Monday, December 20, 2010

A farewell to the Greinke Era

He's gone. Possibly the most sensationally talented Royal in my time as a fan, and certainly my favorite, has been traded for prospects. Just like Johnny Damon. Just like Carlos Beltran. Even like David DeJesus. (Can't add Jermaine Dye to this list; he was traded only for Neifi Perez).

And now that Zack Greinke's fascinating time in Kansas City is over, I'm not going to obsess over how it ended right now. I've got far more disappointment, heck maybe even sadness, than anger right now. We'll see how the trade works out, and I can see the thought behind it, but I've seen this movie end badly before. In any event, the only legitimate reason to watch the Royals over the last two years is gone.

Sure, plenty of Royals fans or media types are in a way glad he's gone. Billy Butler had some strong, but not too strong, statements about how you have to want to be here. Without really bashing Greinke, Billy made it clear the team is better off without people who don't want to be there. Fair point, but even Billy, as much as I enjoy watching him go bam-bam and lumber around the bases, can't comprehend what Greinke has labored through. Billy has been on bad teams, yes, but he has never played on a Royals team that lost 100 games. Greinke has done this three times.

But no, no anger here. And since it's done and my team was going to be awful in 2011 either way and maybe the trade will pan out, it's time to get over the sadness. Instead, I think back to the indelible memories Greinke gave Royals fans in his eventful time in Kansas City, some bad and bizarre ones followed by greatness emblazoned on the mind.

I remember his debut in 2004 in Oakland as a 20-year-old. I listened to it on the radio at home. He left with a lead; the bullpen blew it. Quite a foreshadowing of things to come. He posted a sub-4 ERA that year as the team, picked by some to win the Central, lost 104 games.

I remember the wild, terrible 2005 season, when Greinke pitched pretty awfully, and was so disinterested he decided to throw a pitch exactly 50 mph for fun, and then he did just that. I remember he hit a home run at Arizona that year. I was at a lake house at the Lake of the Ozarks when that happened. The team lost 106 games that year.

I remember when he left spring training in 2006 to deal with his social anxiety disorder. As someone who can be quite awful in social situations, I liked the way he dealt with his issues, talked about it, left but came back. I loved how the Royals organization didn't give up on him.

I remember he slowly worked his way back. By 2008 he became a very good starting pitcher again, posting a 3.47 ERA. (Don't let anyone tell you Zack had only one good year.) The team was better, but absurd futility was always prowling at the door. After being no-hit in Boston launched the Royals on a long losing streak, Greinke took the hill as the streak-buster. This team should be past these embarrassing double-digit losing streaks by now, everyone said.

I remember Greinke threw eight innings, striking out eight while only allowing three runs to the Twins. KC took an 8-3 lead to the ninth, so manager Trey Hilllman took Greinke out. After Ramon Ramirez struck out the leadoff hitter, he gave up a single. Then Ram Ram picked up another strikeout. The Royals were up five, two out, only one on. The losing streak was all but dead. But of course, the KC bullpen couldn't hold: single, single, single, homer. Tie game. KC lost in 10. I listened on the radio in my car driving home, pulling in the drive just in time for that devastating Twin homer. It was Kansas City's 10th straight loss en route to 12 in a row.

Then, gloriously, 2009.

I remember Zack starting on fire, throwing nearly 30 scoreless innings to start the season. I remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with an article by Joe Posnanski and a title reading: "The Best Pitcher in Baseball."

I remember an April game against the Tigers, when I was there with a bunch of my friends. One had never been to a Royals game, the rest hadn't seen the renovated version of Kauffman Stadium yet. Like a proud parent, I beamed as my friends and I watched Greinke dominate and the Royals look good. They had that great start in 2009. Mirages are still beautiful, right?

I remember Greinke threw a complete game, striking out 10, allowing only three hits and one unearned run to move to 4-0 with that 0.00 ERA.

I remember after that unearned run in the fifth, Greinke was as perfect as any pitcher I ever saw. He retired the last 13 batters after than run scored, striking out six of the last nine batters. As he struck out the side in the eighth, the crowd got louder and louder, roaring tumultuously as the Detroit batters waved at Greinke's dancing pitches. It was absolute poetry, one of my best Kauffman Stadium experiences ever.

I remember often pestering my friends to come to Royals games, to come see Greinke pitch. I tried in vain to get Barron and Bethany to see him, and I tried with success to get Foster and Mabes and Hayes and Yount and Brittney and Yount's mom to come see Greinke take the hill.

I remember his one-hit shutout at Seattle, losing my composure a bit when the bullpen blew his leads, his 15 strikeouts against the Indians, and his duels with Joe Mauer in a late September game in the Metrodome, regardless of whether or not first base was open.

I remember when he won the Cy Young Award after that 2009 season (during which he posted a 2.16 ERA). I heard it on the radio in the Subway parking lot in Monroe City on my lunch break. I sent a wave of excited texts and received congratulatory texts. Greinke had made the Royals legitimate, at least every fifth day.

I remember the disappointments of 2010, but also the great games mixed in, the pride out shutting down the Cardinals in a rare game with people paying attention.

But then came his comments in August, about being tired of wave after wave of failed rebuilding efforts. This offseason, with starting pitching a premium commodity and Greinke dissatisfied in KC, it became more and more clear he would be traded. Even if the trade didn't net the superprospect fans wanted, GM Dayton Moore seems happy with the trade. There are plenty of people who have analyzed the trade who know more than I do, so check them out if you would like.

But for this blog, for now, we'll focus on the memories. The good ones are special; the bad ones are part of the Royals epic tales of failure over the last 15 or 20 or 25 years. Plus he gave fans a mountain of funny and quirky quotes to enjoy. I won't begrudge Greinke for wanting out. This is a team that even made the ridiculously upbeat Tony Pena resign in the middle of a series in Toronto, saying, "I just can't take it any more." Yes, I wish it could've worked to keep the talented, homegrown, and (for my money) likeable Greinke. But it didn't.

There are plenty of reasons to be upset or disappointed or vaguely optimistic, but first, let me tip my cap to the thrill-inducing, memory-producing Greinke Era.

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