INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The way to Darby Park skirts The Forum, once The Fabulous Forum, home of Showtime, the best of the NBA’s past. The way ducks beneath the soaring yellow cranes that brick by brick, beam by beam, dollar by dollar, shape the NFL’s future.
Darby Park, not far from the corner of Crenshaw and Manchester, its charming little ballfield, its spotless community center named for Martin Luther King, you sort of have to know where it is.
That arena and those cranes, they cast long shadows here, even late on a Sunday morning, the sun directly overhead. Nobody bothered to notice.
In the center’s gym, more than a hundred small faces — intent, dreamy, multi-colored, tucked under new red caps — looked to Hunter Greene, part of the next generation baseball fears for, the next generation to be swept up by Showtime basketball and opulent football.
He held a microphone. He’d been talking about discipline. Showing up, having a plan, abiding the plan even when it isn’t always all that fun, making the choices that result in proud parents, presentable grades and, who knows, a $7-million check to play baseball. Then he lost his voice. Somewhere between describing the rigors of getting up early and brushing your teeth and staying up late and getting your homework done, Hunter Greene stopped, and all those young and old eyes widened, and he said finally, “I’m gonna get emotional. I’m sorry.”
See, the thing is, he explained, “I want to be a baseball star, too.”
He seems like a good young man, Hunter Greene. Dad’s proud. Mom’s proud. Perfect haircut. Fast, brilliant smile. Nice friends. Fastball that comes in at 102.
He’s 18 and only recently got around to getting his driver’s license, because, maybe, as his dad says, “Make the main thing the main thing,” so for Hunter that might have meant school and ball and collecting and donating all those hygiene kits and socks for the folks on Skid Row, and maybe that didn’t leave a lot of time for driver’s ed. He’s 18 and a multi-millionaire with four-plus innings of pro ball behind him. He’s 18 and he throws a free baseball camp for boys and girls in Inglewood and Dave Winfield and Eric Davis and Noah Syndergaard show up, and a dozen corporate sponsors chip in, and a bunch of guys he played travel ball with or hung out at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton with whip Wiffle balls at campers and mind the comebackers.
These are six of the most wholesome hours you can spend anywhere, and at the center of it all is Hunter Greene, 18 years old, giving life advice, holding them accountable, and damn if it doesn’t feel authentic and honest and exactly what those hundred pairs of eyes and ears needed to see and hear. And if not, hey, you try. You try to talk to them. You try to reason with them. You stand up straight and look them in the eye and you ask what their dream is, and when one of those perfect little knuckleheads is asked, and he says, “I want to be a baseball star,” that sort of sticks in your soul, and you might need a moment, too. ‘Cause who didn’t want to be a baseball star at 9?
Those boys, many with their legs dangling from folding chairs, their slender shoulders leaning into their moms, their dads, or both, seemed to sense more about Hunter Greene, about this day down at the park. Not a mile away, the cranes bring change. They pay no mind to the shadows, though, no mind to somebody else’s dream. They have new red caps and a raked infield and a young man who could be their big brother catching himself, vulnerable, because he wants what they want. And as hard as the past decade’s been for him, it could be the next decade is going to be harder, so everybody’s dreams are out there somewhere, some closer than others, but still out there.
“He’s trying to give to them what was given to him,” Hunter Greene’s mother, Senta, said. “He’s seeing all these young faces. It hit him as he stood up and addressed them.”
Hunter grinned an unspoken question: “You saw that, huh?”
“Yeah, everything was coming together, everything I’d learned at such a young age,” Greene said. “I see myself in those kids. I almost bawled out right there.”
On their way to Darby Park on Sunday morning, past that arena, under those cranes, Hunter and his father, Russell, had talked. Seven months before, Hunter had graduated from high school. He’d gone second in the draft, to the Cincinnati Reds. He’d spent part of the summer in Montana, rookie ball, throwing some innings, taking some swings. So it had begun for the young man with the big shoulders, the big arm, handshake and eye contact practiced until confident and perfect, for the young African-American man who’d be the next whatever he wanted to be. A baseball player.
“He asked me,” Russell Greene said, “‘Dad, why do I have to wait until I’m a big leaguer to make a difference?’ ”
Things happen. Sometimes difficult things. Sometimes the game just isn’t for you, turns out. Sometimes your sister gets leukemia. Things.
“Anything can happen to me,” Hunter had said.
So, they’d picked out Darby Park, where Erikk Aldridge, founder of the Inglewood Baseball Fund, had been building ballplayers and shaping children for years, and where Hunter had logged innings as a youth. They’d chosen a message of standards, what the Greene family calls its pillars, “The integrity, the humility, the compassion, courage and discipline,” Hunter said, “to be the right person off the field.” They’d offered a day of encouragement, of laughter, of free lunch. Then, on the way home, they’d hope they’d reached them all, and maybe settle on a few, even one.
Eric Davis, 55, stood with all those Reds caps bobbing around him, about elbow high. Still lean. Still worried for what comes off those streets out there, the streets that finally took his brother, the streets these boys walk.
“First thing,” he said, “you hope they’re listening. If they’re not listening then there is no hope. But somebody will get it. It might be one. Might be five. No one knows who’s going to get it. But somebody’s going to.
“It’s not baseball, man. It’s life. How do you view yourself? Where do you want to go? And do you have a plan to get there?”
A photographer asked Davis to stand beside Hunter Greene.
“Old and the new?” Davis said.
He was asked if he played on these fields back when.
“I touched every field in this city,” Davis said, smiling.
Touched, he was asked, or blessed?
The eyes of the fathers followed Davis around the room. Followed Winfield. When Syndergaard was introduced, every kid sat up and turned to find the hulking New York Mets pitcher in the back of the room. He waved and smiled. And then Hunter Greene, 18 and still dreaming himself, said hello. They said hello back. He said he wanted to play ball. They said they wanted to play ball.
“And if their dream is not scary enough, maybe it’s not the right dream,” he said. “My dream scares me. I know that I’m going to do well. I’m trying to do well as much as I can. It’s a long road ahead of me and I have to be healthy. I’m hoping to have a 20-year career. Anything can happen between that time. I have to take care of myself and I have to take care of the people around me.”
It can happen, he said. Here, it can happen. In the shadow, it can happen.
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