The Long-Ago High School Season Behind The Rise Of Shane Greene

He never got to pitch. Instead, he shadowed the team's best pitcher.

Will Burchfield
April 25, 2019 - 9:39 am

Leon Halip / Stringer

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It was hot that afternoon, “hot as sh*t,” as Shane Greene recalls, one of those steamy days Central Florida is known for. Baseball practice was over, and now Greene had to go for a run. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t pitched yet that season. It didn’t matter that he wouldn’t pitch that season at all. Greene was a sophomore at East Ridge High School and a rookie on the varsity baseball team, and this was how things were done. The pitchers got their work in at practice, and then they ran the roads.

Nobody ran the roads, which formed a type of bowl around the school’s campus, harder than junior Stephen Batman. He was the ace of the baseball team and the quarterback of the football team, a football team that won more than 30 games in a row by the time he graduated. As if that wasn’t enough, Greene says now with a laugh, “his last name’s Batman.” Like the Superhero. Greene? He was just Shane, and only to the few around school who knew him. 

“Nobody knew who I was,” Greene says. “Everybody knew who Stephen Batman was.”

As a freshman at East Ridge in 2004, Greene, maybe 5’8 at the time, played JV baseball. He was a third baseman and a pitcher. He was “very, very mediocre,” says then-varsity coach Dave Bultema. He grew that summer, and the next year showed just enough potential to make the varsity squad as a pitcher. And then, as Greene said in a recent interview with 97.1 The Ticket, he watched the whole season from the bench. The closest he got to entering a game were the two times he warmed up. He remembers these occasions more vividly than almost any appearance in his high school career.

When Greene did pitch that season, it was for the JV team. Bultema often sent him down on game days. Otherwise, he wanted Greene in a varsity environment around varsity players. More than anyone else, Bultema wanted him around Batman. For as talented as Batman was – he would go on to have a successful baseball career at Florida Southern – he was just as diligent and just as mature. (As mature as a high school junior can be, anyway.) When the season began, Bultema told Greene to follow Batman’s every move.

“He just had the right character,” says Bultema, who was 24 years old at the time and in his first season as head coach. “I could tell those younger guys, ‘Hey, you do what he’s doing, you work as hard as he’s working, you’re going to be fine. And Shane really took to that.”

When Batman was in the weight room, so was Greene. When Batman threw a bullpen, so did Greene. (When Batman helped groom the mound each day, as was the pitching staff’s responsibility, Greene helped, too.) And when Batman ran the roads the day after pitching, Greene ran them with him. Often times, the two would set out alone and explore new neighborhoods going up in their town of Clermont, without really knowing where they were headed. Some five miles later they’d find their way back to campus.  

On that sweltering afternoon, though, the air sticking to their skin, Greene had a different idea.

“There was a neighborhood near school, and the neighborhood had a pool,” says Greene, already beginning to grin. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’ll meet you at the pool.’ So we took off, and 30 minutes later we were swimming in the pool down the street. Then we got out and ran back. We were kids, we were having fun, but Bultema was teaching us to have pride in what we do.”

In the improbable arc of Shane Greene’s career – one that saw him receive just a single college scholarship, one that saw him lose that scholarship in a matter of months due to an elbow injury, one that saw his fastball explode following rehab from Tommy John, one that saw him toil for several years in the minors, one that saw him fail as a big-league starter only to return as a reliever and morph into a closer who currently leads the American League in saves – the most defining season might be the one when he never threw a pitch.

Bultema laughs. Seriously? Not a single pitch?

“I would have thought he threw a few innings,” he says, “but I didn’t know he didn’t throw any. He would know better than I would."

For a sophomore on that team, there weren’t really any innings to be had. East Ridge played in the highest classification of Florida high school baseball against some of the best teams in the state. Greene didn’t throw much harder than 80 mph, and there were five or six more experienced pitchers ahead of him. He accepted the fact he was the odd man out, on a club that went 20-5.

“He’s a competitor, he wanted to pitch, but I also think he saw, alright, these guys are in front of me. He was very respectful,” says Bultema. “I’m sure he was frustrated – everybody wants to play – but it just wasn’t his time. He hadn’t earned his time yet. I think he appreciated that as it went on, and it probably played a role into who he is today because he had to work for things. He’s always had to work for things.”

