In October of 2008, the Brewers played their first postseason game in 26 years. I was there in attendance. It was a relatively forgettable game for Milwaukee, as they went on to lose to the Phillies 3-1; consequently, the most memorable moment for me actually did not occur during the game at all, but before it. I arrived when the gates opened, and was able to walk down to right behind the Brewers’ dugout and see them do their pregame warmups not 30 feet in front of me. Shortly after I arrived, CC Sabathia walked out of the dugout. He was 6’7″ and must have weighed 300 pounds, yet still seemed somehow larger than life. Flashing a huge smile, he exuded so much warmth and magnetism it seemed as though the sun had come out from behind the clouds. I knew the universe was neither geocentric nor heliocentric, but if you had told me it was Sabathia-centric, I would have believed you.
Of course, I’m not here to write about CC. I’m here to write about Zack Greinke. The problem is that it’s so hard to sum up what Zack Greinke is, it’s easier to talk about what he’s not. In so many ways, Zack Greinke is not CC Sabathia. That’s not to say he’s not talented, but rather to say he is not an unstoppable force of nature; he’s not the center of the universe. He would be easier to understand if he were, because we want athletes to be like that. We want athletes to be the grinning Superman holding a car over his head. We want to see the perfect competitor who dominates through sheer force of will. Although this is what we want to see, because it is an excellence that is part of our nature to understand and respect, it is commonplace enough to be quite boring.
Most athletes’ interviews are boring, because they fall into one of two categories: either the athlete hits all the clichés and says the expected things, or the athlete isn’t confident enough of a speaker to do that, so he essentially says nothing. Zack’s interviews, of course, are famously quite interesting. They’re interesting because while unable to adopt the standard pose of the hero athlete, Greinke is unafraid to still put his real self out there. It is ironic that his struggles with anxiety have created the impression that he does not handle pressure situations well, because to me Zack Greinke is incredibly confident, because he has the confidence to present his true self to the world.
This also extends to his performance on the mound, which, in Milwaukee at least, will probably always be connected to the sense that he underperformed. He did not get incredibly dominant results, and yet, as evidenced by his FIP being nearly a run lower than his ERA, there was some mastery in his performance that was no less present for not showing up in the bottom line. I loved watching Zack Greinke pitch, because to watch him was to watch a man with a plan that he would not deviate from. His plan was to continually pound the zone with the nastiest pitches he could throw, and refuse to give in. Almost always this led to him racking up strikeouts and refusing to issue walks. Sometimes this plan would work masterfully at keeping runs off the board, other times it would fail miserably at doing so. But whereas many pitchers play the part of the warrior on the mound, dramatically reacting to each feint and blow, Zack seems to maintain the serenity of a man who knows that all he can do is continue to execute his plan, and has the confidence that in the end it’ll succeed more often than it fails.
As he would not sign an extension, to trade him was undoubtedly the right move for this Milwaukee Brewers team. I’m not enough of a prospect guy to comment on the players the Brewers got back, but people who know more about that make it sound like the team got a fine return for two months of a player. But while this was a fine move in terms of the future, right now I’m reflecting on the past. I’m reflecting on having Zack Greinke on this team; I’m reflecting on the magical 2011 season, which could not have happened without him; and I’m reflecting on the sheer thrill of getting to root for a player who, whether he was on the mound or in front of the microphone, could only be one thing: himself.