Kansas City Royals

Next act: Zack Greinke, samurai warrior

SURPRISE, Ariz. —The climax, to give away the ending, is that Zack Greinke's new prized possession is a samurai sword. Now come along for the ride.

It is shortly before noon Saturday along the chilled covered second deck down the left-field line at Surprise Stadium. A blustery drizzle has already shortened the Royals' planned workout.

This is the setting for what club officials are billing as Greinke's only non-pitching day news conference for the entire season. Emails alerted national media outlets that this was their one best chance to interview the American League's reigning Cy Young winner.

It's well established that Greinke dislikes these sessions. Recall that last year he rejected a request by Sports Illustrated to pose for a cover shot. The magazine had to make do with an action shot.

"I'm not nervous," he will say during the news conference. "I just hate (it).... It's really annoying when you go through a 30-minute interview, or even a 10-minute (interview), and only one quote out of it (is used).

"Then it's like I just wasted all of that time."

The intent of Saturday's session is clear: Greinke wants to limit those annoyances as he seeks to build on last year's success. He arrives in shorts and sandals, and he should know better.

This is his eighth spring in Surprise, where the February weather can be fickle. Even with a hooded sweatshirt donned at the last moment, Greinke's teeth are soon chattering as he sits behind a small table, his back to the field and facing a semi-circle of reporters.

First question: How has his life changed since winning the Cy Young?

"There have been a bunch of people congratulating me," he said, "and then I have to respond, instead of no one saying anything. That's the biggest difference. It hasn't been too big of a difference.

"I'm sure the season is going to be completely different from what it's been so far because fans haven't even gotten around me yet. Players are the same, and the family is the same."

The added attention, he admits almost shyly, isn't always a negative.

"Last year at the All-Star Game," Greinke recalled, "there was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. It was when they were giving awards (to fans) for doing things in the community.

"There was a disabled guy. And we were all All-Stars around (him), and he was excited, but when he saw Derek Jeter, you could just see that he lost it. That's how excited he was. It really was the happiest you'll see any person. It was crazy....

"Occasionally, stuff like that happens. Not to that extreme. But it's really neat. It's awesome. That's cool. That's as good as it gets."

That Greinke finds enjoyment in such moments speaks to the immense change in his life since undergoing treatment for clinical depression and social anxiety. It was just four years ago this week that he left spring camp battling those personal demons and convinced his career was over.

"I did give up the game," he recalled. "I was done. The medicine is unbelievable...."

It is rare that Greinke talks about those days, and he speaks quietly. His unamplified voice barely carries above the wind because there is no microphone at the makeshift location.

"I'm still the same person," he said, "but my attitude on everything is different. The biggest thing is I used to get so nervous and upset at stuff. Seriously, I'd probably work out 90 percent of the day. That's all I'd do because I'd always be angry."

Greinke comes to camp this spring not only as a Cy Young winner but also a newlywed. He married long-time girlfriend Emily Kuchar in November just a few days after learning of the award balloting.

It was a coincidence; the ceremony was planned long in advance.

"It's been a lot more fun than I ever imagined," Greinke said. "It's only been three months. Not even. But it's been great so far."

How has that changed his life?

"The packing for spring training was a lot more difficult," he offered. "Besides that, it's all the same as before. We've been dating forever. We'd never lived together. So that's probably the biggest difference — the packing and unpacking... and making sure stuff is a little cleaner."

Greinke amends that after a pause.

The biggest difference is Emily "always being there. You just look in her eyes, and it makes you feel good."

Teasing by teammates is heavier this spring. Closer Joakim Soria is forever calling him "lucky," but that's no problem. Greinke can, when motivated, banter with the best. His aversion to interviews — or his former struggles with social situations — never came accompanied by a lack of ego or self-confidence.

Greinke's first words to pitching coach Bob McClure, when McClure was hired after the 2005 season, spelled out three things he never did: Listen to pitching coaches, throw a two-seam fastball or throw a changeup.

That was a 22-year-old speaking.

It is telling, perhaps, that Greinke, at 26, now throws one of the game's top two-seam fastballs, continues to work on mastering a change and credits McClure as one of the three biggest influences in his success.

The other two: former teammate David Riske and current teammate Brian Bannister.

" (McClure) encourages the pitchers to work with other pitchers more than he works with you himself," Greinke said. "He feels you learn more from guys on your team than you learn from him.

"Riske's thing was just throwing strikes and letting them put it in play. That was his thing, which goes into Bannister's philosophy. It's just that Bannister has numbers to prove Riske's attack attitude."

Greinke boils it down to this: "Strike out as many as possible. Walk as few as possible. And give up as few home runs as possible. You can't really control anything else."

That approach last year produced perhaps the best season by a Royals pitcher in the franchise's 41-year history: Greinke led the majors with a 2.16 ERA and topped all AL pitchers in limiting opponents to a .276 on-base percentage.

He also permitted the fewest baserunners per nine innings and the fewest home runs per nine innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was second only to Roy Halladay. Greinke finished 16-8 for a 97-loss team that scored just 34 runs in his 17 non-winning starts.

McClure says Greinke can get better.

"You can always get better," McClure said. "Knowing the hitters better and knowing what you want to do. I think (those skills) only come with innings. Now, will he repeat that kind of ERA number? I don't know."

Greinke's ERA was the lowest by a qualifying starter — a minimum of 162 innings — in the American League since 2000 when Boston's Pedro Martinez finished at 1.74.

More perspective: Greinke's ERA could jump a full run this season, to 3.16, and still rank as the 14th-best AL mark over the last five years.

"That's a fair and good way to look at it," manager Trey Hillman said. "And it should put things into perspective if there are any bumps in the road early on. He has the ability to rip off five or six straight games without a lot of damage or no damage."

Greinke's goals this season are fewer walks, more strikeouts and better control.

"I think I can do the walks part," he said. "The strikeouts might be hard. I know I can pitch better. We'll see. It's possible, obviously."

OK, about the samurai sword.

Greinke kept possession of his Cy Young trophy for only a few hours before giving it to his parents because (1) he has always given his awards to his parents and (2) he didn't have room for it in his bag on the flight from New York back to Florida.

"So I said, 'Hey, here you go,' " he said "They get everything. I mean, it's cool, but that's what I do with everything."

Almost everything.

"I've only kept one award in my whole life," Greinke revealed, "and it's the coolest thing ever. Mizuno gave me a samurai sword for winning the Cy Young. It's awesome. It's as cool as can be."

He presumes the Cy Young Award occupies space above his parents' fireplace, although he's not sure.

"That's usually where their main thing goes," he said. "I would think that's the main thing now. But you know, I was over at their house two times, but I didn't see it. So I don't know."

No uncertainly surrounds the samurai sword. It's "going to Kansas City." The only reason it isn't in Arizona, as Greinke explains, is "because we couldn't take it on the plane."

Suddenly, the chill is forgotten. His teeth no longer chatter. Greinke is fully animated as he continues.

"That thing is cool," he said. "It's got a hanger thing and everything. I'm going to hang it up and, maybe, start a collection. Not a gun collection, but a samurai sword collection. If you can do it. I don't know if you're allowed."

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