Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene's mind is a fascinating place
Shane Greene walks down a cold, busy hallway in Comerica Park, outside the entrance to the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse. He is wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off, the hood pulled over his head.
It is about six hours before the Tigers will play a night game, but he’s already at the ballpark, getting ready and going through his pregame routine.
Here is the Tigers closer, a former starter who has overcome injuries and surgeries, demotions and doubts, not to mention a couple of cold, numb fingers — a problem that still persists. Even when it’s hot outside and sweat runs down his face, his fingers will turn cold like he’s pitching in a snowstorm.
So he keeps a hand warmer in his pocket.
You cope and adjust.
“A lot of people would have probably given up,” Greene says. “Once the door was open for me, it was this or nothing. I didn’t have an education. Even when I was in school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When the door was open, it was this or nothing.”
So he became a relief pitcher, learning a routine through trial and error.
“The first day they put me in the pen, Justin Wilson came up to me and said, ‘Do you know what you are going to do for your routine?’ ” Greene said.
“Dude, I have no idea."
Wilson — now a pitcher with the New York Mets — laughed, as Greene recalls, then said, "I don’t give a crap what you do, but do something and do it every day.”
“All right," Greene said. "That’s a start.”
You cope and adjust. So Greene, the American League's saves leader, is at the ballpark, roughly eight or nine hours before he might pitch, or might not, doing his routine, following Wilson’s advice — do something, and do it every day.
Blessing in disguise? Believe it
You want to know the best thing that ever happened to Greene? He blew out his elbow.
And his unusual, unsupervised rehab unlocked a major-league arm.
Greene suffered an elbow injury during his freshman season at the University of West Florida and had Tommy John surgery in May 2008. He lost his scholarship and was trying to do rehab with his roommate, Matt Collins, who also was recovering from the same surgery.
They enrolled at Daytona Beach Community College, even though they couldn’t officially join the team because they were injured.
So they did their rehab on their own. “We had no coaches, no doctors, no nothing, telling us anything,” Greene says. “It was all off of feel.”
They would hop a fence and sneak onto a Little League field so that Greene could do long-toss in the outfield. They would throw in a parking lot outside their apartment, if there weren’t a lot of cars. Or they would throw behind the apartment building by the edge of a lake. They would run, lift and throw some more without a real plan. They made it up as they went.
“Basically, wherever we could get it done,” Greene says.
Sometimes, Greene felt a frightening pain while throwing and feared he had blown out his elbow again. “It’s a scary kind of pain when you are rehabbing,” Greene says. “You don’t feel strong, your confidence isn’t really there yet. There were multiple times when both of us said, ‘Hey, let’s try again tomorrow. Hopefully, I just didn’t blow this thing out.’ ”
His work ethic came from a deep-seated paranoia — he figured if he thought about working out and didn't do it, he would be punished for it, like he was giving up on himself. He refused to be outworked. He refused to give up on himself.
Before he was injured, he was throwing in the mid-80s.
But he started lifting weights for the first time in his life and his arm started to get stronger through his throwing program on the Little League field and inside the parking lot. Stronger than it had ever been.
About a year after his surgery, he threw his first bullpen session and realized:
“OK, I’ll be able to pitch this summer.”
He contacted Jeff Deardorff, a Yankees scout and longtime family friend.
“I wanted him to reach out to some universities or even community colleges to come watch me pitch,” Greene says. “Maybe get a baseball scholarship.”
Deardorff agreed to watch Greene throw a bullpen session at Bishop Field, in Clermont, Fla., the field Greene had grown up playing on. Greene was on the mound, throwing to his best friend, Gary Decker, who wasn’t even a catcher. Decker’s 10-year-old sister, Hannah, stood behind an L-screen with a radar gun, as Greene started to pitch.
“Hannah, how hard was that?” Deardorff asked.
“92,” Hannah said.
Greene had never thrown over 90 in his life.
“No, seriously,” Deardorff said
“It was 92,” she said.
Deardorff walked behind the L-screen and watched.
“I get done,” Greene says. “I didn’t know what to expect. He said, ‘They send me around the state to find guys do what you just showed me. Do you wanna play pro ball?’ ”
“That’s a stupid question,” Greene said. “Obviously.”
“When’s the next time you can pitch again?” Deardorff asked.
“At this point, I had no idea how fast I would bounce back," Greene says. "I said, ‘Give me five or six days.’ ”
Five days later, the same people showed up to the same field, but Deardorff brought along another scout. Once again, Greene hit 92 on the gun.
“When can you do it again?” Deardorff asked.
Five or six days later, Greene threw at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, Fla.
“I faced some extended spring training guys in a scrimmage game,” Greene says. “I threw one inning and struck out two guys. When I came off the mound, Deardorff was right there waiting on me, right outside the fence. He was smiling from ear to ear. He was like, ‘Do you know how hard you were throwing?’ ”
Greene had no idea.
“You were 93, 94.” Deardorff said
Ten days later, the Yankees took him in the 15th round of the 2009 MLB draft.
Greene didn’t even notice. He was playing Call of Duty, the popular video game, with Gary Decker.
Cold tips and HotHands
Greene was driving to Comerica Park in 2015, his face resting on his hand.
“I noticed these two fingers were colder than the rest of my hand,” he says, holding up his index finger and middle finger on his right hand.
He got some treatment.
“I kept pitching, kept pitching,” he says.
Greene can be stubborn, especially after everything he had gone through to that point.
He had spent five years in the Yankees' minor-league system, getting a taste of the big leagues in 2014, pitching in 15 games, but he was traded to the Tigers on December 5, 2014, as part of a three-team deal.
