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Crossed paths

Pitcher and batter have a poignant reunion

Adam Greenberg crumples after being hit in the head with a pitch in 2005. It remains the only pitch he has ever seen in the majors. Adam Greenberg crumples after being hit in the head with a pitch in 2005. It remains the only pitch he has ever seen in the majors. (Steve Mitchell/File/Associated Press)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / May 11, 2011

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Neither man will ever forget the last time they faced each other.

It was July 9, 2005. Adam Greenberg — in his first major league at-bat with the Chicago Cubs — was hit in the head by a 92-mile-per-hour thrown by Valerio de los Santos, a lefthanded reliever for the Florida Marlins. There was the sickening sound of ball on skull, the hush of the crowd, and the sight of Greenberg on the ground clutching his head with both hands, his eyes rolling back in his head.

“It felt like my head cracked open,’’ said Greenberg, who is now with the Independent League’s Bridgeport Bluefish. “It was pure ball to head. That was the biggest scare. Everything kind of went silent. I literally grabbed my head; I thought I was holding it together. I really thought my head split open.’’

De los Santos, now with the Long Island Ducks, says the errant pitch “messed him up . . . I thought, ‘This guy is probably dead.’ And I was scared.’’

The pitcher suffered mentally, too. He had trouble sleeping and could no longer pitch inside to lefthanded hitters. He was demoted to the mi nors, making only a brief appearance with the Rockies in 2008.

That one pitch derailed two major league careers, but it made Greenberg the answer to a trivia question: He is the only player in major league history to be hit by the first and only pitch he saw, never taking the field. His on-base percentage is a perfect 1.000.

“It’s a cool thing, and I can’t wait for the day when it becomes cooler to have it go down,’’ says Greenberg, 30. He still believes he will play in the major leagues again, but his problems — both physical and psychological — have left him mired in the lower levels.

Greenberg sustained a concussion, was plagued by headaches and dizziness, and suffered from positional vertigo for more than a year. He saw eight specialists before he was properly diagnosed.

“It’s crazy to even think about the what-ifs,’’ says Greenberg.

Greenberg, a Guilford, Conn., native who turned down Harvard and Yale to enroll at the University of North Carolina, was playing for Double A Tennessee when he got the call to The Show.

“It was literally the dream of a lifetime,’’ said Greenberg, a ninth-round draft pick in 2002.

As he strode to the plate that day, Cubs manager Dusty Baker said, “Go get ’em, kid.’’

Greenberg says he was nervous only when he told the umpire he was pinch hitting for the pitcher.

He had no scouting report on de los Santos, a 6-foot-2-inch, hard-throwing Dominican veteran who had already played for the Brewers, Phillies, Blue Jays, and Marlins in eight big league seasons.

“I remember seeing it leave his hand,’’ he said. “We are taught to stay in on lefties. You don’t want to bail out. So I saw it coming up, but my approach was to stay down and stay in there.

“I didn’t have a chance to get out of the way.’’

Now, nearly six years later, Greenberg and de los Santos were about to meet again.

No quit in them Greenberg’s road back to the big leagues has been filled with detours. Sent to the minors after rehab, he couldn’t focus on balls coming toward him. A Double A manager even questioned his symptoms.

Greenberg left the Cubs organization and eventually used 3D technology to retrain his eyes to work together. He had to overcome bad habits developed while facing lefthanders again, like bailing on inside pitches. He consulted a sports psychologist.

He hit rock bottom when he declared bankruptcy after being scammed in an Arizona real estate investment in December 2008. But he loved baseball too much to quit.

Baker, his former manager, got him an invitation to Cincinnati Reds training camp in 2009, and when he got cut in the last round, he cried. This spring, he impressed the New York Mets with his speed and his attitude, but they had no room for him.

He has spent nine years in the minors and has a career batting average of .264.

Asked about his chances of getting back to the majors, Greenberg smiles broadly.

“In my heart, it’s 100 percent,’’ he insists. “But I can only control what I do and what I put out there every day. Outside of that, it’s not up to me.’’

In 2009, Greenberg became cofounder with Bluefish teammate Danny Putnam of LuRong Living. They sell a whole food supplement that includes velvet deer antler to build strength and endurance and relieve joint and muscle discomfort. Greenberg used it when he played through a torn rotator cuff in the 2009 season and also to recover quickly after surgery last year. “It’s from Chinese medicine that is 2000 years old,’’ he says. “It really saved me.’’

