MIAMI — On July 9, 2005, a baseball left the fingertips of a Florida Marlins pitcher and flew toward home plate at 92 miles per hour, fast enough to destroy ambitions. Sixty feet later it found the back of the head of a young man who had spent most of his life working to stand in a major league batter's box, where, now, his Chicago Cubs helmet popped off like a blue rocket, where he spun in a wounded circle, where he fell to his back and clutched his head like he was holding his skull in place.
Adam Greenberg, first plate appearance, hit by pitch.
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In the little town of Guilford, Conn., the three Greenberg boys grew up on Yankees baseball. Their mother, Wendy, hauled them to Little League games in a blue mini-van.
After dinner, Adam would retreat to the basement to swing a bat. He'd do pushups at night with his little brother Sam sitting on his back.
"He has always worked and worked and worked," said his father, Mark.
He made the team at the University of North Carolina. In 2002, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the ninth round. He bounced around the minors, living off $2,200 a month.
The Cubs called him up on July 7, 2005, and his mother called everyone she knew. Two days later, the people of Guilford huddled around television sets as the Cubs faced the Marlins in Miami. In the ninth inning, Greenberg was tapped to pinch hit.
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He fell when he tried to tie his shoes. Migraines and vertigo plagued him.
He suited up again the next year, playing 32 games for the Cubs' minor-league team in West Tennessee where he hit a miserable .179. The following year, in Iowa, his batting average slipped to .118. He grew depressed, but he didn't quit.
He began vision training, playing video games with 3D glasses to strengthen his eyes.
His batting average inched back up, to .228 in Jacksonville then .266 in Wichita. He played parts of four seasons in the independent Atlantic League for the Bridgeport Bluefish.
But how long is too long to chase your childhood dream? Get on with your life, people said.
But his friend, documentary filmmaker and self-described sports activist Matt Liston, wouldn't let it go. He launched a social media campaign called One At Bat. He built a website, printed posters and T shirts, shot video, urging somebody to give Greenberg one more shot. He based it on this statistic: of the roughly 17,500 people to play Major League Baseball, Greenberg is one of just two players to have just one career plate appearance with a hit-by-pitch, and not record an inning on the field.
• • •
Greenberg walked into the Marlins' clubhouse, past lockers that said DUNN and HATCHER and DOBBS and BUCK. In his locker hung a jersey, a black number 10 on a white field. Above it: GREENBERG. He pulled on his game pants.
"They fit," he said, seeming surprised.
A teammate, Ricky Nolasco, gave him a hug.
"Glad you're here, man," he said.
"To be here is really special," Greenberg said.
An hour before, the Miami Marlins, 68-92 and always in the market for attention, signed Greenberg to a one-day contract. They promised him one at bat.
He jogged out for batting practice and connected with every pitch while Sia sang Titanium on the loudspeakers.
"That's all he's got to do," said his brother Sam.
"That's a triple," said his mother after a liner over first.
"Baseball wasn't meant to be one at-bat," said his father, Mark. "The best ballplayer today would look foolish in one at-bat."
The stadium began to fill with fans clutching posters that said ONE AT BAT.
"You do the best you can," someone said as he jogged away, "and let the chips fall where they may."
• • •
The Marlins took a lead in the fourth and by the end of the fifth had clocked two runs on the dominating New York Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, after growing chants of "ONE AT BAT" a voice came over the loud speaker.
"To pinch hit for the Miami Marlins, Adam Greenberg."
Greenberg, 31 now, took a few cuts and stepped to the plate. He'd been thinking through his strategy all day, between interviews and autographs: be aggressive early in the count.
"Life throws you curve balls," he had said earlier. "Mine threw me a fast ball at 92 miles per hour and it hit me in the back of the head. And I got up."
He watched the first pitch fly by. Strike one.
"I've never lost the dream and desire to play major league baseball," he had said earlier.
He took a massive swing at the second pitch. Strike two.
"The fun is playing ball," he had said.
Dickey threw his third pitch and the man who would not quit took another monster chop, his eyes focused on those five flying ounces that nearly knocked him out seven years ago, and the crowd, 29,000 strong, stood and cheered. Whatever happens next in the life of Adam Greenberg, he'll be able to say that in his second big-league plate appearance, he went down swinging and walked away smiling.