Hunter Greene opens the door in his underwear—and only his underwear. It is 5:45 a.m., but he happily offers me a glass of water and welcomes me into his family’s two-story home in Stevenson Ranch, California, with a 360-degree view of the Santa Susanas and, just south of the mountaintops, the city that breeds stars. There are African masks and sculptures all over, arcade versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede upstairs, and a painting of Jackie Robinson in the dining room. On top of the kitchen cabinet, a sign: BE YOURSELF. EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN. Justice, the family cat, slinks from room to room before, as if programmed, appearing on the kitchen countertop.
This is where a senior at Notre Dame High, working on two hours of sleep after returning from Coachella, gets ready for school. But this particular high school senior wakes up before the sunrise every day—to eat, to take three dozen swings in his backyard batting cage and get to first period by 7:45.
Hunter and his father, Russell, have established a breakfast program by now: omelette, bacon or sausage (corned beef hash on Wednesdays), strawberries and bananas, plus a power-shake blend of chocolate Muscle Milk and spinach. As Hunter showers, exhausted, Russell flips the egg, alive. Hunter and his friends prefer Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, the new Kendrick, but as the grill sizzles, Russell’s playlist—Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Floetry—dominates the morning air.
“Hunt, you almost ready?”
It’s a production all right, bringing up a baseball prospect as senior spring gives way to becoming the No. 2 pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the MLB draft. “I’m glad it’s almost over,” Russell says in the last week of April, nearly two months before the draft.
But this is no ordinary prospect. This is “Doc Gooden,” says one longtime California scout. This is the next Jose Fernandez, says a National League executive. And that’s just on the mound. At shortstop, this is “Cal Ripken, Carlos Correa, Alex Rodriguez,” the executive declares. This young man is also just 17 years old.
“He’s like a mythical legend already, Hunter Greene,” Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays pitcher and World Baseball Classic MVP, tells B/R Mag. “People are already whispering about him: Did you see that guy throw 105 AND hit the ball 700 feet? … Oh, my God, there’s a black baseball player!” Adds another scout: “If you created a player in the video game MLB: The Show and turned up all of his attributes to 99 overall, that would be Hunter Greene.”
Hunter and Russell used to play their own kind of video game—“The Scout Game,” they call it—while scrolling through a pro player’s social media feed: “tattoos, finger flipping, foul language,” says Russell, a Hollywood private investigator who represents Justin Bieber and the Kardashians.
And then he’d ask his son: “Are we going to pay this player money?”
“Now,” Russell says, "I don’t really have to worry about him.”
The family even has a rule: “If you’re going to text-message, everything has to be in full, complete sentences,” Russell says. “We don’t abbreviate in this house—it builds bad habits.”
But to know the real Hunter Greene—to see him unscripted in his underwear, to read his real text messages, to drive him around Los Angeles for a week—is to step into a fantasy world where celebrity fuses with conformity and the greatest of expectations only expedite the inevitability of adulthood.
By Friday, after playing three games for Notre Dame, hobnobbing with Dodgers legends past, present and future, and being declared both THE NEW BABE and BASEBALL’S LEBRON by Sports Illustrated, Hunter will admit to barely remembering Monday’s breakfast. By draft night two months later, he will be answering 140 more texts and getting briefly interrupted by more fans in the middle of Times Square, by more onlookers and after-parties, more hangers-on and hopefuls, all wanting more more more from the Hunter Greene machine, which never stops.
As Russell washes away the dirty eggs and sweeps away the cat hair, he turns to Hunter, who is wearing thigh-high socks, like he often does with his uniform, only these have Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die cover sewed on them.
“We took in a new case,” Russell says. “Black high school athlete dating white girl.”
“Oh no,” Hunter mumbles, food in his mouth.
“Sexual relationship. Now he don’t want to be her boyfriend anymore, so now there are allegations…. Then we come to find out, he’s been with six other girls—so what’s the lesson?” Russell asks. “Keep your hands to yourself. Can’t trust anybody.”
Russell puts down the pan and points at Hunter:
“In his position? No way, man.”
“It sucks, but it’s the truth,” Hunter says. “It’s reality.”
