especially when dissecting an at-bat against a hitter. Like a golfer remembers every shot of a round, he could recall every pitch of a game.
And he was always refreshingly honest, often blunt and undiplomatic. This was one of his takes on the Sports Illustrated cover (which he'd refused to pose for) that came early in his marvelous '09 season:
"It was the worst thing that could have happened the whole entire year. There was all of the attention that came from it. But that's not the No. 1 thing. The No. 1 thing is I probably had to sign 10,000 extra autographs because of that thing. Everyone has their Sports Illustrated cover that they want signed."
Last season wasn't nearly so good but, still, I was caught off guard when he admitted late in the going that he sometimes lacked motivation. Watching him pitch, I never got the sense he was anything but stoutly competitive.
When we said goodbye at the end of the season, he waved off any suggestion of winter phone calls. But with all the commotion about him being traded, about 2 1/2 weeks ago I figured what-the-heck and tried his number. Accidentally he answered it -- he was changing songs on his cell phone and punched the wrong button -- and we talked for a few minutes. He said everything was great, he was fishing a lot and Emily, now his bride, was fine but he steadfastly declined to discuss the trade rumors.
Just a few days before the trade, I was in the Royals' vacant clubhouse and noticed that the blue and white surfboard that had rested next to Zack's dressing stall for a couple of years had disappeared.
Now he's gone, too, to Milwaukee in that other league. Except for maybe in Spring Training, we won't see him.
Good pitching up north, Zack. And, hey, you get to swing a bat without fulfilling your dream of being a shortstop.
Pitch well up there. It was a joy having you around. Your light always shone through the clouds.