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Hunter Greene embraces the burden of expectations

Reds prospect is more than aware of the pressures that await him at the next level

Major League Baseball’s annual draft, even by its own admission, isn’t at the same scale and doesn’t have the kind of pomp and circumstance as its NFL and NBA counterparts. But one would have been forgiven for believing the early portions of the 2017 edition at the MLB Network’s Secaucus, New Jersey, headquarters felt a lot like Hunter Greene Appreciation Night.

At 17 years old, the two-way prodigy out of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, has cultivated a following, the type that few prospects in this sport do before stepping foot into pro ball. He was one of four amateur prospects invited to last week’s draft, but clearly the one most dignitaries wanted to meet and greet at the mini-replica baseball stadium that is Studio 42.

“You are just the star that baseball needs,” a television reporter said to Greene to conclude an on-air interview shortly after he was selected second overall by the Cincinnati Reds. That phrase — the star baseball needs — should sound familiar to those who have followed Greene’s rise. It’s the same one that was printed in capital letters on the cover of the May 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, which marked his breakout moment. Not since a 16-year-old Bryce Harper was crowned as “Baseball’s Chosen One” in 2009 has a high school baseball prospect graced the magazine’s cover.

“If there’s ever a young man who could live up to a Sports Illustrated cover at age 17,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said, “I think Hunter is that young man.”

Spend a few minutes around Greene and it’s easy to understand the buzz. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder comes off as poised, mature and self-aware, with the kind of persona that’s just as dynamic as his talent. He’s a painter and a violinist and is even learning to speak Korean on the side. Oh, and he can hit 400-foot home runs out of major league parks, play shortstop and throw a fastball clocked at 102 mph off the pitcher’s mound.

He’s made scouts ask if he’d be better as a pitcher or as a position player. Although the Reds have stated that they’ll have Greene pitch, Cincy may have gotten itself a prospect who can do both. “Man,” he said with a smile when asked to give a scouting report on himself. “I’m a monster. I’m different on the field than I am off the field.”

But the importance of Greene’s potential stardom to MLB lies with more than just his prodigious ability or charm. He is black, and he excels at a sport that stands to gain from having a transcendent African-American figure as a star, one who would showcase a return on investment for the game’s efforts to reach the black community over the years. “It’s huge for our game,” Manfred said of Greene’s potential impact.

Former High school pitcher Hunter Greene during the USA Baseball-sponsored Dream Series at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One wouldn’t be alone in thinking that’s quite a lofty burden to put on a player who won’t be of legal voting age until August. Baseball, after all, is a sport in which even the most highly touted prospects — high school, college or international — don’t always pan out. Add in the ostensible task of inspiring black youths, and those expectations can seem overwhelming. Greene, though, appears more than aware of the pressure that awaits him at the next level. He embraces it.

“People have been saying, ‘Hunter, you’re the guy that’s gonna change the face of baseball and for the African-American youth,’ and that’s what I want to do,” he said in an MLB Network segment before the draft.

Baseball’s attempts to reverse the trend of declining black participation have seemingly been an annual story for some time. Seventy years after Jackie Robinson integrated the game, African-Americans constituted just over 7 percent of Opening Day rosters — the lowest figure since 1958, according to USA Today Sports.

“It’s a sport that is, I don’t wanna say has lost love from other people, but it’s a sport that people are kinda shying away from and going to other sports to compete,” Greene said. “I think — I don’t think, I know — it’s the best, [the] game of baseball.”

The particulars of why black youths have shied away from baseball has been the subject of much debate over the years. From the league’s perspective, it is largely a matter of socioeconomics: that if impoverished kids had more access to a sport that is increasingly expensive to play at the amateur levels, the tide would eventually turn. MLB-led initiatives such as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities might obfuscate any racial component from their titles, but the target demographic is clear. On that front, the commissioner has cited progress in recent years.

From 2012 to 2016, just over 20 percent of first-round picks have been African-American. And even this year, there were five taken in the first round, including a top-10 prospect who chose baseball over football and basketball. Greene, however, was always a baseball-first kid. Part of why he’s being positioned as The Guy is because he’s become the crown jewel of one of the league-sponsored Urban Youth Academies in Compton, California, which he began attending in 2007. Greene is from the suburbs of Los Angeles, so his father, Russell, drove him about 90 minutes southeast from their Stephenson Ranch home to Compton three times a week.