The text from his dad is simple: “Proud of You.” In the back of psychology class Tuesday morning, Hunter begins to tear up, but his classmates don’t notice, and before long the buzzing won’t stop. That’s what happens when you become the 13th high schooler on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s what happens when people compare you to Babe Ruth (“Come on, dude—I’m not that good,” he says) and LeBron James. That’s what happens these days, when you’re a prodigy with an iPhone, a smile and a 102-mile-an-hour fastball.
Young women begin sliding into his DMs, with over 200 requested messages on Instagram alone. “Girls who like pictures from a year ago and then DM me?” Hunter asks. “I can’t be a part of that shit, no matter how hot they are.” He has no interest in dating, at least not until he establishes himself in the majors. “I just don’t have time,” he says.
Hunter’s advisor (now agent) from Creative Artists Agency calls to see how he’s handling the attention. Two local TV stations stop by. He gets invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live and SportsCenter; he turns them down. Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Jordan Brand have all made it clear they want Hunter wearing their gear come summer.
But right now, Hunter walks with a purpose past the luxury cars on the campus of Notre Dame High, holding doors open and trying to blend in, as one teacher puts it, as “a little nerdy.” But even with the younger students whispering about the legend in their midst, even with educators gawking as they, too, ask for autographs, and even as, according to his father, stalkers keep asking for his attention, Hunter keeps a very, very tight circle. “That’s going to be one of the most challenging things when I move on,” he says. “Knowing who’s real and who’s fake. Having people who actually care and are not in it for fame, money or just whatever they want.”
By design, Hunter’s catcher, Justin Rorick, is his only close friend. The family calls him Boogie.
They became friends when they were eight years old on the same baseball team. During freshman and sophomore years, while Boogie attended Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys, he caught Hunter’s bullpen sessions on the weekends, and they hung out afterward. Russell encouraged Boogie to transfer to Notre Dame so that the friends could go to school and play baseball together again. When Hunter participated in the Junior Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star game in San Diego last July, Boogie was there. When Hunter was drafted by the Reds last month, Boogie was there.
Whenever there’s not a team lunch, Hunter and Boogie eat together, alone, on a bench outside the baseball field. They have no interest in sitting in the cafeteria. Too cramped. Too many cliques. Too much drama. Too much high school.
“If you want to stay in high school, there’s something wrong,” Hunter tells me on the way to school one morning before falling asleep in the passenger seat, which happens frequently. “It’s only the beginning.”
Eating a box of orange chicken, Hunter checks Twitter to see what people are saying about the SI cover. “Some dude thinks I look like if Russell Wilson and Tiger Woods had a baby,” he says. “Looks like Tyler the Creator.” He laughs. He checks Snapchat, then Instagram to see how many followers he’s gained: 10K, 12.5K, 14K. As for Facebook, well, that’s where he posts photos for old people in his family. But with more money, more attention, more pressure, more…everything, Hunter is feeling more like one of the olds, all of the time.
“I definitely feel like an adult 24/7,” he says. “It’s hard to be in the moment because everything is happening so fast, and I’m so young. It’s hard to slow down because everything is moving so fast.
“I have something way bigger going on than all these other people,” he says of his high school classmates. “And in a couple weeks, they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, this is what this kid was preparing for since he was seven years old.’”
Hunter says he doesn’t feel the weight of expectations from scouts or the media, but he does care about living up to them for those who have invested time in him: his fans, his teachers, his friends, his family, the Reds.
“He knows he can’t make everyone happy,” Boogie says, “but he wants to feel like he at least tried.”
At the family’s regular postgame dinner on Thursday, Hunter says he is trying very, very hard: “I just want to make everyone happy. I want to be able to be successful and show for all the effort I put in and that others put in to my career. I want to make it worth it.”
“You know you won’t make everybody happy, right?” Russell asks.
“I know,” Hunter says, looking down. He takes a bite of macaroni and cheese.
