The first time Adam Greenberg got to the plate in a Major League baseball game he didn’t get a chance to hit the ball before the ball hit him.
Seven years later, he got another chance as a member of the team he opposed when he was knocked to the dirt by a wild pitch to the head.
Greenberg was a Miami Marlin for one day. His big-league debut redux lasted just 33 seconds and ended after three consecutive strikes, one looking, the next two swinging at R.A. Dickey’s deceptive 75-80 mph knuckleball that floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.
The record book will show Greenberg was a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday in the Marlins’ 4-3 victory over the Mets. That was it. He did not take the field.
Yet he got the one at-bat he was denied on July 9, 2005, when Marlins reliever Valerio de los Santos beaned the 24-year-old Chicago Cub in the back of the helmet with a 92-mph fastball that devastated the careers of both batter and pitcher.
His appearance in the Marlins’ penultimate game was the proverbial “cup of coffee” for a player who has toiled in the minor leagues since 2002.
But for Greenberg it was the realization of a dream deferred. It was his sip of champagne. He couldn’t stop smiling, and the dimples on his All-American face deepened even after he struck out — and returned to the dugout to a standing ovation from spectators and high fives from his temporary teammates.
He was the first to hustle to second base and congratulate Donovan Solano on his game-winning hit in the bottom of the 11th.
“No one was going to beat me out there,” Greenberg said.
He was the last to pause, look around the huge domed stadium and tip his cap to fans cheering for him, Adam Greenberg, a footnote, perhaps, in the stacks of baseball statistics, but no longer the answer to a trivia question.
His heartbreaking, heartwarming story reached nadir and apex in South Florida.
Greenberg, 31, is determined not to see it end. He is no Eddie Gaedel, the dwarf inserted in a 1951 game by ringmaster Bill Veeck. Greenberg considered his one-day contract an audition for spring training 2013. He would like to receive an invitation from the Marlins.
“I want to show what I can do — and you can’t do that in one at-bat in baseball, especially against a pitcher like Dickey,” he said. “I’m not out there as a sideshow. Hopefully, this is the start of Part II of my career.”
Greenberg got his second chance. He has fully recovered from the agonizing headaches and vertigo that afflicted him for two years after he was struck.
He got to wear No. 10, his old number with the Cubs, on the back of his white Marlins jersey, accompanied by orange spikes.
He got to take batting practice as curious players and coaches from both teams stood transfixed around the cage and appraised his form. On his last cut, he hit a rising line drive that nipped the right-field wall and dropped over into the stands for a home run.
He got to be feted as a rookie by his teammates, who made him sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while attired in a skimpy U.S. water polo team swimsuit.
He got to bat against a Cy Young Award contender.
He got to play in front of his parents, his four siblings, his wife, his college coach — about 100 relatives and friends.
He got to watch the Marlins Park center field sculpture leap to life when Gorkys Fernandez and Rob Brantly hit home runs. (He also got to watch Heath Bell blow his eighth save of the season by squandering a 3-0 lead in the eighth.)
In fact, he was the star of “The Show” he had always aspired to. He’s spent the past three days doing TV interviews. He will be pictured on his own Topps rookie card.
He was swarmed by photographers and followed by cameramen collecting footage for a documentary being made by Matt Liston, the filmmaker and Cubs fan who started the whole “One-At-Bat” campaign seven months ago and launched a website to petition Commissioner Bud Selig on Greenberg’s behalf. Greenberg credited social media and the “power of the people” for his opportunity.
“It’s an underdog story and everyone can grab on and relate to it,” said Greenberg’s father, Mark. “Adam has worked so hard for so many years. He never gave up.”
He’s the talk of his hometown, Guilford, Conn.
He’s become a folk hero flooded by emails and letters from people inspired by his perseverance.
“Kids are doing school reports, sending pictures,” Greenberg said. “It’s not about playing baseball. It’s ‘I can be a doctor!’ Life throws you curveballs. I was thrown a 92-mph fastball. Believe in yourself. Get up and go on.”
If Greenberg doesn’t revive his baseball career, he could be a motivational speaker.
Hard-eyed observers called Greenberg’s appearance a smiley-face publicity stunt by a franchise playing the meaningless 161st game of a dreadfully disappointing season. If Greenberg was a legit talent, surely he would have been called up again years ago. Plenty of people referred to him as “kid” but the kid is 31.
“I’m very proud of the kid, he’s a hard worker and he made me realize how lucky I was to play so many years,” Ozzie Guillen said. “But for the other people out there, don’t get no ideas. That’s enough. Who doesn’t want to bat in the big leagues? This is a big-league game, not a pickup game.”
Greenberg played the past four years for the Bridgeport Bluefish but took most of the past season off to start a business called Lurong Living, which sells a nutritional supplement made from velvet deer antler. He said the extract helped him overcome the dizziness and double vision he suffered after his beaning.
On Tuesday he got to meet Fred Van Dusen, who was flown in by the Marlins to throw out the first pitch and reclaim his record as the only player to be hit by a pitch in his only major-league at-bat and not take the field — “a record you don’t really strive for,” Van Dusen said.
Van Dusen, 75, knows how damaging it is to be a prospect who doesn’t reach his potential. He was 18 when he was called up by the Phillies in 1955 and was hit in the leg. He played for Miami in the minors with Satchel Paige, traveled to Havana to play against the Sugar Kings. But he never got back to the big leagues.
“I was too immature to appreciate what I had until it was gone and I paid a heavy price,” said Van Dusen, who said he battled depression and alcohol and drug abuse and could not attend a game for years after his baseball career ended. “The Derek Jeters, they have the same disposition whether they go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4. When I went into a slump, I almost ended up in a straitjacket.”
He recalled going to visit a former manager he played for when he was an MVP and home run leader in the minors.
“He did not remember me,” Van Dusen said. “He was interested in the Hall of Famers, not the rinky-dink players. It taught me that that’s the way life is.”
Van Dusen went on to own a successful insurance business for 43 years in New York.
“But it’s not the same as playing baseball,” he said, sounding bittersweet. “I hope Adam savors this moment in time.”