The lefthanded hitter fouls off yet another pitch in the batting cage at SkyDome, and as he walks away from the plate, he shows his disgust by snatching the bat with his left hand.
Dont worry, Shawn, says a 12-year-old blonde waiting by the cage with a bat on her shoulder. Just keep your shoulder in.
Thanks, Jordan, he tells her. Thats a good tip.Upon which, he turns and says, Hi, Im Shawn Green of the Toronto Blue
Jays. Major League Baseball is holding a series of clinics this summer to give girls 8 and over a chance to improve their baseball skills. Then Green gets back in the cage and, with his honey-sweet swing, raps a pitch off the wall in center. Watch out, guys, he says to the camera. Look whos playing now.
Thats great, Shawn, says Russell Gabay, the head of MLBs television unit.But can we get you back in the cage for one more shot?
Sure, says Green. I like hitting. As his bubbie might say, Whats not to like? Before Yankee Andy Pettitte hit Green on the left wrist with a pitch on May 28, sidelining him temporarily, the Jays 26-year-old rightfielder and No. 3 hitter led the AL in total bases (130) and stood third in RBIs (48) and HRs (15), while batting .327. He must also like running, because he has 10 stolen bases. And the Blue Jays certainly like his fielding, because theyre already talking him up for a Gold Glove.
When I took over, I knew Shawn was good, says Jim Fregosi, who was named Toronto manager in spring training. I didnt know he was this good. Hes a five-tool player. How many of those are there in baseball? Hell, if he was in New York, hed be huge. Hed make them forget Ron Blomberg.
Well never forget Ron Blomberg. By we, we dont mean New York baseball fans, and neither did Fregosi. We are Jewish baseball lovers, keepers of the faith that, someday, another Jewish ballplayer will come along to take his place alongside Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
We know every major leaguer of Jewish descent, past and present. We knowthat Lipman Pike was the first professional baseball player (the 1866 Philadelphia Athletics paid him $20 a week), that the Cubs havent won since Johnny Kling stopped catching for them (1900-11), that Moses Solomon of the 1923 Giants was The Rabbi of Swat, that light-hitting Moe Berg was a catcher on the 1932 All-Star tour of Japan because he was also a spy, that Al Rosen was the 1953 AL MVP, that Bo Belinsky threw a no-hitter in 1962, that Moe Drabowsky fanned six straight Dodgers in the 66 Series, that Blomberg was the very first DH in 1973, that Steve Stone won the AL Cy Young in 1980.
We know all that, yet we also know that our obsession is fueled by the scarcity of Jewish ballplayers. Deuteronomy tells us, The Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people. The Baseball Encyclopedia tells us just how special: Some pitchers, a fair number of second-string catchers, several slow-footed outfielders and first basementhats pretty much it. Adam Sandler may claim Rod Carew in The Chanukah Song, but thats cheating. (Though Rod married a Jewish woman, he never actually converted.)
We write books about Jewish baseball stars (Jewish Baseball Stars, The Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame), we write novels about baseball (The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Great American Novel), we even write scholarly treatises on our need to write about baseball (www.jewishsports.com: Why So Many Jewish Baseball Writers Love Baseball). Why? Suffice to say, our ethnic identity longs to break into the lineup of the national pastime.
I think the first Jewish player I was ever aware of was Steve Stone, says Green, who was 7 and living in New Jersey when the Orioles pitcher won the Cy Young. When youre Jewish and dreaming about playing in the major leagues, it helps to have someone like you whos succeeded.
Greens emergence as a star has helped foster his Jewish identity; the name Shawn isnt typically Jewish, and Green was shortened from Greenberg by his paternal grandfather. Its a little early to talk him up for Cooperstown, but Green is the kind of player Jews have never had before. Not only did he become the first Jay to steal 30 bases (35) and hit 30 homers (35) in the same year, he is the first Jewish 30-30. Finally, after 133 years, a five-tool Jew.
I dont know about that distinction, says Green. But I do get a kick out of being for Jewish kids what Hank Greenberg was for my zaidie [grandfather], what Sandy Koufax was for my father, what Steve Stone was for me.
These are heady days for Jewish baseball fans. For the first time in years,were close to a minyanthe 10 men needed to start a Hebrew prayer service. Besides Green, we can count on Gabe Kapler, Seth Greisinger and Brad Ausmus (Tigers), Mike Lieberthal (Phillies), Al Levine (Angels) and Scott Radinsky (Cardinals), while hoping that Keith Glauber (Reds), Jesse Levis (Devil Rays) and Tony Fossas (Yankees) are summoned from the minors.
Compare that congregation to the one in 1985, when we had well, Rod Carew. That was also the year a feature story appeared in The Orange County Register about a 12-year-old phenom who had a string of 15 hitless innings, a .717 batting average and dreams of being a major leaguer. The only hint that little Shawn Green might be Jewish was contained in a quote from his mother, Judy, who, when asked what would happen if he didnt make the majors, said, Hell just become a doctor.
Nowadays, Ira and Judy Green run a baseball school and batting range in Santa Ana, Calif., called The Baseball Academy. Picture, for a moment, a combination of Charley Lau and Helen Seinfeld. Every once in a while, says Judy, Ill get a call from one of our students in the middle of a Little League game. Aunt Judy, hell say, I just roped a double. While Shawn was growing up, Ira Green worked in sales for Johnson & Johnson, moving his family of four from Chicago to New Jersey to San Jose to, finally, Tustin, Calif. There, he set up a batting cage and pitching machine for Shawn. Ira, who played basketball at DePaul for Ray Meyer, saw the possibilities.
