By HAL McCOY
With snow flakes swirling around the home team dugout at Fifth Third Field, the first thing the Sports Illustrated cover boy did was cover his head with his Dayton Dragons hoodie sweat shirt.
It isn’t often, if ever, that a kid from southern California is outside in 32 degrees with snow flakes landing on his nose.
“Oh, I’ve seen snow up on Bear Mountain,” said Hunter Greene, the Cincinnati Reds No. 1 draft pick last June.
But, as he said, “I have never pitched in it or pitched in 30-degree weather or snow,” which might happen Monday in Fifth Third Field when he makes his Dragons debut. The forecast is for snow and temperatures in the mid-30s.
While Greene was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 17, it seems as if he is more suited to be on the cover of Boys’ Life.
The most notable thing about Greene, other than his 102 miles an hour fastball and his legendary 450-foot home run in high school, is that he has the personality and maturity of a seasoned major-league veteran. He is soft-spoken, but speaks with intelligence and humility.
What he wants to do right now, other than keep warm, is to fit in as just one of the guys and to learn his craft. He neither wants nor expects any special treatment and wears the hype well.
After meeting the media Wednesday afternoon at Fifth Third, Greene and the Dragons boarded a bus for a trip to Bowling Green, Ky., where the team opens the Midwest League season Thursday night. And Greene took aboard his artist’s tools. No, violin, though, even though he learned to play it, “But I haven’t played the violin since the sixth grade.
“I do love to paint. I paint anything,” he said. “I’ll paint the stadium or just look out the window and paint something, whatever comes to me. I won’t force it. I brought my sketchbook and I’ll draw on the bus.”
What the Reds and Dragons want Greene to do is paint the corners of home plate with his pitches. His ability to do that stunned Seth Etherton, his pitching coach last season at Billings, Mont., in the Pioneer Rookie League.
“After he was drafted last June he hadn’t thrown a bullpen in 3 ½ weeks when he reported to Billings,” said Etherton, a former No. 1 draft pick himself by the Los Angeles Angels and now the Dragons pitching coach. “I was stunned when he took the mound and nearly every pitch he threw was in the strike zone with something on it and movement.
“And the composure and maturity of this 18-year-old kid was unbelievable,” Etherton added. “Nothing bothers him and he doesn’t consider himself special. He listened to everything we told him and absorbed it. We would tell him something and he would say, “Yes, that makes sense.’ And then he would work on it and apply it.”
There was a question of whether Greene would play shortstop or pitch or try to do both, the way Shahei Ohtani is doing this year for the Los Angeles Angels.
The Reds permitted him to do both at Billings last year but is limiting him to the pitcher’s mound this year and that suits Greene.
“It was all of our decision, but mainly the Reds front office,” said Greene. “They want me to focus on pitching and getting better at that for now. It was a hard decision, but it’s what I want to do and it is what I’m confident in doing. I just want to compete.”
He admits he’ll miss playing shortstop and doesn’t rule it out for his future if things don’t work out on the mound. “Shortstop is something I’ve always done since a young age. I don’t know what the future holds, so we’ll see. As of now I’ll focus on the pitching.”
Greene listened intently to a long question, but answered quickly.
QUESTON: “What’s the most exciting thing you can do on a baseball field? Is it throwing a 100 miles an hour fastball that strikes out a batter, or is it going in the hole at shortstop and throwing across the diamond to get the hitter, or is it hitting a home run?”
ANSWER: “People ask me that all the time and it is a great question. I was fortunate enough to be able to experience all three of those. But I’m focusing on pitching so my answer is going to be striking somebody out.”
Greene says he follows Ohtani and said, “Yeah, he is a great player. I saw that he hit his first home run last night (Tuesday against the Indians) after winning his first start as a pitcher (Sunday).”
Greene displays his maturity and intelligence and composure wherever he goes and it is probably difficult for him to explain how an 18-year-old high school graduate appears to be a 28-year-old college graduate with a master’s degree.
“That’s just me, something that has been with me since I was young,” he said, not realizing that he is very, very young right now. “That’s who I am. It is natural. I just try to treat everybody equally and respect them. I don’t try to do it. I don’t practice it. It is just who I am.”
And he wants to be the same guy on the field, just a guy named Greene wearing the green-and-black of the Dragons.
“I just want to get to know and enjoy my teammates,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think I’m special. I don’t want to send that message at all.”
Greene is part of a talent-filled roster. Second-year manager Luis Bolivar will start the season with six players drafted in the top five rounds by the Reds and six players ranked in the Top 30 prospects list by Baseball America.
Greene, of course, can expect a full house Monday to witness his Dayton debut. Nothing special about that, though. It will be the 1,247th consecutive sellout at Fifth Third, every game since the park opened in 2000.