Greene made the Tigers' starting rotation out of spring training and won his first three starts. He didn’t want to tell anybody about his fingers, even as he started struggling, losing seven of his next 10.
“I still felt it, but I’m very stubborn,” he says. “Things weren’t going my way on the field and I didn’t want to make an excuse for why.”
His velocity dropped, and he was sent to Triple-A Toledo.
“I was making a start there,” he says. “It was a day game and I was pouring sweat.” But his fingers were changing colors. “It looked like I dipped my fingers in pine tar,” he says. “They were black and freezing cold. The feeling — people always get confused with the tingling and numbness. That’s not the case. It’s like when your hands are freezing cold outside, that kind of numbness. The cold numbness. Not because of the nerves.”
He finally spoke up.
Tests revealed an aneurysm in his shoulder. “Basically, my body was creating blood clots to fix the aneurysm in my shoulder and because of the location, the muscles contracting, it was pushing the blood clots down my arm and getting hung up in my hands,” he says.
During a test, they put dye into his blood stream. “I was watching on a TV screen,” Greene says. “You could see the dye going through my arteries. My whole body. It was like a skeleton on the screen. Then, it went down my arm and into my hands, and on the screen, it looks like I don’t have these two fingers.”
He had surgery on the right shoulder, which fixed the aneurysm. “But the blood clots stay,” he says.
So his fingers still get cold. “Even to this day, even if it’s hot out, I still have a HotHands in my pocket,” he says. “Because once I start moving around and sweating, my fingers will get a little colder.”
Opened, then closed
Greene made the Tigers’ starting rotation out of spring training in 2016, but a blister put him on the disabled list — yet another setback that turned into an opportunity, in hindsight
He was replaced by Michael Fulmer, who became the AL rookie of the year.
“Fulmer came up and was pitching his tail off,” Greene says. “I was sitting there, watching this guy absolutely deal. Then, I’m coming back, and thinking, ‘Man, will I have to go to Toledo and earn my spot again?’
“They put me in the bullpen. Obviously, that was another blessing.”
It wasn’t an easy transition, especially back when he didn’t have a defined role. But he learned from former Tigers relievers Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson and Alex Wilson.
“I picked their brains a lot and learned a lot from him,” Greene says.
Now, he tries to do the same thing, teaching the Tigers' younger pitchers.
Especially Joe Jimenez, once considered the Tigers' closer of the future.
There is a depth to Greene that you don't see in games. He's interesting and layered, with a deep appreciation for where he is. He is a strong, loyal teammate. A pitcher can feel like he's on an island, after blowing a game. But Greene makes sure he supports Jimenez through the ups and downs. He's the first to greet Jimenez, in the locker room, after a bad outing. And Jimenez does the same for Green.
They have an interesting, close relationship, built on mutual trust. “He’s the leader in the bullpen, and it’s great to have him,” Jimenez says. “We have each other’s backs. He’s like that for everybody, he cares. He’s just a great guy.”
Cy Young-type of start
Greene has had a perfect start to this season, saving his first 14 games, including Saturday's win over Minnesota. He has the most saves in the American League, and second-most in MLB.
“I think his fastball is better,” catcher John Hicks says. “The movement. The depth on his fastball. It’s sinking way better than it did last year or the year before. Even bigger than that is his trust in it. In year’s past, if he got in a jam or needed a pitch, it was always cutter, slider. Now, he’s not afraid to throw a fastball when he needs an out.”
He was named the AL reliever of the month in April.
“It’s his consistency to be in the same, bulldog mentally every time he’s out there,” rookie pitcher Spencer Turnbull says. “That’s what separates him.”
Now, he has the confidence to throw any pitch, at any time.
He loves being a closer, loves the pressure and the adrenaline rush he gets from the crowd. Doesn’t matter if they are cheering him or booing him. He seems to relish the pressure.
And somehow, he has been able to take that energy and turn it into his own consistency.
“What he’s done is impressive,” pitcher Blaine Hardy says. “If he keeps it up, it will be beyond impressive, almost to the point where you are like, you don’t really hear about relievers getting elected for a Cy Young, but if he keeps it up, it’s definitely a possibility.”
The ball came flying across the Tigers clubhouse. I had my back turned and didn’t see who threw it.
Greene snagged the ball with a bare hand and stuffed it into what looked like a long white sock. There were several other balls in the sock, a row of distinct bumps, like peas in a pod. Greene shoved it into his locker and it disappeared under some clothes.
“I have most of my save balls, since the first day,” he tells me.
“You keep them in your locker?” I ask.
“Then, I’ll take them home and put them in my closet with the rest of them,” he says. “My vision is to one day have a whole wall in my house that is covered with baseballs that were all the last out of a baseball game.”
He has 57 career saves — and 57 saved baseballs — including 14 from this season.
He doesn’t have all of the original balls because he has given away some.
After Victor Martinez played his final game at Comerica Park and Greene got the save, he gave the ball to Martinez.
“But in return, I had him sign a ball for me, so when I have the balls on the wall, the one that is signed by Vic is replacing the one I gave him,” Greene says.
He gave the ball to Victor Alcántara after his first win.
And he gave the ball to manager Ron Gardenhire after he passed his mentor, longtime Twins manager Tom Kelly, on the all-time wins list.
“One day, when I’m 50, and I have a home and family, I’m going to have a wall full of baseballs. How big that wall of baseballs is to be determined. We will see how big it will be.”
After all he's been through, it's remarkable that he is in this place. He lost his scholarship, lost his spot in the rotation, but somehow, he has turned all of those obstacles into opportunities.
And he keeps filling up a sock with baseballs.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.