Playing baseball is hard. Living up to the hype is a bit harder. But so far, Hunter Greene seems up to the task. It’s too bad the league he plays in isn’t.
A day after Major League Baseball and the overwhelming majority of its fans, networks, and Americans pretended to care about Jackie Robinson’s legacy and the 75th anniversary of his breaking of the color barrier, one of the few Black baseball players — and pitchers — in the league showed how he’s continuing the legacy of being an uber-talented athlete in a sport that’s still hellbent on excluding Black people.
As the nation was busy putting their “42” jerseys back in the closet, minimal attention was being paid to Greene as he threw 39 pitches 100 mph or faster, as the Cincinnati Reds fell 5-2 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in his second career start. Since pitch tracking started in 2008, no one has thrown that kind of heat in a game, as Jacob deGrom held the previous record of 33 pitches that at least hit the 100 mph mark.
“I wish we would have come out with a win, but it was a really, really fun time,” Greene said after the game, which was played in L.A., not far from the Compton streets Greene grew up on. “It was an unbelievable feeling and experience to go against that lineup. Freddie [Freeman] gave me some love, kind of a tip of the cap, so that was cool. I was happy to be able to do that here and have family here.”
There’s no guarantee on what Greene, 22, will become in the majors. He could wind up being one of the greatest pitchers of his era, or just a serviceable journeyman that clubs keep in their bullpen. But, no matter how this turns out for him, he’s already made it. “Hunter Greene has been compared to Noah Syndergaard on the mound and Alex Rodriguez in the field. Meet the possible first overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft,” was how the future No. 2 overall pick was described when he was the latest Sports Illustrated teen cover boy in 2017.
“This is exactly the kind of kid we desperately need,” one major league official told SI’s Lee Jenkins in the piece, as it was noted that Greene started wearing Robinson’s number 42 at age 6.
“What [Robinson] endured as a player, as a man, is unbelievable, the grace that he played with, everything on the field, the teammate he was,” Greene said about Robinson a day before the 75th Anniversary. “To be here at Dodger Stadium, to be here on the 75th anniversary, it’s pretty special. To be here as a Black player and a young man, to represent what he stood for, is super important, to shed that light on our community, to let these kids know that they can do it.”
You would think that a league that’s in the single digits every year when it comes to the percentage of Black players on Opening Day rosters would find a way to highlight players like Greene. For instance, the Phillies made history this year by not having a single African-American player on their Opening Day roster for the first time since 1959.
“When you’re talking about African American ballplayers, we need to do better,” Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts recently told the L.A. Times. Roberts is one of two Black managers in the majors this season. “I think about it all the time. It’s really getting uncomfortable.”
It feels like Major League Baseball would rather concentrate on international talents than the homegrown Black ones that made baseball what it is today, as Opening Day rosters featured 275 internationally-born players. Many fans and executives in the league are focused on the feats of 27-year-old Japanese rookie Seiya Suzuki who is slashing .429/.564/.929 in 10 games with 4 home runs and 11 RBI, or Rōki Sasaki a Japanese pitcher for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan who threw a perfect game already this season (striking out 19) and followed that with eight more perfect innings he next start out before being pulled. They’re both outstanding talents that deserve recognition, but so do the “diverse” ones here in America.
This moment we’re in feels similar to what took place in 2020 when Triston McKenzie — a young Black pitching prospect — had a breakout moment that seemed to be ignored even though the then-rookie righthander struck out 10, including Miguel Cabrera — twice — and only allowed two hits in a 6-1 win for Cleveland over the Tigers. McKenzie would go on to appear in eight games (42 Ks) in 2020, 25 (136 Ks) in 2021, and has already appeared in a couple this season.
“There’s a cloud or stigma that there’s no Black kids who want to play baseball,” Greene recently said. “That’s not the case. There’s a lot of Black kids who like to play baseball. I just came from Atlanta. There’s a lot of Black baseball players in Atlanta. Chicago as well. Those kids are out there. They just need to be given the opportunity.”
Black kids have always, and will always, want to play baseball. The question is whether or not baseball wants them to play and flourish at the highest levels. There’s a reason why Kyler Murray turned the sport down after being the only athlete to be a Top-10 pick in the MLB and NFL Drafts. And if baseball doesn’t do a better job showcasing the next Hunter Greene, then don’t be surprised when Black athletes start picking up football helmets and basketballs instead of baseball bats more than they’re doing now.