He had the talent and the love for the game, says Ira. We just didnt know how big he would get. When he was 12, he was maybe 85 pounds. As a freshman at Tustin High, Shawn came to the attention of John Cole, a Jays scout in Orange County. Says Cole: We had a scouts league each fall, an easygoing environment for kids. We liked what we saw of Shawn, but he was
pretty skinny and had never used wooden bats. Every year he got bigger, and every year the ball went farther. By the time he was a senior, every scout in the country knew about him.
Green was also a straight A student headed for Stanford. The Jays, who made him their No. 1 pick, the 16th selection in the 1991 draft, had until the first dayof classes at Stanford to sign him. The Greens and agent Jeff Moorard struck a hard bargain, but eventually Jays GM Pat Gillick came through with $750,000the third-highest bonus in draft history at the timeon the day before classes. Shawn, who stayed on at Stanford as a psychology major, donated a nice chunk of change to the baseball program.
His rise through the Jays system was rapidmaybe too rapid. When he arrived for good in 1995, following a .344 season at Syracuse, he came with some pretty heavy expectations. Despite a .288 average with 15 homers in 379 rookie at-bats, manager Cito Gaston and his staff began finding reasons why the kid wasnt what he was cracked up to be.
His feet were too big (size 13). He worked too hard. He was too smart for his own good. He was too nice.
As Green found out, a baseball stereotype is sometimes as stubborn as an ethnic stereotype. Its a good thing he was a psych major, because the Jays played mind games with him. Unhappy with his outfield play, they would make him stand at the wall with his back to the plate during spring drills and have him react to the sound of fungoes. (Gastons staff privately referred to
Green and his best friend, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, as Beavis and Butt-head.)
Says Green: I have nothing against Cito. I just needed to play more. I never had trouble hitting lefthanders until I got here and was told I did.
Gaston was fired near the end of the 1997 season and replaced by Tim Johnson. Say what you will about Johnson, who was fired this spring for telling war stories about a war he didnt serve in, but he installed Green near the top of the order on a regular basis and kept him there despite public skepticism. Green had one other big booster last year: Jose Canseco, the Blue Jays DH. Right from the start, Jose was telling me I could do 30-30. I didnt believe him in the beginning, but he kept on me about it until I did believe it.
Being the first Jewish 30-30 isnt as important to Shawn as it might be to the rest of us, or as important as winning is. I came up in the Blue Jays organization when they were winning back-to-back World Series, and SkyDome was filled, says Green, who will be Toronto property through the 2000 season. I dont like losing or empty seats, but I love Toronto and I want to be around when the Jays are back in the Series and the place is packed.
And Toronto loves him, not just for of his stats but also because of his Ripkenesque agreeability to autographs. He even has his own souvenir jersey (Green 15)another Jewish first. Speaking of which, he fields scores of bar mitzvah invitations from Torontos large Jewish community. He has been prominently featured in The Canadian Jewish News, The Jerusalem Post, New Jersey Jewish News and Shofar. Nobody yet has had the chutzpah, however, to run Kiss That Baby Shalom or Joltin Jew or Hebrew Natural headlines.
Chicago is also a hotbed of support. Thats where his 77-year-old grandmother, Sara, liveswith her DirecTV hookup so she can watch all his games. She and her friends talk about Shawns game the next day, says Judy Green. And Shawn calls her every week. Last year, when Shawn had to fulfill his end of a bet by bleaching his hair blond, he waited until after the Jays had left Chicago so as not to give bubbie any tsuris.
As more and more Jews have become aware of Green, Green has become more and more aware of his Judaism. We were always proud of our heritage, Ira Green says, but Shawn wasnt bar mitzvahed, and we werent very observant. Thanks to baseball, Shawn is now really in touch with his Judaism, and I think its wonderful.
Would Green do as Koufax did in the 65 Series and refuse to play on Yom Kippur? I wouldnt play, but I dont have to worry about that this year. Weve got an off day on Yom Kippur [Sept. 20]. How does Green deal with the strong presence of the Christian-based Baseball Chapel? All the guys have been great, he says. They occasionally ask me if Ill join them in their bible study groups, and I usually answer, Old Testament or New?
Says Cole, For as long as Ive known Shawn, his religion never really came up. Actually, thats not true. This spring, I heard that he and Carlos Delgado vacationed together in Europe after the season. When I saw him, I kidded him, That must have been a sight, a black Puerto Rican first baseman and a Chicago Jewish outfielder traveling through Europe.
Of the vacation, Green says, Franceeh, the French werent very nice. Spainvery cool. Italythe Colosseum is even more impressive than SkyDome. The only people who recognized us were Canadians. They wondered what we were doing there.
What they were doing was what friends do. No matter their backgrounds.
After a second spot for Major League Baseball wraps, Gabay, the MLB TV head, is told that Green is Jewish. No kidding? he says. We chose him for the spots because hes one of the best young players in the game, hes good-looking and he projects well. Jewish? Cool.
Even cooler is the way Shawn Green plays the game. Right after the promotional spots were filmed, the Blue Jays played the Red Sox: He stole second and third in the first inning, doubled in the fifth, put the Jays ahead with a sol homer in the seventh, stroked an RBI single in a rally that fell just short.