He said he is physically healthy for the first time in years.

Willie Upshaw, the Bridgeport manager and former Toronto Blue Jay, is a Greenberg fan.

“He’s got all the major league skills,’’ says Upshaw. “Somebody’s got to be willing to take a chance.’’

De los Santos also hopes to return to the major leagues. He pitched the last two seasons in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan.

De los Santos blames the wayward pitch on gusty Florida winds and the umpires.

“The wind was blowing really hard and I wasn’t able to keep my balance,’’ he remembers. “The umpire forced me to throw the pitch when the wind was blowing. The pitch started at the middle of the plate and ran up and in.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. First at-bat, I probably ruined his career.’

“It bothered me big-time. Maybe it cost me my spot in the big leagues at that time. I was pitching the seventh and eighth innings for the Marlins and I wasn’t able to get the lefthanders out. The first thing that went though my mind with every lefthander was that pitch, and I could not get it out of my head.’’

Greenberg is totally sympathetic.

“He essentially went through the same thing as I did,’’ says Greenberg.

De los Santos made it back up in 2008 when the Rockies signed him. They repeatedly had him pitch to lefties until he felt comfortable. But he was released that summer after pitching just eight innings. He was also cut by the Mets in spring training in 2009.

This year, at age 38, he’s giving it one more shot.

“Any major league club that wants me, I’m there,’’ he says.

Moment of truth The Ducks and Bluefish met on Opening Day in late April. Two hours before game time, Greenberg spies de los Santos long-tossing in center field. He greets him with high-fives, hugs, and much laughter. Greenberg says they have already discussed a do-over.

“He and I talked about it and I said, ‘I want to face you for real.’ ’’

He says they are friends.

“I wasn’t happy to hear that he struggled afterward,’’ says Greenberg. “I’m pulling for him and rooting for him the same way he is for me.’’

During the game, Greenberg glances over from center field at de los Santos warming up in the bullpen. Just then, the wind rises off the Sound, triggering a chill and some bad memories.

“I remembered the only thing that he commented about was that the wind had kind of threw him off,’’ Greenberg says. “So for just two seconds, the thought just went through my head. It was crazy, but once I got out there [in the batter’s box], it all went away.’’

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with a man on first and the score tied 1-1, Greenberg digs in against de los Santos again.

“He later told me that in his mind, he was pitching in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series,’’ Greenberg says.

Greenberg is hitting as if his life depended on it.

The first pitch is a cut fastball that comes out of de los Santos’s hand looking as if it’s headed right toward his head. Greenberg never flinches. The pitch breaks right over the plate.

Strike one.

“I was actually really happy to see that,’’ Greenberg says. “He came right in on me and it just really locked me in. It was really game on.’’

Greenberg tells himself to be aggressive.

“I was focused,’’ he says. “I was excited because it was him, but I wanted that extra bit of focus that helps you succeed.’’

He takes a pitch outside and then fouls off another. The count is 1 and 2.

Up in Suite 5, his wife, Lindsay Greenberg, who met Adam in fifth grade, is nervous.

“I was thinking, ‘Holy cow, Adam is facing Valerio,’ ’’ she says. “ ‘Don’t strike out. Don’t strike out, don’t strike out against this guy that ruined your career almost.’ ’’

The next pitch is a cut fastball, same as the first.

This time, Greenberg is ready. He pulls it past diving first baseman Freddie Thon and into right field.

“When he got that hit, it was like a sigh of relief,’’ says Lindsay. “Such a weight off my shoulders.’’

De los Santos steps off the mound, smiles broadly, and tips his hat toward first. Greenberg returns the smile and points at his friend.

De los Santos then calmly gets out of the inning, stranding the runners at the corners. The Ducks win in the 11th inning, 2-1.

De los Santos is happy in the clubhouse. Two innings, no runs, and no beanings.

“I respect him and he respects me,’’ he says. “He’s a good hitter, a good player. I did my part, I threw strikes and we are both back in business. I’m rooting for him. I hope he makes it back.’’

Greenberg calls it his greatest hit, nearly six years in the making.

“I’ve been waiting for it a long time,’’ he says, seated at his locker, beaming. “I was not going to let him beat me. When I got to first base, every emotion I had inside was just running through me.

“The what-if thing doesn’t matter. This is what happened. This is where we are at, so [the monkey] is off of my back, I guess. I feel like it is my time.

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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