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Surprise! He's outta this world

From The Chicago Sun-Times

He's a nice Jewish kid with roots in the Chicago area. But he discovered baseball in New Jersey, grew up in Southern California and now plays in Canada.

You might say Shawn Green is a player for the world. And in 1999, you might say he is having a season that's out of this world.

Gee, what's next? The World Series?

You better believe it. Green is one of the most surprising players on the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the American League's most surprising teams.

Maybe "surprising" isn't the right word here. "Unknown" might be a better adjective.

"Hey, we're foreigners, you know," Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi said about the lack of attention given to Green and the rest of the team. "We're Canadians."

A look at the stats and standings will prove something is going on here.

Green's stats say he is having a Most Valuable Player-type of season for a team that trails the New York Yankees by six games in the American League East and leads the wild-card race.

Shawn Green, you ask? Who's he?

He was born in northwest suburban Des Plaines. His father, Ira, graduated from Lane Tech and played basketball at DePaul from 1963 to 1965.

"I have an aunt and uncle here and cousins," said Green, whose family's last name used to be Greenberg. "This is kind of like home base for my family."

His grandmother still lives in the area, too.

Ira and Judy Green moved to New Jersey when Shawn was 1, but that is where he learned about pitcher Steve Stone, who won the Cy Young Award with the Baltimore Orioles in 1980.

"I knew that he was Jewish, and I would pay more attention to guys like that as someone I could relate to and be proud of," Green, 26, said.

There haven't been that many good Jewish baseball players--Hank Greenberg, Ron Blomberg and Sandy Koufax are among the best of them--but Green might turn out to be the best hitter of them all.

He has grown into a superstar and extended his hitting streak to 22 games Saturday. It's the longest hitting streak in the American League this year and matches the Blue Jays' record held by George Bell. Green is first in total bases, tied for first in doubles, third in home runs and first in slugging percentage. He also ranked first in fielding among right fielders.

And first in personality, too.

"A good guy, great kid," Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado said. "We've been friends for a long time. We have been friends since 1992 and came up together. We keep getting closer and closer.

"Anything good you could say about a person, that would be him."

Delgado and Green toured Europe together last winter, a strange couple if there ever was one.

"We like a lot of the same things because we've always been in the same boat together," Delgado said. "We came up together, we platooned at the same time and we started to play [regularly] together."

Green and Delgado are two reasons the Blue Jays are so good this season. They are the future of a franchise that wants to return to its glory years of back-to-back world championships in 1992 and 1993. The future is coming quickly for them and the team.

"Shawn Green is one of the best young players in baseball," Fregosi said. "When you talk about tools--a guy who can run, throw, hit, hit for power, steal bases and play defense--what more can you ask out of a guy?

"He reminds me, ability-wise with arm strength, speed and power, of Dave Parker when he was young. I mean, this kid hit 35 home runs and stole 35 bases, scored 100 runs and drove in 100 runs last year. And he's got 28 home runs and 80 RBI this season, and we're still in July and he missed [nine games] with a broken bone in his wrist.

"And he's a wonderful kid."

"Super young player," Blue Jays hitting coach Gary Matthews said. "He's one of the young superstars of the league. I don't know any player I would trade him for. And he's a very nice kid."

When you watch Green glide after the baseball or stride into a pitch, he obviously has something few other players do. It appears to be a natural baseball ability, although that is hard to define.

"I don't think there is such a thing [as a natural hitter]," Green said. "Pretty much everybody who has had success works at it. Maybe my body type is advantageous in getting leverage."

Green is 6-4 and surprisingly strong for someone considered slender.

"Yeah, I'm surprised by the power," he said. "I've always been more of a line-drive hitter. But the last couple of years, I've found more of a home-run swing."

Line drives, heck. He might look skinny, but he became only the second player in history to reach the fifth deck at SkyDome this season. And he also hits well above .300.

It might have come from years working in his backyard batting cage with his father. Or maybe it is his body type. Whatever, Green has become a good baseball player. A very good baseball player.

"He's probably the best hitter I've come across this season," White Sox pitcher Jim Parque said, even though Green went only 1-for-4 against him Friday. "I threw him some nasty pitches. I don't know how many he fouled off. I was pretty impressed."

The word has gotten around. Everyone is pretty impressed with Green, who showed his potential by becoming the first player in Blue Jays history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases last season.

Might 40-40 be in his future?

"I don't know about this year, but it would be a nice accomplishment, definitely," Green said. "I'd have to do lot running to get it this year.

"It's a tough thing to do, not only because you're hitting home runs and therefore are not on first base as much, but also because it's hard to keep your legs healthy through a long season."

Last season, he had teammate Jose Canseco, who became the first 40-40 man in baseball history in 1988, to encourage him and boost his confidence. Canseco is gone this season, but the reminder is there.

"He really pushed me last year and was a great influence," Green said. "He told me in spring training about 30-30, then kept reinforcing it during the season that I had a chance.

"Then when I got close to 30-30, he would say that you want to end up with 35-35, which is exactly the numbers I ended up with."

Not bad for a guy that some people in the Blue Jays' front office doubted would fulfill his potential a couple of years ago.

Now Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash gushes about Green, as does everybody but Green.

Asked how good he might become, Green replied: "I don't know. Right now, I'm enjoying this year and trying to stay consistent. That's something you get with experience. Young players go through a lot more ups and downs.

"Right now, I'm happy with the way things have progressed. I'm going to try to keep working."

This season, the world. Or is that the World Series?