In his playing days, Bultema was a pitcher himself. He made it as far as college, then decided he wanted to coach. He inherited quite the job at East Ridge, and realized right away he needed to delegate some of his responsibilities. So he leaned on Batman to set the tone for the pitching staff and, in particular, to show Greene the ropes. Some star players, especially at that age, might have resisted the idea of taking a sophomore under their wing. This was Stephen Batman, we’re talking about. What need did he have for a tagalong?

“I’ve got a little brother so I’m used to the tagalong, if you want to call it that,” says Batman. “But I took it more as a passing of the torch. I tried to give him everything I had and teach him everything I could so that he could be that next guy, and obviously he’s taken that to much greater lengths than anyone in our area ever has. It was kind of cool to have that little brother watching everything you do, trying to learn everything, and it held me accountable for making sure I was setting a good example.”

From a pitching perspective, Batman gave Greene the typical advice. He told him not to get hung up on strikeouts. He stressed the value of working deep into games. (Easy to say for the dude twirling a gem every start.) Greene soaked it all up, Batman says, “eager to learn in every aspect of the game.” What Batman really wanted to pass on went unspoken. It was a mentality conveyed anytime the two of them did arm-band exercises, lifted weights or climbed onto the mound: “Whatever you’re doing, always be perfecting your craft.” And Batman is the first to attribute this to Bultema.

If Bultema was young at the time, he wasn’t bashful. He ran a “hard-nosed” program, he says, demanding that his players work harder than perhaps they knew they could. Bultema admits his intensity grinded on some kids. For some of them it could be too much to handle. But from the very beginning it resonated with Greene. He shared his coach’s inclination to prove people wrong. Greene would play for Bultema in summer ball as well. 

As the season pressed on, Bultema helped Greene refine his mechanics. There’s only so much a 16-year-old can absorb, but two adjustments clicked. First, Greene changed his arm slot from over-the-top to three-quarters, which helped him find more movement on his pitches. It’s the same arm slot he uses today. More importantly, he adopted a new slider grip. Bultema remembers tinkering with that pitch, which was originally a slurve, but Greene isn’t sure his former coach knows just how much his input helped. 

“The craziest thing that he probably doesn’t even realize is, he was trying to teach me a cutter-slider sophomore year. And the grip that he showed me is the grip that I call my slider now. Realistically, it’s the pitch that got me to the big leagues,” Greene says. “It’s the pitch that I go to when I’m in trouble. It’s no secret that that’s what I’m going to throw.”

The more Greene sat on the bench that season, the hotter he burned to pitch. He was doing all the work behind the scenes, without any real chance to show it. His opportunity came the next season, armed with that "tight little spinner," says Bultema, a couple more miles per hour on his fastball and a fierce desire to prove his worth. In one of his first starts as a junior, Bultema recalls, Greene threw five or six shutdown innings against a great team. It was the first time Bultema thought Greene might go somewhere with his arm.  

“You were hoping it was going to be there, but he showed it right at the beginning of the season,” Bultema says. “I was like, ‘Okay, here we go.’”

Greene quickly established himself as one of the team’s top two or three pitchers, and East Ridge had another strong season. He didn’t pitch quite as well as a senior, but nonetheless helped East Ridge to a district championship in 2007, the only district championship the school’s baseball team has ever won. It was enough to earn him a scholarship to the University of West Florida, the lone college that came calling. When that college turned its back on him following Tommy John surgery his freshman season, Greene was left without a scholarship and a place to pitch.

So he channeled Bultema and Batman, that sense of resolve he learned from both, and decided to attack his rehab. He calls it the first of many just-in-case moments he’d encounter over the next several years. Greene knew that pitchers could come back from Tommy John throwing faster than before. Just in case that proved to be true for him, he vowed to clear every hurdle on the road to recovery.

“All my friends talk about it now,” says Greene. “We used to be out on the boat wakeboarding, and I’d make them drop me off at the dock three times during the day because I’d have to do my arm exercises in the house by myself. Just in case.”

