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Riley Greene’s Tigers debut was the culmination of diligent work and special talent

DETROIT — You kind of knew Riley Greene was going to do something noteworthy in his MLB debut. 

That’s just who this kid has been. He blasted a ball onto Comerica Park’s Pepsi Porch three years ago, the first time he took batting practice in Detroit. He hit two home runs in his minor-league debut and later belted an inside-the-park homer in his first game at Low A. He has wowed in major-league spring training, made remarkable catches at Comerica Park in 2020’s summer workouts, performed at every level and developed as well as anyone could possibly have asked for. The Tigers selected him with the fifth-overall pick three years ago, believing his hit tool was the real deal, banking he would grow into more power, trusting he could prove the doubters wrong and roam the outfield with ease. Check, check and check. Greene rose to become MLB’s No. 2 prospect, a player with no limits on his potential. 

None of it is surprising for those who have followed Greene since the day the Tigers drafted him. And it’s even less surprising to those who have known him even longer. There are plenty of stories about Greene’s special nature out there, and here’s a good one from before he was this hyped rookie, back when he was just a kid in Florida.

Riley Greene was 11 years old the first time he met Jered Goodwin. 

Goodwin was running a local baseball camp, and an assistant coach alerted him there was a left-handed kid playing shortstop.

Goodwin walked over to inquire.

“You’re left-handed,” he said. “Why are you playing shortstop?”

In front of a 6-foot-2, 250-pound adult, Greene explained. In a humble but matter-of-fact manner, Greene told Goodwin he was usually able to field and throw as well as anyone on his team, so he often played shortstop. That’s how it goes in youth baseball.

The answer made sense to Goodwin. He walked away, then went back to his assistant.

“Sounds like this kid is the best player on the field,” he said.

A few minutes later, Goodwin watched as an 11-year-old Riley Greene started taking batting practice. He watched about five swings.

“OK,” Goodwin said, “he’s the best guy out here.”

That’s how things tend to go with Riley Greene.

It was only a matter of time until he started doing it at the world’s highest level. 

“Sometimes,” Goodwin said, “I guess scouting is easy.”

Greene was 14 years old, one week away from beginning his freshman year of high school, when Goodwin called Florida Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan. There was a kid he had to tell him about.

“This kid is either gonna commit to you or UCF,’” Goodwin said. 

O’Sullivan soon offered Greene a scholarship. He accepted about a week after this phone call. He became the youngest player to ever commit to Florida. A big endorsement from Goodwin, who coached Greene during his freshman year at Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla. And a big time bet from the Gators on a kid who had yet to play a high-school game. Greene’s talent was prodigious like that.

But sheer ability wasn’t the only reason Goodwin was willing to promote a skinny, still-growing kid to a baseball power. Goodwin is now the senior director of scouting operations at Perfect Game. He’s been a mainstay in elite prep baseball circles for a long time now. When Greene debuted Saturday, he became the 55th player Goodwin has coached in some fashion to reach the major leagues. Goodwin has coached natural talents such as Bo Bichette and Jesse Winker, the two players he compares to Greene in terms of can’t-miss ability from a young age.

“He was right in line with that type of hit tool, that type of mentality, maturity,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin has also seen good players who leveled off or didn’t make it. So in addition to Greene’s uncanny ability to hit the baseball, Goodwin could not ignore Greene’s baseball IQ, his savvy. Much of that came from his father, Alan, a hitting instructor who eats and breathes baseball. But by a certain age, Greene had to take ownership of his own passion for the game. Special talent is an undeniable part of the Riley Greene story. But a worker’s mentality and a thirst to be great don’t get talked about enough.

“There has to be a passing of the baton where the kid takes control of his career or his passion,” Goodwin said. “At 14 years old it’s a passion, not a career. He took control of that, dove into the nuances of the game. He didn’t want to just be a great hitter. And typically at 14, 15 years old, people are content with that.”

Those traits helped as Greene tore up the Florida prep baseball scene, as he thrived as a prospect on a national stage, as he continued to answer any questions anyone had about his game. As a senior, there were scouts who knocked Greene’s defensive ability, who said he’d never be able to stay in center field.

“He took that to heart,” Goodwin said. “Tell him what he’s not good at, and he’s gonna get good at it. That came from a very young age, and that’s internal.”

On draft day in 2019, the Tigers selected Greene with the fifth-overall pick and introduced him as a center fielder. He never attended the University of Florida. He was simply too good, and bigger things were calling. 

The only wrinkle in this tale came on April 1. That morning, Goodwin had woken up to a call from a trusted source, telling him the Tigers had decided Greene was going to break camp with the team. They had not informed Greene yet, but the decision was made, and he’d be learning the news soon.

