'I like to be perfect': Tigers prospect Riley Greene in pursuit of making a big splash

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — He swung his white Ford Super Duty King Ranch 4x4, with its big silver trailer hitch glinting in Florida’s afternoon sun, from a parking spot in front of Marchant Stadium onto a path bound for Lakeland Square Mall.

He pulled into a free spot, stepped from the Ford’s high-altitude cab, and hiked straight for the mall’s food court and for his favorite fast-order lunch spot: Teppan Express, an Asian emporium where Riley Greene ordered a mound of chicken teriyaki and a quart-sized cup of lemonade.

Tigers prospect Riley Greene after a good rip in batting practice.

Did he have any other restaurant favorites in Lakeland, a town he has gotten to know well since the Tigers signed him last June, as the fifth overall pick in baseball’s 2019 draft, for $6.18 million?

“Olive Garden — 100 percent,” said Greene, a 19-year-old outfielder, left-handed slugger, and likely lineup centerpiece for the Tigers as they scramble to shape a fresh and, they hope, scrappy playoff roster in the years ahead.

Greene had just gone 1-for-4 in an intra-squad game on the backfield quadrant at Tigertown, a few days before spring camp was interrupted by a coronavirus blockade. He was playing alongside Tigers farmhands, even though Greene, in a handful of earlier Grapefruit League cameos with the big boys, had done rather well: 5-for-12, with two home runs and some impressive walks.

He spoke about baseball success, and about baseball failure, with the latter reality one reason behind that big white Ford truck and its gaudy trailer hitch. The pickup is what he uses to tug a trailer on which he transports his getaway vessel: an 18-foot Action Craft boat, propelled by a 115-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke engine.

This is his answer to baseball’s stresses. It allows him to fish. To saltwater-fish, specifically, where he can relax in bays and inlets, coves and flats, hooking drum, redfish, snook, and sea trout.

Keeping it reel

“If I have a bad day, I grab a rod and go fishing,” said Greene, who a year ago was wrapping up his senior year at Paul J. Hagerty High, in Oviedo, Florida, a half-hour northeast of Orlando.

The Tigers hadn’t seen many “bad days” while scouting Greene. Nor had any number of other big-league clubs who were waiting, and hoping, Detroit had other plans when Tigers’ draft turn arrived last June 3

There was no wavering. Greene is 6-foot-2, 208 pounds (“weighed in this morning,” he announced), and swings a brand of bat the Tigers probably will deploy anywhere from the No. 2 to No. 5 spot in their lineup once a teenager migrates north from the minors.

From left, Chris Illitch, 2019 first-rounder Riley Greene and Al Avila.

Exactly when that happens is up to Greene. He figures to begin this season at Single-A West Michigan, at least when farm schedules resume in 2020. If all goes as well there as life generally went last summer, when he was twice promoted in a few weeks, from the Gulf Coast League hatchery, to Single-A Connecticut, and on to West Michigan, Greene could find himself at the team’s high-Single A stop in Lakeland at some point in 2020.

But a best-script storyline probably has him in Detroit no earlier than 2022 and no later than 2023. There is so much to absorb in professional baseball.

Greene knows it. He knows what’s coming. He got a taste of it in 24 games late last summer at West Michigan, where he batted .219 with a .622 OPS.

Not awful for a kid two months out of high school, but not acceptable for one Riley Greene.

“I like to be perfect,” he said, plunging a fork into his teriyaki. “You never can be perfect in baseball, but you can strive for it.”

He paused, and smiled:

“I think I just got my quote,” he said, meaning that a daily mantra might have just been discovered.

Good stock

Greene’s background and skills are a combination of genetics and upbringing that made him something of a historic investment for the Tigers.

His dad, Alan, is a former Florida Institute of Technology player, who now runs a full-time business polishing the swings of young baseball and softball hitters.

“He taught me my swing,” Riley says of his dad, whose expansive facility is known as Alan Greene’s Promoting Athletes Center.

Riley’s mother, Lisa, is a marketing executive for an Orlando civil engineering firm, DRMP, Inc. His sister, Miranda, is a student at the University of Central Florida, studying to be a physician’s assistant.

Tigers prospect outfielder Riley Greene practice footwork and outfield throws.

Yes, college was an option for the family’s lone son. A full ride was waiting from the University of Florida, which this week is ranked No. 1 in the country with a roster that would only have benefited from a 19-year-old freshman from Oviedo.

Riley has adored the Gators since he was little. He committed to them when he was 14. But when baseball had been his focus since he got to Hagerty High, when baseball knocked him out of what even last fall could have been a basketball tender to a decent-sized college, there was little chance he was saying goodbye to first-round draft status, and, yes, to $6.18 million.

Not that it came down to cash. And when Greene makes a case, it’s persuasive.

He is thoughtful and seasoned for his age — well-spoken, as they say, while sitting at the food-court table, sporting a dark-blue Salt Life T-shirt, gray Lululemon slacks, and white Nikes.

Striding toward success

“It’s not really about money,” Greene said. “It’s about exceeding in baseball and succeeding at the highest level.

“It’s about winning, sure. But it’s also about friendships, it’s about teammates. I want to create friendships. That’s really big with me.”        

This is not rehearsed speech straight from The Ideal Prospect’s Guide to Pleasing Bosses and Fans.

Check with his former history teacher at Hagerty High, who also happens to be an assistant football coach for the Huskies.

Zachary Capparell learned when Greene was a junior that this was not your average teen. Greene had explained that he would be in Panama playing for Team USA when his honors history course began and wondered if there was anything he could do, before, or during the tournament, to stay on track.

