It is an idyllic February afternoon in Florida, the sun warm on a northerner's neck, a soft breeze swishing through the palms beyond the outfield fence. Their morning workout done, four Blue Jays turn centre field into a soccer pitch. As usual, Russ Martin leads the pack, having plucked an orange soccer ball from his locker near the clubhouse door.
Joining Martin are two more veterans, Jose Bautista and Darwin Barney. But they have also welcomed a lanky, loose-limbed youth who oozes athleticism and breaks out a big grin every now and then, as though he can't believe his good fortune.
It is my first day in Dunedin, and I do not recognize the new kid in town. Then, as I train my telephoto lens on him, the kid does this:
"Who's that?" I ask a writer whose arrival preceded mine.
"That's Conner Greene," he replies.
"The hotshot pitching prospect?"
"Was that a back flip?"
OK, then. Let's talk to Conner Greene.
If you're an attentive Blue Jays fan, you know that after Alex Anthopoulos traded away prospects for a division championship, Conner Greene was pretty much the last man standing in the pitchers' queue. Good thing, too, because pitching is the coin of the realm, and for all the Jays know, those alleged blue-chippers deep in the minors might turn into fool's gold.
Attentive fans might also know that Conner Greene's backstory features several intriguing sidebars.
Tommy Hilfiger model at the age of four. "I did not even know what was going on," he says. He does now.
Boy gymnast, whirling on the rings. "Cool flips and stuff," he says.
California surfer dude. "I do it every time there's a swell in town," he says.
Oh, and a fast friend of Charlie Sheen. Yes, that's Conner Greene in the background in a couple of Anger Management episodes.
Now that you're sufficiently distracted by surf and celebrity, maybe you don't even care if the kid can pitch. But we would not be here, doing this, if he couldn't.
He still has a lot to prove. He doesn't turn 21 until April 4. Still skinny, still growing, still working on his curveball. But last season, his third in the pros, he turned a corner: three rapid-fire rungs on the minor-league ladder, a 3.54 ERA and increased fastball velocity (reaching the high-90s, maybe with a little help from his surfing adventures). He wound up at Double-A after starting the season in extended spring training.
"We challenged him with a couple levels in the minors and he performed well at each one. It was a really breakout year for him," says assistant general manager Tony LaCava.
When Blue Jays scouts pick out a pitching prospect to watch, they look for a power arm, a big body and singular athleticism. Greene checks all three boxes. He throws hard. He stands 6'3" and weighs 190 pounds. His delivery is fluid. He is quick off the mound and nimble on his feet.
"You draw up a pitcher's body, that's pretty much what you're looking for," LaCava tells me. "His delivery's good. His arm works good. He's got good rhythm and timing.
"We project him to fill out. Each year he's gotten a little stronger. It's happening in a real organic way. He's becoming a man."
Greene is the Blue Jays' consensus No. 2 prospect behind outfielder Anthony Alford. Both earned invitations to major-league camp so they could soak up the big-league ambiance for a few weeks. In the process, Greene turned some coaches' heads and earned an invitation to Martin's soccer scrimmage.
It looks like the new kid in town fit right in.
"I can't say that yet," Greene says. "I haven't proven myself whatsoever. But they really have made it a feel-at-home environment. Here I am with Russell Martin. A couple years ago, being from L.A., I was a huge Dodgers fan and a huge fan of him. And now that I can be potentially pitching to him this year, it's such an honour. Kicking the soccer ball around with him is an amazing experience. I don't think I ever thought in a million years that I would have got that chance."
Before the Jays sent him back to the minor-league complex last week, they gave Greene a couple of cameos in exhibition games. He hit 98, allowed no runs and whiffed three in two innings. Greene is the only one doing back flips over two shutout innings against big-league scrubs, but the Jays' deep thinkers were nodding their approval.
Greene is destined to start his season in Double-A. He may not pitch to Russ Martin this year. But stranger things have happened.
Now, to the sidebars.
Modeling? Greene started young and fast, and picked up a few more gigs growing up.
"My momma put me into little Tommy Hilfiger baby-modeling stuff," he says. "I was like four years old, in a stepping-into-spring edition. I got the cover of a magazine. I did not even know what was going on. I used to cry about it. I hated it, because you had to drive a couple hours for casting and you might not get the job. I stopped hating it once I realized, I guess, I liked being in front of the camera a little bit."
Gymnastics? He started that at age five and never stopped.
"That's how I came to learn the cool flips and stuff," he says. "The rings just carried on over to baseball and I did it all through high school. My arm felt good. I don't want to say it was because of the rings, but it might have helped get me stronger. I'd say I was 17 probably when I started learning how to do the really cool stuff, the acrobatics kind of stuff."
Surfing? Hey, if you're a teenage athlete in sunny Santa Monica, of course you surf.
"If [the waves] are three to six feet out, I'll be out on the water," he says. "I am not even close to professional level, but I am better than most kooks, as we say."
The Blue Jays grabbed Greene in the seventh round of the 2013 draft for $100,000. In his brief time as a pro, he came to realize that surfing helped his pitching. Well, not the surfing itself, but the paddling that gets you there.
"It actually can be very beneficial to a throwing program, keeping the scaps [shoulder blades] down and back while you paddle," he says. "It's almost like doing any type of rehab for your shoulder and arm.
"I realized that this was almost exactly the same thing as I do in the training room, so I'm conscious of it now. I take care of my arm while I'm catching waves."
Therapeutic surfing. Some folks get all the good prescriptions.
He cautions me not to overdo the Charlie Sheen angle, which tends to turn up early in every Conner Greene profile.
They've hung out. They've played catch. Greene has thrown batting practice to Sheen. ("I gave it to him easy.") But it's not like they run with the same posse in the offseason.
One of Greene's high school coaches, Tony Todd, is a lifelong friend of Sheen's. They played baseball together at Santa Monica High. When Greene played at the same school, he pestered Todd to introduce him to Sheen. Todd's reply: "You get drafted, you get to shake hands with a star."
"So, sure enough, I got drafted, and the next day I was up at his house playing catch with Charlie," Greene recalls. "He is a huge baseball fan. It's just an honour to play catch with someone like that."
Sheen played a crooked outfielder in Eight Men Out and an erratic pitcher in the two Major League movies. During batting practice with the Blue Jays in 2012, the actor whacked a few line drives.
"He might be able to hop into a minor league lineup right now," Greene says. "He's got a good left-handed swing."
I ask how he feels about Sheen's high-profile infamy. Greene replies that he's only an extra in Sheen's life, as he was in Sheen's TV series.
"Our worlds are completely separate," he says. "I'm not really involved in anything he does. I look at him just as a friend and if I could be there to help him with anything, I would. And he's helped me out. Baseball is always first, so I'm not too worried about it, just because I'm not going to be involved in that kind of limelight."
The Blue Jays will not rush Greene, who has all of five Double-A starts to his name. Drafted in 2013, he worked 132.1 innings last year, more than double his total over the previous two seasons. Building up his endurance for six months of solid work is a priority.
"Greene's first season in full-season ball went better than anyone expected," according to his scouting report in Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. "He may spend all of 2016 back in Double-A as he tries to polish his curveball and overall command. He has the pieces to mature into a No. 2 starter."
LaCava resists the temptation to hang that label on a skinny 20-year-old.
"I don't want to put too many expectations on him," LaCava says. "We do feel he's going to be a quality major-league starter. He's got all the potential to do that. We think he's going to be a good one."
If that pans out, Conner Greene might find a few modeling gigs in Hollywood North. He likes the camera, and it likes him.
"If the opportunity ever comes up," he says with a smile, "I'll never say no."
All photos by John Lott