Former Cardinal Khalil Greene played his last game five years ago, and has apparently accomplished his goal of dropping out of sight. (File)
By Rob Rains
GREER, S.C. – The wording might be a little different, but the essence of the question is the same, whether it comes from somebody who knew Khalil Greene in high school, college, the minor leagues or in the majors – a group that includes teammates, coaches and scouts.
“Do you know where he is?”
Five years after he played his last game for the Cardinals, and his last game in the majors, at the age of 29, walking away from the game he loved because of his problems with social anxiety disorder, Greene has seemingly fulfilled a goal of making himself as invisible as possible when he was done playing baseball.
“He told me, ‘When I get done with baseball, you will probably never see me or hear of me again,’” said Cardinals pitcher and former teammate Adam Wainwright.
A desire to talk with Greene, and attempt to find out what his life has been like after baseball, was unsuccessful. Interview requests, submitted through a variety of individuals, were either ignored or dismissed. Sources did confirm that he lives in Greer, S.C., just outside of Greenville, about 40 minutes away from where he became one of the best college baseball players ever at Clemson but there are no property records listed in his name on file. He has been married since 2006 and he and wife Candice have two young sons.
Despite the proximity to Clemson, his coach there, Jack Leggett, has not talked with or seen Greene for some time.
“That’s sad for me,” Leggett said. “I’ve tried to reach out and leave messages but I don’t know if they are being heard or not. At one point I talked to his parents (who also live in Greer) a while back. I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. I love Khalil and I love what he has done for our program. All the memories and thoughts I have of him are positive.”
Leggett is not the only one who feels that way about Greene. Interviews with those former teammates, from high school through the major leagues, coaches and scouts painted the picture of a player – who despite possessing premier talent – just could not escape the reality that he could not be perfect, eventually reaching the point in the majors that he would often try to inflict pain on himself as a form of punishment when he failed to get a hit or made an error.
“I honestly think the game rattled him,” said one of his Cardinal teammates in 2009, Skip Schumaker, now with the Reds. ”That happens all the time. It’s rattled me. I’m not immune to this social anxiety thing. It’s tough … I think he is probably happy wherever he is, not having to worry about fielding a ground ball or getting a hit. I think he had enough of the game.”
“More talent than Ripken”
From a young age, the game was the focus of Greene’s life. Born in Pennsylvania, his family moved to Key West, Fla., when he was five. By then Greene already had been playing Whiffle ball for three years, but he played soccer first when the family arrived in Key West before a friend’s dad got him involved in the local baseball program. Greene’s father reportedly kept a ball which Greene literally had hit the cover off. When he had to answer a question in grade school about what he wanted to do when he grew up, Greene answered, “play baseball.” When the teacher said he needed a backup plan, Greene didn’t have one.
Brooks Carey also grew up in Key West playing baseball. A left-handed pitcher, he reached Triple A with the Orioles and Reds before his career stalled. He moved back home after his father underwent a heart transplant, and some friends asked if he could fill in as an umpire for a youth league. That was the first time Carey saw Greene.
“I was standing behind the pitcher’s mound calling balls and strikes,” Carey recalls, the memory as fresh as if happened last month instead of 23 years ago. “A ball was hit in the hole at shortstop, and this kid made a major-league play. Then the kid got to the plate.
“I thought he might be the best player in America. You couldn’t really be any better than he was. He looked out of place because he was so much better than everybody else.”
Greene was 11 at the time.
By the time Greene became a senior at Key West High School, Carey was the school’s coach. Greene already had helped the school win a state championship as a sophomore and the team won again two years later in 1998.
“I played with Cal Ripken when he was 17 and 18 years old and I thought Khalil had more talent than Cal,” Carey said. “Cal used to get upset when I said that. So during spring training, the Orioles had a day off and I asked Cal to come down and throw out the first pitch at one of our games and told him, ‘watch the kid play. I don’t know what to tell you. He’s better than you.’
“Khalil hit leadoff, and about the second or third pitch of the game he hit the ball about 420 feet onto the soccer field. I think he hit .500 that year and his on-base percentage had to be .600 or .650. He was unreal.”
At least one scout noticed. Doug Carpenter, now with the Indians, was the area scout for the Cardinals in south Florida at the time. He wasn’t certain Greene’s skills projected as a major-league shortstop but told Carey the Cardinals would draft him in the second or third round and give him a $250,000 signing bonus if Greene would agree to sign and become a catcher.
