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Imagine being 24 years and having your dream of reaching the major leagues come true. And then imagine having that dream shattered by one pitch – the first pitch – while making your MLB debut. Adam Greenberg doesn’t have to imagine it. The once-promising Chicago Cubs prospect lived it.

Greenberg never got another chance in the majors until a spine-chilling moment of closure seven years later.

Adam Greenberg’s path to the Chicago Cubs was typical

Probably the only unusual aspect of Adam Greenberg’s climb to Major League Baseball is that it did not begin with being drafted out of high school in Connecticut. That’s not completely unexpected for prospects in the Northeast, where the weather limits the scholastic season.  

Still, Greenberg earned a crack at college baseball at the Division I level at the University of North Carolina. He hit .337 with 17 home runs and 35 stolen bases as a junior in 2002. That impressed the Chicago Cubs, who picked him in the ninth round of the spring’s MLB draft.

He split that summer between a pair of Class A affiliates, hitting .286 in 189 at-bats and stealing 17 bases. It was enough to establish Greenberg as a solid prospect in the outfield.

He spent most of the 2003 and ’04 seasons in long-season Class A ball, continuing to hit for average and showing speed with 19 triples and 45 stolen bases. Prospects to reach the majors as an every-day outfielder seemed limited because of a lack of power, but Greenberg continued to progress.

After playing the 2005 regular season for Tennessee in the Double-A Southern League, where he hit .269, Greenberg earned a midseason call-up from the parent club.

One fateful pitch ended the dream

Valerio de los Santos pitched in 235 major-league games from 1998 to 2008, almost exclusively in middle relief and primarily for the Milwaukee Brewers. On July 9, 2005, he was on the mound at home for the Florida Marlins when Adam Greenberg came to the plate as a ninth-inning pinch-hitter two days after being called up from the minors.

The first pitch got away from de los Santos and hit Greenberg in the back of the head. He collapsed in a heap and clutched his head with both hands.

“I thought my head was splitting in half, and I was trying to hold it together.”

Adam Greenberg

De Los Santos briefly thought he had killed Greenberg. He said that he was so shaken, the New York Times reported, that he did not want to continue pitching.

Greenberg sustained a concussion, which athletes can normally overcome in anywhere from a few days to several months. Greenberg’s injury was so severe, however, that the one pitch he ever saw in the big leagues in essence ended his career.

Adam Greenberg stepped to the plate again seven years later

The aftermath of being hit in the head in the mid-summer game in 2005 proved hellish for Adam Greenberg. He went on to the Chicago Cubs’ disabled list as he tried to shake off vertigo, headaches, and double vision. Sleeping was difficult at night, and he experienced a lack of balance during the day.

Greenberg returned to the Southern League for the last month of the season, but the symptoms remained, and he didn’t play much. The 2006 season was a fresh start, but in theory only. Greenberg had lost his hitting touch while working his way back in the minors. The Cubs released him, but the outfielder then caught on with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

He bounced around in the Royals and Angels organizations, but he found himself unemployed early in 2008. From 2009-11, he played in an independent league without making much of an impact. With no prospect of returning to even minor-league ball, Greenberg decided he was done.

The Miami Marlins had other plans for Greenberg, however. With the team playing out the string in a 93-loss season, the Marlins signed him to a one-day contract to give Greenberg a shot at a full MLB at-bat.

Greenberg made his return in the sixth inning of an Oct. 2, 2012, game against the New York Mets. On its face, it was a forgettable plate appearance – a three-pitch strikeout at the hands of knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey — but it nevertheless gave Greenberg the satisfaction of getting back to the majors. The crowd of 29,709 gave him a huge ovation.

“It was magical. The energy that was in the stadium is something I’ve never experienced in my life, and I don’t know if I’ll ever experience that again. Everyone that was there probably felt the same thing. The applause, you could just feel the genuine support. It was awesome.”

Adam Greenberg

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.