Sure enough, Greene came back throwing in the low 90’s, harder than ever. This was in the spring of 2009. He was drafted by the Yankees soon thereafter. He quickly signed for $100,000 and began an arduous climb through the minor leagues at the age of 20. For a while, there were more stumbles than triumphs. Just when Greene started to find some sustained success, as a 24-year-old in Double-A, he was called into the manager’s office and delivered a startling command. That slider, the one he learned from Bultema, needed to be thrown out.

“They told me that I have to change up my slider grip because it’s not going to work in the big leagues because it didn’t have enough depth,” says Greene. “I just stuck to my guns and kept throwing it.”

Greene, now 30, nods his head toward the mound at Comerica Park. He’s standing in the tunnel between the Tigers’ dugout and the clubhouse, rain pouring from the sky. “And here I am,” he adds, “still throwing it.”

No big-league closer has gotten off to a better start this season than Greene. This season? How about all time. Green’s eight saves through Detroit’s first 12 games set an MLB record. The Tigers are up to 12 wins – don’t look now – and Greene has shut the door in 11 of them. He ranks eighth among qualifying relievers in both WHIP (0.62) and batting average against (.114). This comes after a season in which he finished with a 5.12 ERA. As Bultema points out, Greene has started strong before, though obviously not as strong as this. The key will be carrying it through the year.

Bultema and Batman still watch Greene pitch. They both happen to live close to the Tigers’ facility in Lakeland, so they catch a few games each spring. When the season starts, Bultema says he rarely misses an appearance, and his two oldest sons, ages 10 and 12, fill him in whenever he does. They’re two of Greene’s biggest fans. The 12-year-old changed his jersey number a couple years ago to match Greene’s No. 61, and the 10-year-old has taken to chest-bumping his catcher after he closes out a game. Tigers fans will be familiar with that image.

When Greene heard about this from Bultema, he texted him back and reminded the youngster – “in typical Shane fashion,” Bultema says with a laugh – to complete the entire routine and first slap his chest. Then chest bump his catcher. Bultema's son was “smiling ear to ear" when he got Greene’s message.

As much as Greene has stayed true to his 16-year-old self on the mound, so has he inevitably changed. He’s bigger and stronger and throws in the mid 90’s. That’s all easy to see. To Batman and Bultema, though, the biggest difference is something less tangible.

“Maturity is the first thing that comes to my mind,” says Batman. “Just maturity in the way he throws. His aggression and his ferocity on the mound. He’s much more deliberate. There’s just an internal confidence. When we were 16, 17 years old, ultimately there’s kind of a goofy high school aspect that goes into that. I mean, we were both, 6’4, 175 pounds graduating high school, you can’t not be goofy at that time. But to see him as that professional guy, he knows what he’s doing and he’s confident in what he’s doing.”

Bultema can sense the same thing every time he watches Greene pitch, either in person or on TV. It’s a sight, now and then, that still makes him shake his head. Looking back on that sophomore in high school, Bultema would be lying if he said he saw Greene’s rise coming: “I don’t think anybody did.” Even Greene, for all of his self-belief, would be stretching the truth. “Surprised?” Bultema asks. “Yeah.”

Greene didn’t necessarily lack confidence in high school, but it came in bursts. Now it’s constant. Bultema hears it in Greene’s voice when the two of them talk, and he can see it in his posture when he stands on the mound with the game on the line.  

“He knows he belongs there,” says Bultema.

More than anywhere else, Greene seems to belong in the ninth. Back when he ran the roads with Batman, the two of them always raced to the finish line.

“We stayed neck and neck all the way around,” says Batman, “and once we came down the home stretch, it was like, alright, gloves are off. Let’s go.”

In most cases, Greene finished first. He insists he wasn’t any faster than Batman, he just had the capacity to empty the tank. Even now, when he runs foul poles in big-league stadiums, he runs the last one the hardest. It’s a battle against himself, a test of his own will. And when Greene takes the mound in the ninth inning, the finish line in sight, that battle rages on. Sure, there’s the hitter staring back at him, but it’s really Greene staring into himself. Can he harness his nervous energy? Can he summon the right pitch?

“It’s the last half mile of that five-mile run,” says Greene, glancing again toward the mound. “You just flip that switch and you go, pedal to the medal. That’s all you can do.”

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