Hunter Greene’s bedroom is a museum. By the door, there’s his No. 23 Team USA jersey, a bat given to him by Ken Griffey Jr., a miniature statue of him in a Yankees uniform, his 2015 Jackie Robinson National Player of the Year Award. On the right wall, two whiteboards with his previous three months planned out: games, meetings, family trips, yoga. His handwriting is as tidy as auto-tune, a product of his mom’s calligraphy lessons. Below the calendar are two hashtags, #NOCONFUSION2017 and #I’MTHEBESTINTHEWORLD! On the right, a list of goals:
- HEALTHY (Hunter’s never had a major injury in his life)
- LONG TOSS (part of a throwing program)
- .400 BATTING AVERAGE (finished the season at .324)
- 101 MPH (check, and then some)
- MISSION LEAGUE CHAMP (check)
- COMMUNITY SERVICE (Notre Dame requires 30 hours each year to graduate)
- FINISH STRONG ACADEMICALLY (3.5 GPA)
- FOCUS (private yoga lessons every week)
- FAMILY TIME (the postgame dinners)
- DMV (Hunter Greene cannot drive)
On the bed is his sister’s blanket featuring Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, rotating in for Spiderman this wash cycle. There are two framed posters of Greene hitting and pitching, a box of pins, four community service awards and his varsity letters. Next to a stack of magazines with his face on the cover, a Windows desktop computer sits on the desk, littered with baseball cards. Hunter says that if he sold his collection of autographs, he’d easily collect $300K—maybe a couple thousand for the Willie Mays ball alone.
“I don’t want to be a dumb jock,” Hunter says, as if primed. “I want to be something more.”
If Hunter Greene stays healthy and plays well enough to make the Baseball Hall of Fame, as so many already expect him to do, the curators could pretty much just up and transport this bedroom. Cooperstown is certainly on the list of career goals, but first, Hunter would “like to celebrate a playoff victory with Martinelli’s apple cider.” (Hunter Greene cannot legally drink champagne.)
Then there’s the other thing everyone expects him to do: you know, just...inspire an entire generation of young African-American kids to come back to baseball, to single-handedly power diversity in a sport lacking as much in star power as national cool—indeed, to save America’s pastime from itself.
“I’ve always been under the radar since I was young, since I was 13,” Hunter says on draft night. “It’s just routine, everything that is going on. I expect myself to be able to handle stuff like this if I’m going to put myself in this position. I can’t be avoiding people, avoiding interviews, avoiding whatever it is.”
This is not whatever: On Opening Day in 2016, just 8.3 percent of players in Major League Baseball, or around 60 young men, were black. In the first 16 years of this century, just 10 African-American pitchers—1.9 percent—were selected in the first round, with three—David Price, Dillon Tate and Dewon Brazelton—chosen in the top five. Hunter made four. In the past six MLB drafts, less than 20 percent of first-round picks were African-American, but baseball has a complex road ahead.
“The beauty of Hunter is that he grew up in a perfect storm,” says former MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon. “You put everything together, and it gives us a refreshing young man who can maybe change the sport from a playing standpoint and social consciousness with his maturity level and how well-spoken he is about what he’d like to do in the game.”
MLB rosters included 13 African-American pitchers on Opening Day this season, and for the last 10 years, the percentage of African-American major leaguers has stayed flat, at around seven or eight percent. Hunter, doomed and destined as a savior, wants to combine his generational talent with a willingness to be a social activist.
At 13, he won an MLB essay contest that let him meet Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon. In March, he gave a speech to the Ladera Little League, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, to encourage elementary and middle-schoolers. “Be the best version of yourself on and off the field,” he told the crowd. “On the field, every position is important and you can win the game for your team. Off the field, don’t do anything to embarrass yourself or your family.” In December, Hunter organized a sock drive for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, collecting more than 2,300 pairs.
“Thank God he is coming,” Stroman says. “We need him.”
“He’s so vital because those kids are going to be picking up those magazines and saying, ‘Who’s this?’” Stroman continues. “A black baseball player? A pitcher? Who is throwing 102? Once you see all of that, that’s what sparks the interest in that younger culture. That’s what leads to saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to go pitch like Hunter Greene.’”
When I text Hunter from Toronto about the praise from Stroman, who is black, he texts right back: “Nah, I haven’t done shit yet 😂😂.”
Erikk Aldridge, one of Hunter’s youth baseball coaches who previously worked as the director of community relations for the Lakers and Dodgers, is not afraid of mythical comparisons.
“He’s like Magic Johnson,” Aldridge says. “He’s going to hit you with that smile until you get on the field. Then, it’s business.”