“That’s where it was going, yeah,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said again Saturday.

A few hours later that day in April, Goodwin’s phone went off again. This time with bad news. Greene had fouled a ball off the top of his right foot while facing Gerrit Cole. He initially stayed in the game but later went in for X-rays. Eventually he learned he had a fracture. That meant Greene never got to hear the news he was making the team. It meant an estimated six to eight weeks before returning to any sort of play.

“I got to say, I probably took that harder than he did,” Goodwin said.

Greene has admitted it was all difficult. He played video games and went to chain restaurants in Lakeland, Fla., to pass the time. Catcher Jake Rogers, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, gave him rides to the team facility before Greene was able to drive again. 

The build back was slow, but Greene was diligent. When he was finally able to leave Lakeland to begin a minor-league rehab assignment, the training staff threw him a mini going-away party.

A few weeks later, he finally got to hear the news that had been delayed. Adam Melhuse, the hitting coach at Triple-A Toledo, called Greene into his office Friday afternoon as Greene was leaving the team training room. They started chatting about hitting. At one point, Greene looked down and noticed a GoPro camera was turned on. He found that strange, but he didn’t think too much of it. Turns out they were recording an important moment. Melhuse soon informed Greene he was going to the big leagues. He was more stunned than anything. 

“I was really happy,” Greene said. “I wasn’t expecting it at that moment.”

By the time Greene returned to his locker, the news had already gone public. His phone was flooded with messages. He called his parents, then his girlfriend. He scrambled to pack, and turns out getting a flight to Detroit from where the Toledo Mud Hens were playing in Worchester, Mass., was next to impossible. His parents had to fly in to Pittsburgh and drive up to Detroit. 

Greene spent the night in a hotel, preparing for a Saturday morning flight. And on the night before the biggest day of his life, Greene got a good’s night sleep.

“I got to a point where I shut my phone off,” he said, “and I was like, ‘OK, I just need a couple hours to myself here.’”

Riley Greene went 2-for-3 with two walks in his MLB debut Saturday in a victory against the Rangers, becoming the first MLB player to reach base four times in a debut since Cedric Mullins in 2018.

Saturday at Comerica Park, Greene swung on a 1-0 slider. The ball got in on Greene’s hands, and he fought it off the other way for an opposite field single, his first MLB hit. At first base, Greene’s emotions were hardly detectable. He was the same way in the clubhouse before his MLB debut, relaxing and humming along to country songs even on a day where all eyes were on him. He acted as though he belongs.

At one point, Greene ventured to the locker of Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera stood and gave the Tigers’ newest prospect a hug. 

“I’m very excited,” Greene told him.

“Me too,” Cabrera said.

There has always been that touch of magic around Riley Greene. Circumstances that make it seem as if fate set all this in motion. He would throw with his father late into the night, construction lights keeping up the neighbors. He met his agent at the pool. The Tigers got to know him better than anyone largely because crosschecker James Orr’s daughter was a high-school classmate. The trainer who helped Greene become quicker and more athletic happened to be the liaison officer at the same school.

“The thing that excited me the most was how his teammates responded. He gained the respect and credibility amongst the group because of that performance in the spring,” Hinch said. “He hits the ball as hard as anybody. He plays the game, there are some theatrics to him, he’ll make some diving catches, he’s just an all-around good player. There’s not a lot of overarching weaknesses and there’s a lot of strengths … doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy, but it means he needs to be tested at this level now.”

Greene was not done after that single Saturday. With his parents in the stands, his father Alan locked in on the game like always, Greene worked two walks, one after battling back from an 0-2 count. He also knocked an 0-2, opposite-field single in his final at-bat.

Hinch has cautioned against anointing Greene as some sort of savior. He is not the singular solution to the Tigers’ poor play. Like any young player, he is bound to encounter some struggles as he adjusts to life in the major leagues. 

“We have a really good player on our hands that we need to break into the big leagues and make him better,” Hinch said. “He’s gotta learn. He’s not a finished product. An arrival does not mean that he’s perfect.”

But Greene is different than most. More gifted, more dedicated, special. Goodwin has seen it since the kid was 11 years old. The Tigers saw it since he was a high schooler. PLenty of others got to know about it as Greene shot through the minor leagues.

Saturday, in an interview room in the lower level of Comerica Park, Greene was asked when he knew, when he realized that playing in the majors wasn’t just a fun dream but more of a tangible, achievable goal. 

“Probably in high school,” Greene said. “It all started junior, senior year. I realized I was a good hitter, maybe this could happen for me. I kept working at it, and now here I am.”

(Photo: Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

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