The three – Carpenter, Carey and Greene – met for breakfast one morning when the team was playing in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I told him, ‘Doug, I can tell you right now you are going to ask him and he is going to look at you and say no’,” Carey said. “He doesn’t talk in sentences. I never heard his voice until the middle of the season when I went out to shortstop one day at practice and asked him a question. I just thought he was an introverted type of guy.
“Doug asked him that question and Khalil just said, ‘No thanks’ and kept eating. Doug started laughing because that was what I had told him Khalil was going to say.”
Whether that word got around the scouting community or not, Carey didn’t know, but the draft came and went in 1998, through all 50 rounds, with no team selecting Greene. Carey, who had played for Mike Martin at Florida State, tried to interest his former coach in Greene but was told the team had other plans.
A rival coach agreed to come see Greene play during a tournament in Atlanta. Tim Corbin was an assistant at Clemson at the time, and is now the head coach at Vanderbilt, where he led the Commodores to this year’s NCAA Division I championship.
Corbin remembered having seen Greene the year before at a high school showcase but this time he was more focused on watching him.
“He was a player you had to see a couple of times to understand what his true value was to a team,” Corbin said. “The more I saw him over the course of that week the more I knew he was a really good player who could do a lot of different things. When he was at bat or had a ball hit to him, you would walk away thinking, ‘that’s the best player on the field.’”
Corbin signed Greene to a scholarship and over the course of the next four years, Greene blossomed into a first-round draft pick and a player who as a senior won five national player of the year awards as he led Clemson to the College World Series. As a senior he hit .470 with 27 homers and 91 RBI in 71 games.
“He will always be the greatest college baseball player that I’ve ever been exposed to in terms of having an opportunity to coach him,” Corbin said. “There is no one who can do some of the things he could do on the field.”
His head coach, Leggett, agreed. Every time he looks out to left field at Clemson’s home field, Doug Kingsmore Stadium, he sees the banner on the wall saluting Greene for that season.
“The year he had was the best I have ever seen,” Leggett said. “He was always very private and quiet, but when it came time to play he was always ready, he always had the right frame of mind. He was just one of those kids who went about his business in his own way.
“He was very disciplined off the field and very regimented in what he ate. He ate tuna fish right out of the can and ate oatmeal for breakfast every morning. He just marched to his own drum. But all of his teammates would probably tell you he was the best player they ever played with.”
Greene also was smart. He had a lot of interest in art and wanted to major in that subject at Clemson but the class times conflicted with the baseball practice schedule, so he became a sociology major and earned all-conference academic honors for three consecutive years.
He also was a very strict follower of the Bahai faith, having been raised in that religion by his parents. His first name, Khalil, means “friend of God.” His middle name, Thabit, means “steadfast.” It was partly because of the religion that he took such good care of himself, always working out in the weight room and staying away from the college student’s normal diet of pizza’s and fast food.
Mike Rikard had watched Greene as an assistant coach at Wake Forest and as an opposing manager in the summer Cape Cod League before becoming an area scout for the Padres during Greene’s junior year at Clemson.
“He was always a real interesting kid to me,” Rikard said. “Looking back, he was just so incredibly amazingly disciplined in everything that he did. He was eating a low-fat, high-protein diet before that was the cool thing to do. He was so focused and driven. Everything he did was just so precise – how he took batting practice, how he fielded ground balls. It was like he was a 10-year major-leaguer in his routine and he was still in college.
“Off the field he was different. I don’t think he engaged a lot socially. He was really into rap music. He was a really cool guy but he was definitely different, with different interests.
“As a scout a big part of our responsibility is to try to assess makeup and how driven a certain player may be, with the ultimate goal to be a good major-league player. I couldn’t have had more confidence that he was that type of guy. He was so driven, so focused. Kind of looking back the one question maybe I ask myself was how much fun he was having on the field.”
One of the times when Greene allowed himself to have fun was going to Corbin’s house to watch professional wresting events on television.
“I enjoyed the theater of it, and got to know him better through that,” Corbin said. “I was struck by his intelligence and his inner soul. He’s not one of those personalities who is going to hit you in the face but the more you are with him, the funnier you find him, the smarter you find him. He is somebody who does not want any attention whatsoever.”
Rikard, now a national cross-checker for the Red Sox, convinced the Padres to use the 13th overall selection in the 2002 draft on Greene, an unusually high spot to draft a college senior but that was how much Rikard believed in Greene’s ability.
A few days after the draft, Rikard was at Clemson as the Tigers played Arkansas in the Super Regional, with a spot in the College World Series at stake.
Rikard was watching as Greene came to bat in the ninth inning of his final home game.