“He’s the type of guy you could see being the mayor of Los Angeles.”
"A black baseball player? A pitcher? Who is throwing 102? Thank God he is coming. We need him." —Marcus Stroman
At dinner Thursday at Granville, an organic restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, Russell Greene zips from one diatribe to another, primed to talk about everything on his mind, about the importance of teaching his son about race, about raising a “major league citizen.” Hunter sips on pink lemonade as his father reminds me that it was racism that led him to enroll Hunter at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, 50 miles away, where he could see other African-American baseball players, that he was—is—afraid for his son’s life as a black man in the United States. “I worry when my son is out and about in the streets,” Russell says. “They don’t give a shit that he’s Hunter Greene, an upper-class, middle-class kid going to private school. They see him as a black face.”
As Russell preaches, man alive, Hunter remains quiet, listening. It happens each night I have dinner with the Greenes: The more Russell opines about the world, the more Hunter opens his ears and his eyes. Whenever I turn to Hunter to ask him if he has anything to add to one of his father’s sermons, the response is similar.
“All of that sounds good to me,” Hunter says. “He’s speaking from a place of life experience.”
Russell watches the games by himself. Occasionally, he’ll cheer on Hunter and his teammates. (“Atta boy, bud!” “Good swing, kid!”) Every once in a while, he’ll shout out a coaching tip to his son. (“Keep your backside straight at the plate!” “Stop trying too hard!”) Other parents will congratulate him on his son’s success, but he keeps the conversations short. Between innings, he searches Hunter’s name on Twitter. He wants to know everything. With all they’ve gone through, Russell needs to know everything.
When Russell became a parent at 25 years old (“He came out of this nut—the right one” he says, pointing to his groin), he promised to never miss one of his son’s games. In the 17 years since, he has missed only two, and they were in Japan. “I made sure Hunter never experienced what I experienced,” he says.
Russell’s parents got divorced when he was two. He grew up with his father, a veteran of the Green Berets, in Sacramento, where they lived until Russell was in fifth grade. When Hunter’s grandfather started dating his soon-to-be second wife, he stopped regularly attending Russell’s football and baseball games. And then he stopped going to them at all, so feeling left behind, Russell decided to run away.
He called his mom, who lived in Los Angeles, and she came to pick him up. He lost contact with his dad. He smoked and transported weed. He drank. He was a good athlete, playing Division II football at Humboldt State, but had no aspirations to play sports professionally. It’s why he has no regrets about Hunter’s abnormal high school experience. “What he’s missed out on is stuff he doesn’t need to be a part of,” Russell says.
For 15 years Russell worked for Johnnie Cochran, starting at the end of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, before opening a private practice, in which he specialized in violent crimes, often homicides and sexual assaults. His work with celebrities, Russell says, helped prepare his son for what, to him, was near-certain fame: “Everything you hear about Justin Bieber, Hunter knows about. Everything about the Kardashians, he knows about it because I use them as an example, whether they are good or bad.”
Russell sports slicked-back, shiny silver hair and frequently rocks a $6,000 Rolex Submariner watch with ripped, acid-washed jeans. It only makes sense that both NBC and CBS have offered him a reality show.
“There’s a little LaVar Ball inside of me,” Russell Greene tells me as he watches his prodigal son play from behind the dugout. “I want to jump on top of this dugout and scream at the top of my lungs that my kid is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I want to yell at all the people who called him the N-word and the people who said he would never make it. I want to put the Sports Illustrated on a thumbtack on their front doorstep. I want to shrinkwrap their car with the Sports Illustrated wrap. I want to beat my chest and run up and down the street. But I can’t do that. That’s not me personally. It is on the inside.”
“I can’t judge that man,” Hunter Greene’s father says of the new Laker star Lonzo Ball’s notorious dad. “He loves his family. Does he say things he shouldn’t say? Yeah, but he’s fired up.”
"There's a little LaVar Ball inside of me. I want to scream at the top of my lungs that my kid is on the cover of Sports Illustrated." —Russell Greene, Hunter's father
As we talk, Hunter, playing shortstop, chases a dribbler in front of second base. With each giant step across the infield, he becomes more superman than boy, transforming into a kind of Optimus Prime in cleats as he grabs the ball off the grass and throws across his body, impossibly, to nail the runner by two full steps. The crowd cheers, excited to see what they came for, and one of Notre Dame’s coaches turns around from the dugout to holler at Russell.
