The New Kid in Town
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you
Just a smidge over 30 years ago, on June 2, 1987, baseball in the Pacific Northwest hit the mother lode. When the roulette wheel ball dropped and settled into the pocket marked “Seattle,” the rest of baseball turned Mariner green with envy. You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that Ken Griffey, Jr. was going to be a generational talent. It was merely a question of how long the incubation period would be before he came roaring out of the egg. Two days removed from the ’87 draft, Junior graduated from Moeller High School in Cincinnati. A scant two years later, Junior was a major leaguer, having forced his way into Seattle’s lineup by the sheer explosiveness of his talent.
The Reds — after a decade of this-and-that baseball — returned to Baseball’s mountain top as Junior was arriving to great fanfare. As Junior’s backward hat — the personification of the joy he brought to the game — took over the baseball world, the Reds fell back to earth. Griffey, Jr.’s legacy would grow, not just on the field, but off. In 1994, he was named Make-a-Wish Foundation Celebrity Wish-Granter of the Year. For three straight years, he won the Mariners’ Roberto Clemente Award for outstanding community service. As a member of the board of governors for the Boys & Girls Club of America, The Kid personally monitored report cards and rewarded high achievers with trips to Disney World and all-star baseball camps as a way of keeping kids motivated.
He would grow up, marry, eschewing the partying, preferring home and hearth over ducats and drama. You wouldn’t find Junior out clubbing or his name on a police blotter. No sir.
If you are old enough, you were probably tempted to think bringing Junior back to his heartland roots would bring about a seminal change in the fortunes of baseball’s most venerable franchise. It did not. The talent spigot, wide open like a fire hose during young Griffey, Jr’s early years in the 90s, slowed considerably after he arrived in Cincinnati. In a sense, Seattle got his salad days, the Reds got the leftovers.
Selecting a prep pitcher with a first round pick is fraught with the kind of possibilities that tighten the posterior of every GM. If seeing that pick develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter feels as rare as a male calico cat, that’s because it is. Think Todd Van Poppel. Or, ask Jeff Luhnow about Mark Appel — then prepare to duck. Although not a high schooler when drafted, the Stanford product is still a cautionary tale of the risk inherent in betting on pitchers and their fickle appendages with a high first pick.
Still, the selection of Hunter Greene — made possible only when the Minnesota Twins passed on the young hurler — was really the only choice for a team that hasn’t seen a home-grown prospect mature into a stud starter for a long time. This newest Johnny come lately, the new kid in town, is poised to become the first since another Johnny first toed the rubber in 2008.
Greene throws the kind of “easy gas” that sends a thrill down the leg of a scout. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s good enough to have been drafted in the first round as a position player, so good-grief-gifted is the kid. He was throwing the ball 93 mph when he was 14 years old and has already pulled alongside Aroldis Chapman in the fast lane, rolling down the window to say “Hi” with a fastball clocked at 102, before taking the off-ramp to his high school graduation in Sherman Oaks, California. Young Hunter provides juice to an organization in desperate need of juice.
Make no mistake, the Reds pushed a large stack of chips to the center of the table when they chose Hunter Greene with the second pick in the 2017 MLB draft. The river card likely will not be turned over for two or three years, but that doesn’t lessen the enormity of the bet.
While the Reds see him first and foremost as a pitcher, it’s somewhat amazing to realize that while his comp as a pitcher may be Noah Syndergaard, his comp as a position player has incredibly been said to be Alex Rodriguez.
He has a precocious talent, the kind that had him working out with 12-year olds — when he was 7.
The two-way player is today’s baseball unicorn. Names like Micah Owings and most recently, Japanese wunderkind Shohei Otani keep the dream alive among some. But the physical demands of a 162 game season — not to mention the mental discipline that would be needed to get in all the work necessary on both sides of the run prevention and run production matrix, mean the Reds will surely place their bet on Greene’s arm, not his bat and glove.
The ability to throw a baseball on a string the length of a football field is both gobsmacking and frightening in the same moment:
There are concerns over travel ball in warm-weather locales — burnout and overuse top the list — and many fears are well-founded. But Greene strove to be a specialized counterpoint, logging an estimated 70 games a year, and preparing his arm for each one with Jaeger’s prescribed regimen of band work and long toss. “You’re never totally comfortable drafting a high-schooler first,” says a major league scouting director. “But you’re more comfortable with this one because of how long and how carefully he’s tracked toward it.” — Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated
I came to Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant to meet Shaun Clancy, proprietor and all-around good guy, so he could show me the place where Hunter Greene signed his own ball, nestled in alongside legends. Foley’s sits in the shadow the Empire State Building, part Irish Pub, part baseball museum, 100 percent welcoming waterhole. Over 3,000 autographed baseballs adorn the walls at Foley’s. Celebrity signatures mingle enviously with Hall of Famers. If you’re lucky, you might bump up against a sportswriter, manager or even an umpire in the flesh (if that’s your thing).
I arrived the day after Monday’s draft. Greene had already been there on Sunday, awaiting the draft, which would take place a few miles away in Secaucus, NJ.
At Greene’s request, the signed ball was placed next to one signed by Derek Jeter.
What Shaun shared with me about young Hunter should excite every Reds fan who understands that the password for entry to a World Series appearance is “gr8pitching,” in the form of a №1 starter who can dominate hitters for 2 and potentially 3 games in a 7-game series, ala Madison Bumgarner.
Most impressive to Clancy was the New Kid’s maturity; and his impressive family. They know where they have been and where they are going. The gifted prospect has been humbled by a sister bravely battling leukemia. He is centered by parents who tend to his development, both athletic and spiritual. As far as Shaun is concerned, Hunter Greene is the perfect man for the Reds to build a franchise around. He is in his words, “can’t miss!”
Some see the comparison to a young Doc Gooden, but I cannot help to think a better comparison is Junior. Community service efforts in Los Angeles have won him awards. At 8-years old, he delivered a speech to promote youth baseball. Major league baseball will market the hell out of him, knowing he can potentially do what The Kid once did: inject a needed shot of youth and fun into a game seen as dated, plodding and downright boring by a younger generation weaned on soccer.
Just as lady luck smiled on the Seattle Mariners some 30 years ago, maybe the steel roulette wheel ball has landed on red this time, Cincinnati Pantone 200 Red to be precise. Maybe the Redlegs have a Cincinnati Kid of their own.
There’s talk on the street, even if it’s far away in Billings, Montana. And like the kid with the backward hat, it sounds oh so familiar.