By Greg Bates
When Hunter Greene was in elementary and middle school, he made a few trips with his family to Arizona.
It was all about catching some spring training games. Greene frequented his hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ complex, Camelback Ranch, in Glendale, Arizona, most often.
“I probably went to every single complex, when I think about it,” Greene said. “I went to Camelback a lot. Tempe for the Angels and I think the Giants.”
Greene got a few photos with players, a couple autographs and mingled.
“Anyone that had on a uniform and would talk to him is who he gravitated towards,” said Greene’s dad, Russell.
Greene fit right in.
Fast forward less than 10 years later, Greene was back at spring training in Arizona. This time it was as a player.
Greene, the high school phenom who was the No. 2 overall pick last year by the Cincinnati Reds, has been touted as a generational talent. He’s a two-way player who can hit triple digits on a radar gun as a pitcher and blast moonshots with his bat at the plate.
At the end of March, he wrapped up his first spring training as a professional player.
“It went well, it was fun,” said Greene in an exclusive interview with Sports Collectors Digest in late March. “A lot of great guys to be around, a lot of great coaches. Just the right people around to make spring training fun and productive. I had some great outings.
“It was special just because I used to go to spring training as a kid, and now actually to be here and doing it as a player is awesome.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind the last 10 months for Greene. After the then-17-year-old was drafted and netted a reported signing bonus of $7.23 million, the Reds assigned him to their rookie team, the Billings Mustangs, in the Pioneer League.
Growing up in Stevenson Ranch, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, it was quite a transition for Greene to move to southeastern Montana to play baseball.
“It was a great experience because our stadium is beautiful in the Pioneer League; we had a great fanbase of people that came out,” said Greene, who played at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California “I think we had an average of like 3,500 a game. A couple games there was like 6,000 that came out. It was just different in the fact that I’m from L.A. and coming out to Montana, the lifestyle’s different, the people are different. So, that was cool to kind of experience and see. I enjoyed the season, to be honest with you. I had a great team and some great coaches, too.”
Greene pitched in just three games in rookie ball, all starts. He logged 4 1/3 innings and surrendered six earned runs and lost his only decision. At the plate, Greene hit in seven games his first season, tallying a .233 average. He registered a four-hit game in his third pro contest and finished his rookie year with three RBI.
Greene’s first pro year taught him so much as a player and person.
“Just continuing to know how to deal with adversity and just be able to understand how people live and what their expectations are – especially with my host family, just knowing how to behave, just be a good person,” Greene said. “On the baseball side, it was just being ready to come to the field every day and bringing my A game and just being ready to go.”
Greene’s No. 1 goal in his first season as a professional was to stay healthy. Mission accomplished. He was also able to check off other goals from his list.
“Really for my first year, it was just to understand the schedule of being a professional,” Greene said. “Coming to the field every day, compared to high school, we only played a couple days out of the week. But now actually being in it and playing every day and being at the field all day, every day was definitely different. Just understanding that and being healthy, thank God I was able to accomplish that. It was mainly those two things.”
Greene worked over the offseason to improve as a pitcher as well as a hitter. He said he got stronger, faster and more athletic. As an 18-year-old, Greene is still developing physically despite being 6-foot-4, 197 pounds. He’ll keep getting better in every area.
“Continuing to perfect my fastball and my secondary pitches, that’s really it,” Greene said. “I hit during this offseason, so we’ll see what goes on during the season. If they’ll have me hit, I don’t know. But I worked on it this offseason, so hopefully when that comes I’m ready and if it doesn’t, I’ll focus on pitching this year.”
The Reds haven’t told Greene much about their plans for him this season and beyond as far as pitching and hitting. But one thing is for sure, the right-hander is multi-talented.
Right out of spring training, Greene was assigned to the Reds’ Class A affiliate, the Dayton Dragons. The team plays its home games less than an hour away from Great American Ball Park, so Greene will get the opportunity to show Reds fans that the future is bright.
Greene is excited to play this season in the Midwest League. Some of the best talent in MLB has gone through the league recently, including Mike Trout and Carlos Correa.
