Stick with Zack

There is no more charming cliche in baseball -- all of sport, for that matter -- than the mossy tale of the engaging rube who comes out of nowhere to amaze us with his raw and unspoiled skills like some sort of young, undamaged, and real-life Roy Hobbs.

It’s a phenomenon that captivates us every now and again. There’s a certain joy of discovery when you suddenly realize a star may have just been born, completely unheralded. Unfortunately, too often it’s a shooting star destined to blaze but briefly, like a Mark Fidrych, or to be thwarted by the harshness of the baseball fates, like a Pete Reiser.

It’s with all of that in mind that you view the astounding rise and delightful good fortune of Zack Greinke, fresh and improbable ace of the hopefully resurrected Kansas City Royals, although Greinke is hardly new to the scene nor is his story remotely typical. The Royals --unwisely in retrospect -- introduced him five seasons ago when he was but barely out of his teens. Experts were quick and pleased to label him a ‘‘can’t miss prospect’’. Such talk sometimes can be the kiss of death.

So it almost was with Zack Greinke. After a decent 8-11 rookie performance for a wretched team, the kid collapsed in his second season finishing 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA and -- much more importantly -- a total loss of confidence in himself, both as a player and a person.

His problems were real and profound. Described now rather loosely as “a social disorder”, they were more chilling than you may want or need to read about in the sports pages. He was suffering from a stage fright clearly terminal for one obliged to perform in front of 50,000 howling yahoos. His painful shyness and aversion to the limelight were crippling for one trapped in the grossly exaggerated bubble of 21st century sports celebrity. Given such wrenching alternatives, Greinke actually retired at the ripe old age of 22!

How the Royals brought him back is an inspiring story. The miracle of modern medications and advanced therapies surely had a lot to do with it. No amount of tender loving care would have done the job alone. Emotional disorders have always been savagely misunderstood in sports in general and baseball in particular with the memorable suffering of the Red Sox’s Jimmy Piersall being but one of the more celebrated examples. But the medics know a lot more than they did in 1952 and the sophistication of the front office personnel of baseball teams has grown apace.

The Royals appear to have handled the delicate situation perfectly. They were patient. They were understanding. They were kind. None of which is surprising coming from an organization, formed and shaped by the legendarily benevolent Kauffman Family, and representing the remarkably progressive and tolerant town of Kansas City.

Greinke is a lucky lad. Had he played in Boston in front of the addled acolytes of Red Sox Nation or in New York for the edification of their jaded, ‘‘what have you done for me lately’’, legions he might have been devoured. Other towns would have served him little better. But KC is special. There he had a chance and he seems to have taken marvelous advantage of that blessing.

Coaxed from his alleged “retirement” two years ago he began to rebound. The process was slow. But by late last season he was fast finding his stride, finishing with 13 wins, a 3.47 ERA, and 183 strikeouts in 202 innings pitched for the slowly improving if still mediocre Royals. There followed a winter and spring of rising whispers among baseball insiders tagging the Kid, at age 25, as the hot choice to set the league on its ear this year.

And thus far he’s responded brilliantly winning in his first seven starts while posting an inhuman ERA of 0.40. Baseball men are harkening back to Sandy Koufax in search of comparisons when talking of his still raw promise and unhittable stuff. Making the story even warmer is the fact that Greinke is by all accounts one of those “too good to be true” lads; the polite, God-fearing, and dutiful son of Orlando, Florida school teachers. American royalty and salt of the earth.

Suddenly the woebegone Royals, league patsies since the fabulous Georgie Brett and his pals passed from the scene, are genuine contenders bringing joy to the heartland. It allows us to wonder if maybe the age of miracles may not have passed after all. On the other hand, we need to keep in mind that it is only the middle of May.

Still, the rise of Zack Greinke contrasts dramatically with the fall of Manny Ramirez, which is the other blockbuster of the early season. Greinke is all about what baseball has always pretended to be. Ramirez is all about what baseball has sadly become.

Even for those of us who long ago tired of Manny’s act and who bristled at the foolishness of his enablers brushing off his crude and zany antics as a matter of “Manny being Manny”, his lapse from grace is stunning.

It is possible that his transgression -- resulting in an historic 50 game suspension and amounting to a nearly eight million dollar fine -- was an innocent mistake. Although if common sense obtains, which has not always been the case where the subject of this fellow is concerned, that seems unlikely. Moreover, it is possible that his failed test -- resulting from the use of a female fertility drug -- is neither laughably absurd nor connected with the use of steroids. Although if the experts are to be believed that seems increasingly doubtful.

But what’s beyond dispute are at least four things, it seems to me.

First, that Manny’s stunning resume is now permanently blighted and he’s no longer a Hall of Fame lock, anymore than are the likes of Bonds, McGwire, A-Rod, etc., ad nauseam. If it’s demanded that the accomplishments of others tarred by scandal be cast in new and darker light then this bloke can be no exception.

Second, that he may in one full swoop have supplanted the much maligned Alex Rodriguez as the presiding face of the performance enhancement disgrace. For all of his folly, A-Rod hasn’t (yet) merited suspension and that’s the harshest of punishments save for the outright moral banishment Mark McGwire has suffered and the even graver exile Roger Clemens continues to fashion for himself.

Third that he may eventually get great credit for turning the tide on this entire wretched era. Manny is huge and bringing him down is monumental and it was not some relentless investigative reporter or embittered Justice Department gumshoe but Major League Baseball itself that nailed him. Even more to the point, they got him on a very complex issue. It proves MLB’s drug detectives are very serious and very sophisticated as well as completely empowered by MLB to follow the trail wherever it leads. This point will not go unnoticed. It may even be enough to scare the players witless and bully every last one of them into line. What a friend they have in Manny.

And fourth, no matter how much you may loathe the notion, my dear Nation, Manny’s fall is yours as well. He was the mainstay of your team’s championship run and a resident demigod until as recently as last July. Now he’s been tainted and that taints what was accomplished when he was here. It’s the standard other teams have been hammered with and your team will be no exception.

We should congratulate Manny. Seems to me he has accomplished a lot, all by his loveable, fun-loving, idiosyncratic, self. Surely new meaning has been given to the mantra “Manny being Manny”.

Greinke and Ramirez. The two big stories of the young season. I’ll stick with Zack.