“I kind of get goosebumps telling the story,” Rikard said. “It was kind of like something out of a movie. He got a standing ovation from the entire stadium, and then he hit a ball off the top of the batting eye in center field. It was one of those moments where you just went, ‘wow’.”
Greene left Clemson for life in the minor leagues, with the promise of a successful major-league career on the horizon. It took less than two seasons, and just 191 games spread across four levels of the minors, before Greene found himself in San Diego, making his debut for the Padres on Sept. 3, 2003 against Arizona. His first starting assignment came two days later.
All of those who had been part of his journey, from Carey to Corbin, Leggett to Rikard and countless others, expected it would be just a matter of time before Greene established himself as a star at that level as well.
None knew, however, the seriousness of Greene’s personal anguish that would force him from the game only six years later.
“A quiet guy”
Mark Loretta was the Padres’ second baseman that night 11 years ago, the man who would be the closest to Greene on the field for the next two seasons. He saw Greene’s talent, but he wonders now about what he didn’t see.
“I have nothing but fond memories of playing with him and knowing him,” Loretta said. “He was very quiet, an introverted sort of guy that took baseball very seriously. I tell a story pretty often about how he would be in the weight room maybe a half hour before a game. He had these mats set up and he would be diving and sliding, pretending that he was making great plays.
“I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘if you are going to make these kinds of plays you’ve got to practice them.’ I had never seen that before and have never seen it since.”
Another time, Greene actually wrote a rap song about the players on the Padres.
“He performed it in front of us in the locker room in Arizona,” Loretta said. “I’ll never forget it. He mentioned a bunch of different players and coaches and had a rhythm and beat to it. That kind of brought him out of his shell a little bit.”
That moment was an unusual exception, however.
Loretta, who now works in the Padres front office, said neither he nor his teammates ever saw indications that Greene was struggling with social anxiety issues but heard about it a few years later.
“Baseball is an anxiety producing game with a lot of failure,” Loretta said. “Every player kind of deals with that performance anxiety, and that failure, differently. In his case I think it was probably more difficult for him than others to deal with that.
“We kind of understood that he was quiet and introverted and went about his business in a professional way … Players kind of get tunnel vision, particularly during the season. You are concerned with your own performance. That was part of the reason even his teammates didn’t see exactly what he was going through.”
People saw the broken fingers on his right hand, injured while playing defense in 2004 and 2005, and the toe he fractured while diving for a ball. They also saw the torn ligament in a finger hurt while batting in 2006.
In one of his infrequent interviews, Greene discussed the injuries with a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter during spring training in 2007.
“I don’t look at it as I’m unlucky or that this is unfortunate, I look at it as a test,” Greene was quoted as saying. “There are things that happen to you – whether it’s in your profession or outside of your profession. Things happen for a reason and it’s not for me to analyze it and find out a reason why.
“Sometimes it’s for you not to figure out, you’re not necessarily to know everything.”
Greene overcame those injuries and had the best year of his career in 2007 – hitting 27 homers and driving in 97 runs as he played 153 games – and hopes were high for his continued success in 2008. Instead, Greene’s power numbers dropped and his average tumbled to .213. On the night of July 30, he struck out for the 100th time, prompting him to take out his frustration on a dugout wall. The result was a season-ending broken wrist.
Needing to cut salary that winter, the Padres traded Greene to the Cardinals, who at the time only saw a shortstop with power potential who should have been approaching his prime. They didn’t know about the underlying issues.
One possible warning sign came from Padres manager Bud Black the day of the trade.
“One of the things that people don’t really see is how he internalizes so much,” Black told the Union-Tribune. “He doesn’t let it out, but he’s a player who cares a great deal about his performance, to the point where it gets to him.
“I wish he would let go and enjoy how good he is. But for whatever reason, he can’t do it.”
It turned out Greene couldn’t do it in St. Louis either, where his anxiety problems led him to twice being placed on the disabled list.
“It was never brought to my attention and any inside information we had from a medical standpoint it was never revealed,” said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. “It was something we didn’t have any history with. Unfortunately he was dealing with some demons that were something he could not overcome.”
“We didn’t know how to help”
Mozeliak was excited when he got Greene, giving up reliever Mark Worrell and a second player to be named later, which turned out to be reliever Luke Gregerson, in the deal.
“Anybody who got to watch him play in those first few years in the big leagues knew he was a gifted player,” Mozeliak said.
On April 6, 2009, Greene was in the Cardinals opening day lineup, playing shortstop and batting cleanup. His second at-bat produced a run with a single, scoring the day’s starting pitcher, Wainwright, but the transition to playing in a new city did not start off well.
