The first time I heard Zack Greinke use the word "phony," my mind immediately raced to Holden Caulfield, the young narrator of the J.D. Salinger's classic "Catcher in the Rye." While on a trip of self-exploration in New York, Caulfield hurled the insult at a wide variety of individuals he found annoying or superficial. Greinke used it to describe Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, whose intimidating demeanor on the mound Greinke (and several other Brewers) often found fake and obnoxious.
Greinke's word choice caused me to think about the many traits he shares with the fictional Caulfield. Both can be socially awkward, seem to battle stress and anxiety, and seemingly lack a filter between their thoughts and their speech. Indeed, Greinke is a sports writer's delight: known for his brutal honesty, one Zack Greinke interview can generate a plethora of headlines and page views. If you're looking for an example, here's one from Greinke's Royals days:
"For the first month of the season, (Billy Butler) has definitely been an above-average first baseman. That's hard for me to say because I never thought anyone would say that but him and his family."
The real difference between Greinke and Caulfield, though, lies in context. While Caulfield was just one story of teenage angst in a big city, Greinke is part of a profession in which players are expected to be polished professionals at an early age. "Catcher in the Rye" is so popular in part because its readers can relate in some way to Caulfield's feelings of alienation and disaffection. That isn't so with Greinke, a multimillionaire pitcher beloved by fans whose social anxiety disorder almost forced him out of the game before he returned to win a Cy Young.
And so it is that, in a contract year, Greinke lives by his own rules. He shook things up in the winter of 2010 when he left his agent and requested a trade from the Kansas City Royals. He got his trade as the Brewers sent a large package of prospects to Kansas City, but didn't bother to pick up a new agent. That made it awfully hard on Doug Melvin to negotiate an extension for a player instrumental to the team's 2011 division crown, someone whose signing Melvin has often called one of his top priorities.
The contract situation heated up this month. After initially saying he would hold off on hiring an agent, Greinke signed with Casey Close of Excel Sports Management. Many took this as a sign that talks with the Brewers had progressed, but although Melvin's overtures no doubt played a role in the timing, negotiations with the team were soon suspended. From the Journal Sentinel:
"I talked with Casey Close (Grieinke's agent) and we decided to let it rest for now," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said Tuesday. "That doesn't mean we won't talk again at some point but we're going to let it rest right now."
If this wasn't odd enough, Greinke briefly addressed the state of negotiations on Thursday. "I've been told that it's just between my agent and the team now," Greinke said. Also from the Journal Sentinel:
Greinke was asked if he was discouraged by the fact the two sides are no longer talking.
"It'd have been nice," he said. "I thought it might have been a long shot from the beginning, but it's up to them now. They're just doing it."
Now Greinke risks being assigned the very label he pinned on Chris Carpenter all those months ago. Greinke would have Brewer fans believe that he is no more in control of his own destiny than a leaf blowing in the wind - a borderline preposterous notion. The young pitcher is intelligent and business savvy, and very well understands that, as the athlete, he controls the object of the representation. If he wants to remain a Brewer, or even explore what kind of offer the team can make, it is entirely within his power to make those things happen.
Although I initially perceived Melvin's comments as an attempt to keep negotiations private, it now seems clear that the impetus behind the tabling of negotiations was Greinke's own desire to reach free agency. Matt Cain's recent 6-year, $127.5 million extension probably erased whatever doubts Greinke had left.
This isn't the first time Brewers fans have been faced with a premier player's departure. But Prince Fielder's desire for a monster deal was never a secret, and it was clear the Brewers were never really in the running. Prince never blamed that on his agent. For a guy with such a no-nonsense reputation, Greinke's recent assertion that negotiations are out of his hands certainly rings hollow. If he isn't going to be a Brewer next year, make no mistake - that decision is Greinke's alone.