Astros: Zack Greinke’s candid comments offer important lesson

Sep 22, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Zack Greinke (21) sits behind the dugout during the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 22, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Zack Greinke (21) sits behind the dugout during the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

We can all learn something from Houston Astros pitcher Zack Greinke’s recent comments.

Speaking to reporters prior to Game Three of the ALCS, Houston Astros pitcher Zack Greinke noted that he enjoyed not having fans in the stands during the 2020 season. When asked to elaborate, Greinke said, “Cause then there’s no one trying to talk to you and asking for autographs and wanting pictures and all that stuff. I don’t like any of that stuff. It’s nice not having them for me. Most people like it. I don’t like it.”

Without proper context, that quote can sound pretty harsh. Indeed, one only needs to peruse social media to see how the uninformed will assume Greinke is just an ungrateful jerk. When that quote is presented with no context to people who may or may not know the pitcher’s history, that type of reaction is to be expected. But that reaction is also terribly wrong.

Greinke is dry, direct and frank to a fault, which I personally find refreshing. But he also has a well documented history with social anxiety and depression, which came to a head early in his career after he reached the majors with a cascade of fanfare but struggled on the mound. It almost ended his career back in 2006.

“I was done playing,” he later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I’m surprised I came back, to tell you the truth.”

But with some help and medication, Greinke did come back, and he fulfilled every bit of the promise the Royals saw when they drafted him in the first round out of high school. He’s probably already punched a ticket to the Hall of Fame but looks perfectly able to continue pitching for as long as he wants to. But that doesn’t mean the anxiety just disappeared.

Breaking the Stigma

Mental health issues have been considered taboo for so long that even those of us who acknowledge their seriousness and legitimacy still have much we can learn. I’m fortunate enough to not have such issues, but I have loved ones who do, and I learn more all the time. The real experts are the people who’ve lived with them and, to the extent possible, conquered them.

Greinke is one of those people, and it’s allowed him to play an incredibly difficult and visible sport at the highest level. He’s the closest thing to a scientist you’ll see in baseball, and he truly loves playing the game — just not everything else that goes with it. “He wants to do his job and that’s it,” former teammate Craig Counsell said of him.

And despite what some fans will say, there’s nothing wrong with that. Professional athletes are not circus animals or trained ponies — they’re real people with real feelings and problems. Bloviating fans who claim to pay these athletes’ salaries are not entitled to anything. As long as the player fulfills his obligations to the team and does his job on the field, that should be enough.

The fact that Greinke chose a career that comes with a natural spotlight doesn’t mean he has to consent to or enjoy doing whatever fans demand. He’s paid to pitch and that’s what he wants to focus on. Some will say he makes a ton of money at it and thus should be willing to put up with some things he doesn’t like, and he does at times. He’ll give interviews and talk to the media. But if it were up to him, he’d give up the riches to avoid the parts he’d rather do without.

“Baseball, in my opinion, would be a lot better if you made it the same salary as everybody else in the world and you don’t deal with any of the other stuff,” he said back in 2011. But he pushes ahead anyway, and it’s not a stretch at all to say there’s a lot of bravery involved in that.

Plenty of people with social anxiety disorder wouldn’t be able to bear stepping on a big league mound in front of 40,000 fans and numerous TV cameras, but Greinke does it anyway. He’s also had to do a lot of it without having his family around this year, which can’t make things any easier for him. He admitted this “was easily the least fun season” of his career.

Show Some Respect

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As fans, we all need to respect the players we root for (and those we don’t root for). Some athletes relish the spotlight and the attention, and that’s fine. Some love signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. But some, like Greinke, simply don’t, and it’s not right or fair to act like he’s wrong for that.

I can’t imagine how annoying it would be to not be able to go to a grocery store or restaurant without all kinds of random people coming up to you and bugging you for things. It’s the price of fame, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s welcome. For some, like Greinke, it’s more than a simple annoyance.

The man just wants to do his job, and he’s one of the best in the world at it. He’s been a welcome addition to the Astros rotation and will be here in 2021 as well. Personally I’d be happy if he finished his career with the Astros, though there’s no telling how that’ll play out at this point.

But more than anything else, we all should do a better job of exhibiting respect and understanding. We may not fully comprehend how a person’s mind works or the issues they face, but the least we can do is treat them like a human being. Don’t give Greinke grief for being himself — it’s part of what makes him such a special player.