The score was 4 to 2 in the top of the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. Both teams were just going through the motions, destined to finish the 2005 season with middling win-loss records of 79-83 and 83-79, respectively. To the seasoned big-leaguers on both sides, this was merely one game out of 162. On top of that, they were playing in Miami in the middle of July, part of the dog days of summer when mlb players are particularly sluggish—bogged down by six or seven games each week, countless cross-country flights, sweltering heat in most ballparks across America, mounting injuries, and a building sense of boredom prior to the playoffs in October.
Suffice it to say that this particular iteration of America’s pastime would have no bearing on a Wild Card chase or a push for the pennant.
But to the Cubs’ Adam Greenberg, this game—this moment—meant everything. On July 9, 2005, at approximately 8:20 p.m. Eastern Time, he made his mlb debut. As the rookie leftie stepped into the batter’s box as a pinch hitter, he thought of the years of hard work that had led to this moment, waved his bat toward the pitcher, and locked in on helping his team extend its lead.
Marlins left-hander Valerio de los Santos wound up and casually tossed a fastball toward home plate, but the result was anything but casual. As soon as the 92 mph fastball left his hand, it tailed up and to the left. Greenberg ducked and turned his head away, but the ball struck him directly behind his right ear—underneath the back of his helmet.
“My helmet flew off,” Greenberg recalled, “and I felt my head explode.”
Greenberg crashed to the ground, clutching his head as if trying to hold together his skull. Marlins catcher Paul Lo Duca rushed to Greenberg’s aid. The eight-year veteran had knelt behind home plate for hundreds of ballgames, but he had never seen anything quite as sobering as this. In fact, no one at Dolphins Stadium that day had. Greenberg became just the second player in mlb history to get hit by a pitch in his only plate appearance and to not record an inning of defense in the field. The only other was the Philadelphia Phillies’ Fred Van Dusen—in 1955.
One pitch had ended Adam Greenberg’s mlb career. Or so the world thought.
For two years, Greenberg suffered constantly from post-concussion syndrome, dizziness, severe headaches, and nausea. He deals with vision trouble—an ailment particularly devastating to an athlete endeavoring to track and smack a plethora of curving and swerving pitches—to this day. Even worse than the symptoms were the discouraging thoughts invading his head, telling him that he would never again reach the pinnacle of professional baseball.
But none of the pain or the self-doubt could stop Greenberg from trying. For seven years, Greenberg toiled at the lower levels of baseball for meager salaries from the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, Jacksonville Suns, Iowa Cubs, Wichita Wranglers, Bridgeport Bluefish and Arkansas Travelers. He also played sparingly for the Israeli national team. During his time with the Bluefish, Greenberg singled off his unwitting antagonist, de los Santos, who was pitching for the Long Island Ducks. But for seven years, he failed to break through with another mlb team. One violent pitch had greatly impeded his ability to play the game he loved.
While Greenberg attracted little to no attention from mlb scouts, he did capture the imagination of a filmmaker and Chicago Cubs fan named Matt Liston. Liston sprung to action in 2012, generating an online cult following for Greenberg through his “One At Bat” campaign. But despite an inspirational video, a petition with more than 20,000 signatures, and an endorsement from baseball Hall of Famer George Brett, Liston and co-campaigner Gary Cohen failed to persuade the Cubs to sign Greenberg to an honorary one-day contract.
But the team whose pitcher had literally rocked Greenberg’s world seven years earlier—by then ever-so-slightly rebranded as the Miami Marlins—took notice. On the September 27, 2012 edition of nbc’s Today show, Marlins general manager David Samson offered Greenberg the long-sought-after contract. Holding back tears, Greenberg jumped at the twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Greenberg’s big day came just five days later, on October 2 against the New York Mets. He led off the bottom of the sixth inning as a pinch hitter against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who would go on to win the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the National League during the 2012 season. As he stepped into the batter’s box, looking to build on a 2-0 Marlins lead, 29,709 fans rose to their feet and shook Marlins Park in Miami with a thunderous ovation.
Greenberg watched the first knuckleball float past him for a strike. He swung and missed at the second and third pitches, recording a strikeout in his first Major League Baseball at-bat. Regardless, the crowd gave Greenberg another ovation, and his Marlins teammates smiled and hugged him when he returned to the dugout—an extreme rarity for a hitter who has just whiffed at the air.
“I think the story far transcends the result of the at-bat,” Dickey said.
“The energy that was in the stadium was something that I have never experienced in my life,” Greenberg said, “and I don’t know if I’ll ever experience that again.”
Greenberg’s statement proved prescient: He would never experience another day as a major leaguer. All he had was a fond memory of a 33-second at-bat that ended in a strikeout.
The story of Adam Greenberg applies to all of us, aspiring professional athletes or not. He could have taken the easy way out after that fateful day back in 2005. Most people in such a situation would have spiraled into depression, lamenting the loss of a professional baseball career potentially filled with game-winning hits and heroic leaping catches in centerfield. Without a doubt, Greenberg missed out on a decade or so of playing a game for a lucrative living of tens of millions of dollars.
But “sulking” isn’t in Adam Greenberg’s vocabulary. He needed time to rest and to rehabilitate his brain, but he didn’t need time to pout or to feel sorry for himself. Once he felt as well as could be expected after taking a round missile to the cranium, he got back to work. But in a sport overwhelmingly predicated on quick-twitch reflexes and split-second decision-making, Greenberg was operating with a semi-functional brain and loads of pain. Like a horse chasing a carrot dangling in front of his nose, Greenberg sprinted with all his might toward the major leagues, only to end up in independent ball or in Triple-A—just short of his lofty goal.
Probably without even realizing it, Greenberg emulated the proverbial description of the ant. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man” (Proverbs 6:6-11). An ant gathers morsels of food during the summer as a matter of survival. Likewise, Greenberg approached his baseball goal with an urgent mindset. Never did he consider the self-destructive way of the lazy man.
Was Adam Greenberg’s effort to return to the big leagues worth the time and the pain? To a player who intermittently for years could barely stand without falling over as the result of a catastrophic brain injury, one at-bat meant the world. However, he had failed to reach his goal of establishing himself as a long-term presence in the mlb. Contrary to his hopes, his one at-bat turned out to be nothing more than a heart-warming consolation prize.
Trying and failing to reach goals is a part of life. At least, it is if we are setting challenging goals. Greenberg’s goal couldn’t have been more challenging, but he worked toward it for seven years before receiving one life-changing at-bat—and then he worked some more. When his twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity fell through, he worked even more to achieve success in other fields. He is now a motivational speaker and the founder of a health company, happily married with an adorable one-year-old son.
Adam Greenberg may have failed to attain a sporting goal, but he is not a failure. He is a resounding success due to a heavy dose of perseverance. He never tired of striving for excellence, as the Apostle Paul admonished: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).
Adam Greenberg laid out the blueprint for handling any trial or setback: Work harder than ever to overcome while holding fast to the vision. Those words are much easier typed than typified, but the payoff is worth the pain—especially for true Christians. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Next time you are going through a crippling trial or facing an imposing roadblock to success, remember the unmatched perseverance of Adam Greenberg. His was a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity; your opportunity is unfathomably greater.