“Most kids would just say, ‘I can’t be there,’ but he was like a man already,” Capparell said this week. “He’s just a good kid — one of those kids you’d want in any class seven days a week.”

Capparell also would have appreciated Greene playing football for Hagerty:

“Sure,” Capperell said, chuckling, remembering a conversation or two with Greene. “What do you want to play — quarterback, running back, wide receiver — we can use you anywhere on the field?’

“He easily could have been all-state in basketball and football — and all-state in Florida is pretty good.”

As a freshman, he could slam-dunk a basketball, throwing it off the backboard, grabbing it and one-hand windmilling it home.  

Destined for the diamond

But there was a facing of facts early by Greene and by his family, as well as by his baseball coaches, Jered Goodwin, and later Matt Cleveland.

He was too suited to baseball’s dual demands of skill and discipline. Riley had the ability to hit, to play center field, or even to work as the Huskies’ bullpen closer (“88,” he said of his fastball — “I’d come in and blow ‘em away”).

He also had the toughness, and significantly, a rare mix of confidence and humility that in his parents’ and coaches’ minds might make baseball optimum.

For example: Riley got it when Cleveland would say, “You’ve got to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Riley Greene played in the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field in July 2018.

That was baseball in a nutshell — the hitting part, anyway.

His dad, who played just about every position at Florida IT, and also pitched, laughs when people think he sculpted his kid as some kind of baseball artwork.

“The running joke around here,” Alan Greene said, “was people saying they were going to call Child Protective Services because Riley was out here (at his training center) at 9 o’clock at night.

“And I’d say, no, you better call them and report Riley. His work ethic was always fantastic. He simply loved to work, and to hit, or whatever. You could just see the passion, all the way from T-ball.

“Any ball he picked up — a basketball, a football, a baseball — he wanted to be really good at it.”

The son understands what 2020 will be all about, beginning, probably, with a return trip to West Michigan and to spring nights that, early anyway, could be in the 30s — or colder.

“It’s no big deal,” said Greene, who loves Florida, its climate — and its fishing — so much he plans on doubling back to Oviedo when his baseball life is finished. “I’ll just wear more layers.”

Nor, for reasons tied to his roots, is he glum about a future long, hot summer at Single-A Lakeland, where high-90s weather and the Florida State League’s better pitching and bigger ballparks can make for one of the farm’s more rugged next-steps.

Navigating the minors

He got a taste of that during those three stops last summer.

“I learned that the minor leagues are a grind,” he said. “You better take it day by day. Because it’s tough.”

Here he was, still 18, processing professional baseball a few weeks after he had been walking Hagerty’s halls.

He saw the gradation at three levels.

“In the GCL,” he said, “they threw hard, but they didn’t throw strikes as much as they did at Connecticut.

“I would say the pitching at Connecticut was a little better. There was more command and more strikes.

“West Michigan? The pitching definitely was better. They throw three pitches there for strikes. It was kind of hard to hit.”

Riley Greene

He played center field last season and will stay there — for now. With his size, it’s more likely Greene will have shifted to a corner by the time he’s summoned to Detroit.

But there’s no rush by the Tigers nor by Greene to settle matters there.

“To be honest, it’s not a big deal,” he said. “Center field, right field, left field — put me at shortstop. I don’t care as long as I play.”

If there was one impression apart from minor-league realities that affected the Greenes, collectively, last summer, it was discovering Detroit.

And how it worships baseball.

Riley was blown away by the reception he got after the Tigers signed him and unveiled him at Comerica Park.      

He had already been impressed during pre-draft workouts by how “nice” everyone was — top to bottom.

Alan Greene was even more moved, beginning with a trip to West Michigan, where he saw big crowds and affection and an atmosphere he could hardly fathom.

But it was during that Detroit introduction that he got it: the town, the team, the ardor people have for a baseball team.

View of the future

“The stadium was beautiful,” he said of Comerica Park, “and then the reception — the way in which they welcomed Riley. It was unbelievable.

“We went to a restaurant, and I didn’t even think they knew him yet. But here they were, taking video of him while he was eating.

“Then, to meet Al Kaline, and have lunch with him and see how down to earth he was.

“I said, ‘Riley, do you know who Al Kaline is?’

“And he said, ‘Oh yeah. I just sent my buddy pictures.’”

Alan and Lisa and Riley were just as floored when invited to a certain private suite at Comerica.

“Just talking with the Ilitch family,” Alan said of the Tigers owners. “It was amazing. But it was like this from everyone to scouts, to the general manager, to the players.

“As a family, we were just in awe of the process and the procedures.”

Another process begins in all seriousness in a few weeks: Riley’s first full year of professional baseball.

It will help, of course, that he is a splendidly gifted athlete. It will help also that he is a strike-zone student, that he studies a particular day’s umpire as much as an opposing pitcher, hoping to get a bead on what pitches he’ll need to assess, and how the home-plate ump’s judging them.

Even on this day on TigerTown’s backfields, where for a few innings he found himself working as a designated hitter, Greene was fixated on other players’ swings, hoping to pick up something of value.

But maybe it’s just as important that he knows when to let all of it go. To wave his hand at baseball, even for a few hours. Fishing is one happy escape.

And sometimes, there are others.

He finished his teriyaki, dumped his trash, and excused himself for the day’s next task.

“Gonna do some shopping,” Greene said, heading for the mall’s corridors. “Got to look for some clothes.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.