Column: 'It felt like my head had exploded'
Over the 150 or so years baseball has been played in America, nearly 18,000 players have appeared in at least one major league game. Only one ever had his career end with the first pitch.
If that sounds unjust, keep reading. A campaign called ''One At Bat'' offers you the chance to do something about it.
Adam Greenberg was 24 and had been called up by the Chicago Cubs the day before he stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning against the Marlins on July 9, 2005. His mother, one of five family members who rushed down to Florida from Connecticut for the game, lowered her own camera to watch the big moment for herself.
In the blink of an eye, Greenberg was transformed from a scrappy prospect into what a longtime Cubs observer would call another ''brief but memorable symbol of the team's cursed history.'' He was hit in the head by a 92-mph fastball from reliever Valerio De Los Santos. He never set foot inside a big-league batter's box again.
''At first,'' Greenberg recalled during a telephone interview earlier this week, ''it felt like my head had exploded. Once my eyes quit rolling around and I was able to see, I saw the guys standing around me weren't freaking out. I calmed down pretty quick after that.
''The next thing I remember vividly is walking off the field. I forget who was holding me up, but I remember thinking, `At least they didn't have to carry me off,' '' he added ruefully. ''Little did I know.''
Everyone knows a lot more about concussions now than they did then. Greenberg learned the hard way. When he woke up the next morning, he couldn't focus and the sunlight streaming in made him nauseous. He was sent back to the minors and struggled with the symptoms - and a handful of other injuries - for years. Twice he nearly made it back to the bigs, once with the Kansas City Royals, then a second time with the Cincinnati Reds.
Now 31 and a year removed from his last minor-league stint - with the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish of the Atlantic League - Greenberg is readying himself for yet one more try. Invited by former major leaguer and current Israel team manager Brad Ausmus, he'll fly to Florida again Sunday seeking a spot on a squad trying to qualify for the World Baseball Classic next spring.
''I've used the last two months like spring training. I'm in as good shape as I've ever been,'' he said.
Greenberg is not exaggerating. He used the year away from baseball to get a health-supplement company up and running, but never quit working out.
''I got married and after three years in a row (in the Atlantic League) making 2,200 bucks a month with no health insurance. I had to do something different,'' Greenberg said. ''But I have to believe if I continue improving, my career will continue somewhere.
''And I'll be honest, I want that at-bat. I hope the publicity from `One At Bat' will get a general manager, or a farm director somewhere to give me an opportunity to compete for a job.''
Filmmaker and die-hard Cubs fan Matt Liston was watching when Greenberg got beaned. He never forgot it, either. Liston had already made a film about the Cubs' 2003 season called ''Chasing October,'' co-produced ''Catching Hell'' - the movie about cursed Cub fan Steve Bartman - and he's contemplating another about Greenberg'st fateful night five years ago. But his first order of business was to get him back into the box in a real game. That's how the ''One At Bat'' campaign came about. A petition on Change.org asking one of MLB's clubs to give him the chance before the end of this season has already collected nearly 20,000 signatures.
The most logical team would be the hapless Cubs, of course, and they finish the season Oct. 1-3 at home against the Houston Astros. An MLB spokesman Mike Teevan said any team could add Greenberg to the 40-man roster and be required to pay him a pro-rated share of the major-league minimum - roughly $3,000 or so per game. But the Cubs already passed.
''Adam made the big leagues based on merit in 2005,'' Chicago GM Jed Hoyer said in a statement. ''While it is unfortunate he got hit in his first at bat, he is in the Baseball Encyclopedia as a major leaguer and he should be incredibly proud of that. We wish him the best, but there are no plans to add him to the roster now or in the future.''
Never mind that the Cubs are as bad as ever, that they need a ''feel-good'' moment right about now, or even that the only thing likely to hinge on the outcome of that final series with the Astros is which team finishes with the worst record in baseball. As publicity stunts go, this one is no more shameless than Minnie Minoso returning for a few at-bats in five different decades.
And while Hoyer's remark that Greenberg made it into ''the Baseball Encyclopedia as a major leaguer'' is true, even that is cold comfort.
A researcher at the Hall of Fame found 982 players whose careers were confined to just one game - the most famous being Archibald ''Moonlight'' Graham, a real-life ballplayer portrayed by actor Burt Lancaster in ''Field of Dreams.'' That total also included five who, like Greenberg, were hit by a pitch in their first at-bat, credited only with a plate appearance, and never made it back to the majors.
But three of them at least took a turn in the field. And the fifth, Fred van Dusen, appeared in a game with Philadelphia in 1955 and was knocked out of baseball for good on the fourth pitch he saw. He told an interviewer in 2007 that on nights when he can't sleep, he still thinks about the 0-1 fastball he didn't hit. Greenberg didn't get even that much.
''Anybody who's ever had a dream or worked all his life to achieve something gets it,'' Liston said. ''Every ballplayer I've talked to, a few of whom were teammates, have said they'd be happy to give up their spot for this. Adam isn't a celebrity looking for a thrill. He hasn't been eating Cheetos and playing in a beer league.
''All we're asking for is an at-bat for a guy who earned it. I'm sure a lot of people sign the petition after they see the video, because they respond to the shape he's in. And the Cubs are a cherished organization. And even though we got a `no,' we're still holding out hope that somebody in the Rickets family (owners of the Cubs) will go to bat for him.
''And I'll tell you what,'' Liston added, ''I'd rather see him at the plate than some of the guys they've called up already.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke. To see the video for the ''One At Bat'' campaign, visit: http://www.oneatbat.com/