Despite numerous trade rumors, Zack Greinke goes about his business the same way he always has.
By RYAN KARTJEFS Wisconsin
MILWAUKEE —Zack Greinke can feel the wind in his hair and the sweat on his back as he rounds the left field corner of Miller Park. He darts around the warning track and toward home plate, staring straight ahead. With his earbuds in, he can shut out the rest of the noise — noise that constantly surrounds him, even if it is quieter in Milwaukee than in most baseball cities. For a few minutes, as he runs around the warning track, behind home plate, and past the
Brewers dugout, he is completely alone.
But Greinke isn't alone for the sake of being alone. It's part of his routine, the best way for him to prepare for his job. He loathes distractions. It's why the Brewers pitcher talks to media only after his starts. And it's also why he often runs alone like this, peaceful and unbothered.
For Greinke, who suffers from anxiety disorder, the noise of professional sports is largely that — just noise. A personality like his, quiet and introverted, seems out of place in his own business — an industry dominated by larger-than-life personalities, big-time endorsement deals, and lots of attention.
That's what makes this month of July so unorthodox for someone like the Brewers ace. As the trade deadline looms and Milwaukee hangs on by a thread in the playoff race, rumors continue to swirl that Greinke may be the crown jewel of a blockbuster trade at the season's midpoint. General managers, scouts, and fans all are over the country have his name on the tip of their tongues. Perhaps more than ever, Greinke is under the microscope and in the news — two places the Milwaukee pitcher has avoided like the plague for his entire career.
But something has been changing in Greinke. You can tell by the smile on his face next to his locker, in the corner of the Miller Park clubhouse. On this particular night, he's joking around with catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. He's just compared his recent All-Star snub to the BCS — his dry sense of humor seems to come out more and more these days.
The quiet Greinke, the one who left the game briefly in Kansas City due to his bout with anxiety and depression, is still there, but less noticeable nowadays. His comfort in Milwaukee, in this clubhouse is palpable, even in the way he talks about the impending trade deadline.
"If we keep playing like we've been playing this homestand, we've still got time," Greinke said on Monday, responding to a question about the team staying in contention or possibly trading him. "Hopefully that'll take care of it."
With his future as unclear as it ever has been, Greinke seems at home, while the noise around him continues to buzz louder and louder. Whether Milwaukee will continue to be his home for the rest of the season and beyond and whether that noise will cease, well, that remains to be seen.
Jonathan Lucroy knew Greinke was from his home state of Florida, but other than that, he knew little outside of the new Brewers' ace's Cy Young reputation and well-documented anxiety.
So he called a few people he knew were mutual friends to get a read on him. As his catcher, he wanted to understand him as best he could. He wanted to bring out the best in the pitcher he knew had the potential to be one of baseball's best.
Greinke liked to be alone, they told him. He was quiet, yet one of the most honest people they had ever met. Lucroy asked more questions to better identify with his pitcher. And when Greinke arrived in Maryvale that spring training, Lucroy felt like he understood him, at least to an extent.
It would take Greinke a while to plant his roots within the Milwaukee clubhouse. And it took some time for the team to understand him and his unique personality — the dry humor Lucroy had heard about and the no-nonsense, no-filtered comments he often divulged to teammates.
In a clubhouse full of boisterous personalities last season, players would go out of their way to say hello to him, closer John Axford says, "just to make sure they were letting him know that ‘We're going to try and get you out of your shell'".
Axford could see Greinke, from time to time, looking across the clubhouse, taking everyone in. As much as the rest of the Brewers clubhouse wanted to understand their new ace pitcher, Greinke wanted to understand them as well, Axford said.
"I think it was a matter of getting to know us, getting to understand us a little better," Axford said. "He's an observant person of sorts. He's always watching, getting a handle on everybody and everything. That was important for him at first before he started opening up at all."
Greinke could blend in and do his job in Milwaukee, which is all that he had ever wanted. He told reporters upon arrival that he thought baseball would be better if players could just do their job and get paid the same as regular working Americans. He is a peculiar brand of baseball player, to say the least.
But in a smaller, quieter market, Lucroy says, Greinke could relax. He could avoid distractions to his game. He could ignore the noise. He could worry purely about his pitching, and nothing else.
Lucroy and Greinke's wives soon forged a relationship, bringing the catcher and pitcher closer together. But never too close. Lucroy understands that Greinke appreciates his space. He's never taken it personally.
"That's just the way he is and what he needs," Lucroy said. "You don't want to push him too hard because when you do that, you kind of push him away. So you just let him do his own thing, and if you do that, he obviously thrives."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke got a grasp on this intricacy soon after Greinke's arrival. The pitcher was never one for meetings, explaining to reporters on several occasions that he often dazes off and can't concentrate during them. It's a trait that could be met with hostility by some managers. But Roenicke understands. He knows that Greinke does best without distractions, on his own. He trusts his ace pitcher to stick to his routine — a routine that won him a Cy Young in Kansas City.
"The whole idea is to make guys as comfortable as they are so they perform better," Roenicke said. "And if giving him a little leeway on things makes him perform better, it's fine … You make some concessions for him."
And Greinke has responded. In his second season with Milwaukee, the Brewers ace is 9-2 with a 3.08 ERA, the second-lowest of his career. Only his Cy Young season resulted in less runs. He's also on pace to strike out more hitters in 2012 than any other season but that award-winning one. The statistics bear out a simple conclusion: Greinke is one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball.
But perhaps more impressive than his statistical artistry is the fact that he has yet to lose a game at Miller Park; he's currently a perfect 15-0, a streak neither he nor his manager can explain.
Maybe it's nothing but an anomaly. But it's apparent to those around him, those who have taken a closer look — Zack Greinke is at home in Milwaukee.
General manager Doug Melvin and Roenicke met last weekend to discuss the state of the team, the upcoming schedule, and, of course, whether the Brewers are in need of a move at the trade deadline.
The tone at this meeting was the same as the last: hopeful. But this time, Melvin and Roenicke had included another on part of their conversation. They wanted Greinke to be cognizant of the fact that "his name was out there". But he was already aware.
He had already been ignoring the rumors, blocking out the extraneous noise as he's learned to do over the years.
"Knowing him, I think it really won't matter," Roenicke said. "He's really focused on what he has to do and unlike a lot of players, he's really in-tuned with what a club is thinking, which is really different for a player. He understands these things … He's also interested in what goes on before the trade deadline and why players are traded. He understands both ends of it. He understands why clubs need to make moves to make sure they're okay the year after and the year after that. Because of that, I think he'll be fine. Whatever happens, he'll be fine."
Two days after that meeting, Greinke stood at the top step of the Brewers' home dugout, his earbuds in, looking out over the field at Miller Park. It's impossible to tell what he's thinking, but it's clear he's taking it all in. He's constantly trying to understand — the way batters approach him, the way other pitchers approach batters, the way this business works, the way Milwaukee's clubhouse works. He's always taking it all in.
He understands the uncertainty ahead. But his honesty shows through when he talks about the future.
"It's a business," Greinke said. "The Brewers need to do what's best for the Brewers. That's just how things go. Hopefully nothing happens and we just start playing better. That'd be the best case scenario for everyone."
Roenicke has openly said that he hopes the team will keep Greinke. It's the Brewers' intention, if possible, to sign him to a multi-year extension. Both sides have been honest about their hopes to stand pat. They know that they understand each other. And for one day, as Greinke prepares to again take on his meticulous daily routine, that simple fact is enough to help block out the extraneous noise around him.