Greenberg won't let dream slip away

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Now that more than 20 months have passed, Adam Greenberg can tolerate the teasing.

"So this is the head that made 'SportsCenter?'" a teammate jokes.

Greenberg smiles. The 26-year-old center fielder is now in the Kansas City Royals organization. He's been in camp just a few days but already word has spread. He knew it would.

His story is too incredible for it not to.

Greenberg got the call in a motel room in Knoxville, Tenn. He was sitting on one bed, his Double-A teammate and good friend, Matt Murton, sitting on the other. Both were being promoted to the big leagues.

The next day, Murton was the Cubs' starting left fielder against the Marlins in Florida. Greenberg would make his major league debut the following night, July 9, 2005, pinch hitting in the ninth inning.

"I couldn't stop smiling," Greenberg says. "I just was so happy to be there."

Greenberg stepped to the plate feeling surprisingly calm. Before he dug into the batter's box, he stopped to look around. He saw Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre shading toward left center. He glanced at the infielders, then at the pitcher, a tall, hard-throwing lefty Greenberg knew nothing about.

A few rows behind the plate, Greenberg's parents and three of his four siblings watched proudly.

"I see him getting up, and I take a picture," said Greenberg's mother, Wendy, who rarely goes anywhere without a camera. "I see the pitcher winding up and I got a picture then I said, 'I'm just going to watch,' and that was … I watched."

The first -- and only -- pitch of Adam Greenberg's major league career was a 92 mph fastball to the head.

"It was a loud, echoing thud," Murton says.

"It was horror," Wendy Greenberg says. "I was so close that I heard the sound … next thing I saw was him on the ground."

Valerio de los Santos, who threw the pitch, saw Greenberg on the ground, "then I saw that I didn't break the helmet, I was like, 'It's probably not that big of a deal.'"

He was right. The ball didn't scratch Greenberg's shiny, new Cubs helmet.

It had slammed directly into the back of his head.

"The first thing going through your mind is, 'This guy's dead,'" de los Santos says.

"I mean honestly, the thing that was running through my head was just stay alive," Greenberg says. "I couldn't control my eyes. They rolled in the back of my head. My head swelled up. I thought it was cracked open. I grabbed my head instantly because I really felt like I was holding it together."

Doctors told Greenberg, who was 24 at the time, he had post-concussion syndrome. Greenberg thought it was something more.

"Just bending over to tie my shoe left me with headaches for hours," he says. Three weeks later, determined to get back to the big leagues, Greenberg told the Cubs he was ready to return to Double-A West Tennessee to rehab. Doctors agreed. The plan was to rejoin the Cubs at Wrigley in a few days. It didn't happen.

"I was playing right field and I remember telling the center fielder, 'If a ground ball is hit to me, I'm in trouble,' because every time I look down my eyes were literally shifting side to side," he says. Greenberg says the episode took place in one of his first games back.

"Then in the eighth inning, I remember a ball came out there and it just started snaking on me, it started moving. It hit off the heel of my glove and I came into the trainer and I just told him … I just couldn't do it."

That was enough to scare Greenberg's father, Mark.

"At that point I stopped worrying about whether he was going to be able to play baseball," Mark Greenberg said. "I was really beginning to worry about the quality of his life."

For weeks, Adam Greenberg slept upright. It was frustrating, but the only way to tolerate the excruciating headaches. He visited doctors -- 10 in all. The first nine didn't have an answer. Finally, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed Greenberg with positional vertigo, a condition often caused by a head injury that triggers nausea, dizziness and severe headaches.

Greenberg's once-promising 2005 season was over.

"I can't imagine what he was going through dealing with the fact that he was there and he was about to get that opportunity and to have that happen and it was out of his control," says Murton, who has been in the big leagues ever since.

By 2006, Greenberg was symptom-free but struggling badly. In June, hitting below .200 and with his playing time dwindling in Double-A ball, he asked the Cubs to release him. They did. He played the rest of the season in the Dodgers system, where his struggles continued. Physically, his head was fine. Mentally, he still wasn't healed.

"Yeah I was affected, especially against some left-handed pitching," Greenberg says. "It was just a natural thing that I was going through."

Greenberg felt his dream slipping away. He knew he needed a change. So this offseason, the 5-foot-9 speedy center fielder got away from baseball. He went home to Connecticut. He saw a sports psychologist. He hired a strength and conditioning trainer. Greenberg says the intense workouts and the time with his family cleared his head. He says his mental state has never been better. He says he no longer has any fears.

The one thing Greenberg still felt he needed was a fresh start. He didn't want to go back to the Dodgers or Cubs and be the "guy who got hit in the head." Then the Royals called.

"With the number of at-bats that he had gotten last year you feel like whatever fear may have been there is behind him now," says Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo, who says he wouldn't have signed Greenberg to a minor league contract if he didn't think he could make it back to the big leagues. "I think it could happen. He understands his abilities well and when a guy plays to his abilities they usually find their way back."

Greenberg will likely begin this season with the Royals' Double-A affiliate in Wichita, Kan. The man who hit him, Valerio de los Santos, will probably start the season at home. He can't find a job. De los Santos, 34, hasn't pitched in the major leagues since a month after hitting Greenberg. De los Santos says the pitch haunted him. He says it disrupted his control on the mound and his sleep at night. He still works out every day in hopes that someone will call.

And he still roots for Greenberg.

"If I see him in the major leagues, I'm going to be happy just like if I see myself [there] again," de los Santos says. "I hope with all my heart that he's back to 100 percent."

Asked what happens if he doesn't make it back, Greenberg's answer is simple, and convincing.

"There is no 'don't.' No 'what if?' There is none of that," Greenberg says. "I'm going to get back, I'm going to get back with Kansas City and I'm going to help Kansas City win ballgames."

Says Wendy Greenberg: "This is his dream. He's living his dream, and his dream was not to be a major league baseball player for one day."

Bob Holtzman is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at robert.j.holtzman@espn.com.