“Which controls did you use for that one?” the coach asks, miming playing video games.
“Just messing around with the controls,” Russell yells back to the dugout, fidgeting with the invisible controller in his lap for the father’s version of MLB: The Show, in real life.
Over the phone a week later, Boogie, the catcher and confidant, says of Russell: “It’s like he knew this was going to happen a long time ago, and he made it happen.”
Hunter Greene heads for the door of the Dodger Stadium luxury box in his signature jacket—and this is no ordinary varsity jacket. It’s a resume: his Mission League MVP, Team USA baseball, All-City 2016, All-League 2016, All-Area 2016, All CIF, Under Armour All-American, UCLA. On the back is a much more muscular, cartoon version of himself, a baseball on fire in his right hand, a crushed bat in his left and his foot atop a stack of textbooks. Anyone who vaguely recognizes this young man confirms their suspicions after one glance at his jacket.
“Are you Hunter?” asks Don Newcombe, Major League Baseball’s first African-American star pitcher, who has invited him as his guest for the day.
“This is our suite,” Newcombe says. “It’s for special people.”
“We are special people,” Hunter says.
Newcombe and his wife guide Hunter, Russell and Boogie into the underbelly of the stadium, through the clubhouse and onto the field, where Chase Utley pushes his way through a small crowd to introduce himself. A few minutes later, Joc Pederson does the same. Heads turn, cameras click and the whispers are as loud as the crack of a bat. Dennis Haysbert—you know, from the Allstate commercials, and, not to be forgotten, Pedro Cerrano in Major League: Back to the Minors—makes small talk about Hunter’s future in the majors. Corey Seager stops by with a lesson on how to be a tall shortstop: “Don’t listen to the critics,” he says. “Do your thing.”
Yasiel Puig, in fluent English, tells Hunter about his difficulties with the cultural transition, moving from Cuba to the United States, driving down the freeway in fancy cars and facing pitchers who throw 97-mile-an-hour fastballs, seemingly unaware that the lanky high school senior next to him can throw much, much faster than that.
Russell asks Puig about how he handles all of the attention, all of the pressure, all of the…everything. “Last year, I would go into the bathroom and people would be like, ‘Why is Puig in the bathroom?’” the All-Star responds. “It’s like, ‘What, I can’t shit?’” Hunter laughs—like, [😂 😂]. “Everybody is waiting and looking for me.... Everyone wants to follow you.” There will be more reporters, Puig is saying—more young women sliding into your DMs, more fans asking for your autograph, more pressure than even your parents can prime you to overcome. “Do everything the right way and nobody can say nothing.”
Puig is crushing batting-practice pitches over the Dodger Stadium fence, into the sky that looks over the stars, when I turn to Boogie, who is busy Snapchatting the scene from through the cage.
“Wow,” I say to Hunter’s best friend. “Isn’t this all a little surreal?”
“Yeah, but it’s just another day in the life of Hunter Greene,” he says.
Over sliders, salad, pink lemonade and blondies at the Dugout Club, Newcombe tells stories of playing with Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers legend tells Hunter how building strength in his legs helped preserve his arm. Russell watches his son speak to a man who, President Barack Obama once said, “helped America become what it is.” Russell begins to tear up. “This is history,” he says. “This is history.”
At the end of dinner, Newcombe and Hunter sign copies of their Sports Illustrated covers for one another. “This makes me feel wonderful,” Newcombe says. “There should be more Hunters. I wish there were…. Thank God for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and, later, Larry Doby. We showed them that we could play baseball.”
Newcombe turns and points to Hunter.
“That’s what this young man is doing again.”
As we pile into the elevator, one more fan calls out, hoping for an autograph. The elevator is full, but the door gets held open for Hunter to sign two more baseballs. “We’ve got to go!” someone calls out. But Hunter stays for five more seconds and signs everything—just to make sure everyone is happy with him, just to make sure nobody gets left behind, just to make sure he gives everybody what they want.
But as the legend grows, they’ll only ask for more.
Joon Lee is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjoonlee
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