“To be in good company and see the guys who have made it and guys who played in the same league is special for sure,” Greene said. “Those guys handled their business and they stayed healthy, so I’m just hoping to do the same.”
Greene is looking forward to playing in front of another good fanbase in Dayton that respects its future big leaguers.
“They sell out every game and it’s a great atmosphere to play in and be around, so I’m looking forward to it,” Greene said. “Our team, we’re starting to practice together and work out, so I see who my guys are behind me and my teammates. They’re all talented, great players, so I’m excited for the season.”
Greene, who is ranked the No. 21 overall prospect by MLB.com, knows his first full season in the minor leagues is going to be a grind. His top goal again this year is to stay healthy.
“I want to make the All-Star team for sure, be the MVP pitcher of the league,” Greene said. “I definitely want to win with the Dayton Dragons. Just win as many games as I can and bond with my teammates, that’s the important thing. And making sure we’re all on the same page and we all respect each other.”
Greene should fit in well with his teammates. He’s about as humble as any ballplayer can be, especially with the weight of the world – or at least one franchise – on his shoulders. As the No. 2 overall pick who is looked upon as the savior who could resurrect the team to the days of The Big Red Machine, pressure is mounting on Greene. But he stays cool, calm and collected – true to who he is and always has been.
“I think it’s just my parents instilling the right morals in me and understanding how to be humble no matter how much success I deal with or how much failure,” Greene said. “Just kind of knowing my role and just continuing to work hard and stay focused and keep a good head on my shoulders has always been important to me – sometimes even more important than what I do on the field in certain situations.”
Talking cards and autographs
Greene’s first baseball cards were released by Panini in 2014 when he played for USA Baseball. Since, he’s had a number of non-professional cards hit the market.
But this year, Greene is getting his first taste of having cards with him wearing an MLB uniform.
“That’s really cool, just kind of seeing the progression of how it’s been going,” Greene said. “Starting as a 15-year-old and playing for the USA team and now being 18 and playing for the Reds, just seeing those cards being made and people actually wanting to have them signed. I think that’s just really cool. And now being on the front of the Bowman box is really special, too. I was grateful I was able to get on the front.”
Greene was a special guest of Topps’ Industry Conference in February. There, Greene signed his first big-league cards, which are numbered to 50. Collectors have been enamored over the autographed card since and they are going for big bucks on eBay.
Growing up – which honestly wasn’t that long ago for the teenager – Greene wasn’t into collecting cards or memorabilia of his favorite players.
“I did kind of collect some cards when I was younger, but I guess it was kind of like family or friends that would pass them down to me,” Greene said. “I didn’t really go out to a bunch of stores and go buy a bunch of cards.”
Greene thinks it’s cool his cards are starting to be released. He isn’t really interested in collecting cards of himself but can get his hands on some from Topps if his friends or family ask for them.
“Everything that’s given to me, I just send it to my parents so they can keep it at the house,” Greene said.
When Greene used to attend spring training as a kid, he would collect a few autographs. But he was also cognizant of leaving the players alone and letting them do their thing.
“I didn’t really go up to a lot of them. I let them focus on their day and what they needed to get done,” Greene said. “But I did here and there, I went in and got some autographs.”
Now as a professional player himself, Greene is the one signing the autographs. He loves kids and enjoys meeting and signing for them.
“It’s the next generation, so just helping them out as much as I can is always fun to see,” Greene said. “I enjoy doing it.
“I try to sign for as many kids that I can before the adults, just because I think it’s fair.”
Greene is constantly approached for autographs and he’s happy to sign, but he has restrictions.
“I don’t sign before a game because I’m pretty focused on what I need to get done,” Greene said. “I’ll sign after, but never before a game.”
Greene’s autograph – which he signs his G with a $ when he’s getting paid for an autograph session – has become a treasure in the industry. The young player has so much potential, and prospectors are already looking ahead to the future.
“I get being a collector and just being able to save a bunch of cool stuff when guys are younger and looking back and having those things,” Greene said. “It’s cool to see that and see how people care about my career and want to see me do well.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at email@example.com.