“For the last 10 or 11 years, he’s been a beacon of hope,” said former two-time All-Star and television analyst Harold Reynolds. “And the talent has shot through the roof. … He’s really been a guy who I’d sit there and say this is our poster child of what we’d hope would happen when we put the academies together.”

Greene’s experience at the academy typified a childhood filled with encountering (and impressing) members of the major league fraternity. In other words, he’s no stranger to the adoration.

“He’s gotten it since he was 12 years old,” said Dusty Baker, one of MLB’s two black managers. The Washington Nationals skipper met Greene through his son of the same age, Darren, who played against Greene when his teams traveled from Northern to Southern California during their early teens.

“His dad is well-grounded, too. … I’m not worried about him [getting] the attention,” Baker said.

But with the spotlight on Greene at its brightest, is it too much? Ask a few black veterans in the game about him, and what you’ll hear is high praise about his talent and character but not much of an interest in putting more pressure on him by adding to the Great Black Hope narrative.

“The best thing about him is he has a level head on his shoulders, and he just wants to contribute, not just to the game but to the community,” Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said of Greene, whom he met in New York just before the draft.

But what impact could his stardom have?

“When you talk about being a star,” Jones said, “he’s a long way away from doing that at this level. … I’ve spoken with him on that; my best advice is don’t get ahead of anything. What we do in media and sports nowadays is we praise everybody for not accomplishing anything. So my advice to him is grind out each level and play this game with a level head.”

Brandon Phillips echoes Jones’ sentiment. The Atlanta Braves and former Reds second baseman tuned in to draft coverage and came away impressed with his old club’s top pick. However, the 16-year veteran noted that the road to The Show can be arduous even without the weight of expectations, and he hopes Greene can develop his craft without worrying about the hype.

“Just hearing the story about him, I know he can do it,” he said. “But the thing is though, just being the face, the African-American face of Major League Baseball, is going to be a tough job because there’s a lot of guys that’s really gonna look up to him and there’s gonna be a lot of guys that’s gonna hope that he really comes through and makes it happen.”

The hope surrounding Greene touches not only on trying to fix the dearth of African-Americans in the game but also the type of stardom possible in baseball in 2017 and beyond. The sport has been under fire in recent years because of how its younger, top-tier players of all shades have struggled to cross over into mainstream, viral sports culture at the same rate that NFL and NBA stars do. The commissioner, though, doesn’t see it that way.

“I think people make a mistake when you compare what is quintessentially a team game with other sports and say, ‘Oh, gee, they don’t have somebody who stands out the same way that a basketball player might,’ ” Manfred said on draft night, pointing to the Chicago Cubs duo of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant as examples of players whose profiles were raised in 2016. “It’s just a different game.”

A different game, yes. But perhaps it’s a different time, too, which is where someone like Greene could help. Fewer black players have led to fewer black stars, which has meant fewer opportunities for young black athletes to see themselves playing the game like they once did in previous generations.

“Back in the day, people said they wanted to be like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds,” Phillips said. “Major League Baseball promoted those guys back in the day. That [was] all about promoting. They don’t promote African-Americans at all like that like they used to.”

“[It was] a tremendous influence,” added Baker, who grew up in an era when stars like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson reigned. “My dad used to get Sepia magazine and Ebony and Jet, and every year they had all the blacks on every team [listed] at the end of spring training. … We knew everybody’s stance, how they threw, and it wasn’t the exposure on TV as there is now.”

Forecasting the marketing machine that Greene could attract down the road might be a bit premature. He still has a contract to sign, a position to master and likely a few years of seasoning in the minor leagues. So perhaps by the time he hits the majors, whenever that may be, the phenom could very well be the player baseball hopes he can be.

In the meantime, though, as Baker said, “We’ve got to leave him alone and let him be a kid for a while.”

Daniel Shiferaw is a D.C. based sportswriter and editor, lately focusing on baseball. The best place find him is either at a ballpark or Chipotle.