Greene hit .219 in April, with two homers and just 8 RBI in 64 at-bats and in May his average dropped to .171 in 41 at-bats. On May 29, he went on the disabled list. It was the beginning of the end.
An attempt to play again in June was aborted after only 11 days and Greene went back on the DL. He missed all of July, and started a total of five games the final two months of the season, most often appearing as a late-inning defensive replacement.
“I thought he was a great guy, a great teammate,” Wainwright said. “He was extremely sneaky funny with a very dry humor. He liked talking about things besides baseball. When he did engage with you he wanted to talk about songwriting or music or stuff like that.
“It was unfortunate to see the way baseball can kind of weigh on you. Mentally it was very tough on him.”
Wainwright, and Schumaker, both saw Greene attempt to hurt himself on the field when he thought he had failed or made a mistake.
“He had some things he would do on and off the field,” Wainwright said. “On the field he would scrape his hands real hard on the clay and scratch himself. He would scratch his arms real bad with his fingernails. You could tell he was just battling so hard. He was really grinding mentally with the expectation to go out and get a hit every time. That can weigh on you.
“We didn’t know how to help Khalil. All you could do was try to be a good friend and good teammate and hope he would come around.”
That was all Schumaker and the rest of the Cardinals could do as well.
“I think music was more of his passion than baseball,” Schumaker said. “He really cared about baseball and really wanted to perform well, and when it didn’t happen he didn’t know what else to do except hurt himself. It was sad to watch and witness.
“He would just get really frustrated and not know how to react or show it without hurting himself a little bit.”
On Oct. 4, the final day of the regular season, Greene came to bat as a pinch-hitter for Todd Wellemeyer in the 10th inning facing John Axford of the Brewers. He struck out on four pitches, swinging and missing on the final pitch. He walked back into the dugout, and even though nobody knew it then, away from baseball.
“I prefer to be anonymous”
Greene was not on the roster for the Division Series as the Dodgers swept the Cardinals. On Nov. 5, he was granted free agency. In January, 2010, it was announced that Greene had agreed to a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers but as spring training camps were opening in late February, the Rangers said he would not be reporting to their camp, and Greene quickly slipped out of the limelight and the public eye.
“It surprised me more that he signed a deal with Texas than him leaving the game,” Schumaker said. “I thought with all of the stuff that went on here (in St. Louis) I wasn’t surprised that he was out of the game.”
Greene played 736 games in his major-league career, compiling a .245 average with 90 homers and 352 RBI. In his six years in the majors, he earned an estimated $14.3 million.
What he could never find, no matter how hard he tried, was a way to cope with failure, how to forget about striking out or committing an error. The game that came so easily to Greene for the first 23 years of his life was the same, but the pressure of trying to succeed at the highest level was just something he could never escape.
“He had a flair to him without having any flair, if that makes any sense,” Corbin said. “He almost brought attention to himself because of the fact that he didn’t want any attention. He just played the game, I would call it with grace, but just a very conservative nature. I just felt there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do offensively or defensively.”
What Greene couldn’t do was the one thing now – at the age of 34 – he seemingly has managed to accomplish.
In that spring training interview in 2007 Greene said, “I prefer to be anonymous.”
“I never got the feeling he was defined by baseball at all,” Loretta said. “He was good at it, he enjoyed it to an extent, but it wasn’t the only thing in his life. He was different than your stereotypical baseball player.”
Of all the many people Greene came into contact with because of baseball, one of the few who has continued to maintain a relationship with him the last few years is Corbin. The wives of the two are friends, and Corbin said he usually stays in touch that way.
“I give him space,” Corbin said. “Unless you reach out to him he is not going to bother you. He has kids now, and he is just kind of doing his thing. I get a general idea of how he’s doing. I do want to pick up and get with him again. I guess life just moves on, and you get distracted with a lot of different things.
“It’s not because I don’t think about him. I love him as a person and I love what he’s about. He’s a special kid. I know how he feels about me and I think he knows how I feel about him. I’m protective of him because I care about him so much. He is a good soul.”
What Greene has lost because of his desire to stay so hidden is the knowledge of how many people care about him, think and wonder about him, and want to be reassured that he is doing OK.
“I am very anxious to make contact with him,” Leggett said. “He’s got the world here in his hands at Clemson. People love him and know him on a first-name basis. He’s got a home here. I would love for him to come and talk to the team, to just be around.”
Schumaker is not surprised that Greene has dropped out of sight but, like all of those who spent time around him, hopes that solitude has finally brought him peace.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you never found him,” Schumaker said. “He could be on an island, who knows? He had some stuff to fix and hopefully being out of the game has helped him do that.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains