Lakeland, Fla. — It was about 1:45 p.m. Monday when Riley Greene, in a full lather, came back into the clubhouse.
“Somebody’s been working,” he was told.
“I’m always working,” he said. “If you catch me not working one day, I want you to write it. Like, “Riley Greene was out there just dogging it.’”
Never going to happen. Not in games, not in team workouts and not in individual workouts. It’s just not in him.
Greene wasn’t on the Tigers’ travel squad for the game against the Yankees in Tampa Monday night. Instead, in the hot Florida sun, Greene went through a full baseball workout on the back fields at TigerTown – defensive work, cage work, conditioning.
It’s what he’s always done. He loves it. Truly. What seems like labor to most of us is fun for him. He got to talking about that Monday, reminiscing about his four years at Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla., playing alongside current Atlanta Braves shortstop Vaughn Grissom and a handful of other players who would end being recruited to play college baseball.
“The cool thing about it, that whole Hagerty team, we grew up playing on the same travel ball team,” Greene said, still wiping the perspiration off his forehead. “We were so close. The team chemistry was there. I mean, if you mic’d us up and had a camera following us every day, it’d be like a movie.
“A lot of guys would be like, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to practice.’ We were always so happy to go to practice because that’s where we could be ourselves and hang out together.”
Every offseason Greene goes back to Hagerty and hits with Grissom and Orioles’ Ryan Mountcastle and, this year, the Mets’ Daniel Vogelbach. The conditioning work they do, well, it’s not for the lazy or unmotivated.
“Vaughn, man, he works super hard,” Greene said. “We worked together the whole offseason and he was out there with us every day just grinding. He would take hundreds of ground balls a day and I would hop in with him and do some outfield stuff on the infield.
“After a while I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t keep up with you right now. I’m dying.’ He’d say, ‘No, dude. I’ve got to feel it.”
In so many ways, Grissom and Greene are alike. Both share a relentless passion to be great. But there’s a part of Greene, too, that’s a little in awe of Grissom. While Greene was the fifth overall pick in 2019 and got a $6.18 million signing bonus, Grissom went in the 11th round to the Braves and signed for $350,000.
He had made a commitment to Florida International University and could have gone back into the draft the next year. But where he was coming from financially, a little bit of money was better than no money. All he wanted was a foot in the door. He knew he’d take care of the rest.
They made their big-league debuts two months apart, Greene in June and Grissom in August.
“I’m so proud of him for how hard he worked,” Greene said. “A lot of guys would be like, ‘Yeah, I made it to pro ball, I’m good.’ No. He’s a guy that’s going to give you everything. Like he’s going to leave it on the field.”
Greene kept talking about Grissom, but he could’ve been talking about himself, too. It’s like they share DNA.
“He’s a guy you hate playing against, but you love having him on your team,” Greene said. “That’s what it’s about. When he’s on your team, he’s got your back. He’s the first one on the field if something happens and he’s the last one to leave. Like, he’s a dog and I love him for that.”
There’s a lot of dog in Greene, too. Take the whole diving for balls issue. Per Sports Info Solutions, Greene led the Major Leagues last year with nine diving catches. He probably led in diving attempts, too, which has been cause for at least modest concern in the organization.
It’s a risk-reward thing. The more he dives, the more he risks injury. So, do you think he’s going to dive less this year?
“Nah,” he said. “I’m going to play hard every day.”
Not for himself, not to get on the highlight shows. For the team.
“I always say I’m playing for that guy on the mound because he’s working his ass off trying to throw strikes, trying to get guys out,” Greene said. “When someone puts a barrel on the ball, I want to make a play for him. I want to get him into that dugout as soon as possible. That’s just my thinking behind it.
“Nothing is going to change. Just keep playing hard.”
At the request of manager AJ Hinch and outfield coach George Lombard, though, Greene will at least try to be a little more judicious about it.
“There were some balls last year I shouldn’t have dived for,” he said. “But that’s just the competitor in me. I want to make the catch. But like when a ball is over my head and I have to dive into the wall – maybe not do that. But other than that, I’m playing hard.”
Hinch told Greene last week that he was putting him in the multi-positional group. Greene played exclusively center field last year and is expected to do the same this season. But Hinch wants to explore all possible lineup configurations, so Greene will be playing some right and-or left field this spring.
How did Greene take the news? How do you think.
“It does not matter to me whatsoever,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help the team, I’ll do it. If he wants me to play shortstop, I’ll do it. I don’t really care. I’m going to play hard wherever I play.”
He’s only in his second big-league season, so Greene doesn’t have a ton of leverage here, obviously. But still, he is a No. 5 overall pick and vital to the future success of this team. Why wasn’t there at least a little push back on this?
“Because I trust AJ,” Greene said. “I trust that whatever he’s doing for me is best for the team. And that’s what I want.”
This team-first selflessness, the work ethic, his intrinsic drive and competitiveness, his steadfast belief – these things aren’t part of an analytical spread sheet. They are not factored into projective algorithms.
When the folks at Baseball Prospectus rate him well below average on their defensive runs created scale and compare him historically to the likes of Melky Cabrera and Lastings Milledge, when Baseball Reference projects a .258 batting average and a .707 OPS with seven home runs and 43 RBI in 2023, they aren’t inputting any human intangibles.
Sometimes those cold actuarial projections are accurate, absolutely. More times than you might think. But with Greene, knowing what we know, seeing what we see, they feel maybe a tad disrespectful.
We shall see.