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Bat Mitzvah

By Steve Wulf For ESPN Magazine

The lefthanded hitter fouls off yet another pitch in the batting cage at Skydome, and as he walks away from home plate, he shows his disgust by snatching the bat with his left hand.

"Don't 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. "That's a good tip."

Upon which, he turns and says, "Hi, I'm 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 who's playing now."

"That's great, Shawn," says Russell Gabay, the head of MLB's 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, What’s 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 Jays' certainly like his fielding, because they're already talking 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 didn't know he was this good. He's a five-tool player. How many of those are there in baseball? Hell, if he was in New York, he'd be huge. He'd make them forget Ron Blomberg."

We'll never forget Ron Blomberg. By we, we don' mean New York baseball fans, 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 Hand Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

We know every major leaguer of Jewish descent, past and present. We know that Lipman Pike was the first professional baseball player (the 1866 Philadelphia Athletics paid him $20 a week), that the Cubs haven't won since Johnny Kling stopped catching for them (1900-1911), 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 that chosen the 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 basemen---- that’s 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, 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 ( "Why So Many Jewish Baseball Writers Love Baseball"), Why? Suffice to say, our ethnic identically 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 you’re Jewish and dreaming about playing in the major leagues, it helps to have someone like you who’s succeeded.”

Green’s emergence as a star has helped foster his Jewish identity; the name Shawn isn’t typically Jewish, and Green was shortened from Greenburg by his parental grandfather. It’s a little early to talk him up for Cooperstown, but Green is the kind of player Jews have never seen 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.

These are heady days for Jewish baseball fans. For the first time in years, we’re close to minyan-- the 10 men needed to start a Hebrew prayer service. Besides Green, we can count on Gabe Kapler, Seth Greisinger and Brad Ausmus(Tigers), Mike Leiberthal (Phillies), Al Levine (Angels), and Scott Radinsky (Cardinals), while hoping that Keith Glauber (Reds), Jesse Lecis (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 2/3 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 didn’t make the majors, said, “He’ll become a doctor.”

While Shawn was growing up, Ira Green worked in sales for Johnson & Johnson, moving his family from Chicago to New Jersey to San Jose to Tustin, California. There, he set up a batting cage and a pitching machine for Shawn. Ira, who played basketball at BePaul for Ray Meyer, saw the possibilities. “He had the talent and the love for the game,” says Ira. “We just didn’t know how big he was going to get. When he was 12, he was maybe 85 pounds.”

As a freshman at Tustin High, Shawn came to attention of John Cole, a Jays scout in Orange County. Says Cole: “We have scouts’ league each fall, an easy going environment for kids. We liked what we saw in 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 scouting 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 day of classes at Stanford to sign him. The Green's and agent Jeff Moorard struck a hard bargain, but eventually Jays GM Pat Gillick came through with $750000 -- the third highest signing bonus in draft history at the time-- on the day before classes. Shawn, who stayed on at Stanford as a psychology major, donated a nice chunk of his change to the baseball program.

His rise through the Jays’ system was rapid -- maybe 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 home runs in 379 rookie at bats, manager Cito Gaston and his staff finding reasons why the kid wasn’t 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 a stubborn as an ethnic stereotype. It’s a good thing he was a psych major, because the Jays’ played mind games on 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. (Gaston’s staff privately referred to Green and best friend, Alex Gonzalez as Bevis 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 seasonand replaced by Tim Johnson . Say what you will about Johnson, who was fired this spring for telling war stories about a war that he didn’t 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 told me I could do 30-30. I didn’t believe him in the beginning, but he kept on me about it until I did believe it.”

Being the first Jewish 30-30 isn’t 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 don’t like losing or empty seats, but I love Toronto and I want to be around with the Jays’ when they are back in the Series and the place is packed.”

And Toronto loves him, not just for his stats but 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 Toronto’s large Jewish community. He has been prominently featured in the Candaian Jewish News, The Jerusalem Post, New Jersey Jewish News and Shofar. Nobody yet had the chutzpah, however, to run “Kiss That Baby Shalom” or “Joltin Jew” or “Hebrew Natural” headlines.

Chicago is also a hotbed for support. Thats where his 77 year old grand mother, Sara, lives-- with her DirecTV hookup so she can watch all his games. “She and her friends talk about his 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 blonde, he waited until after the Jays’ left Chicago so as not to give bubbie any tsuris.

As more Jews have became aware of Green, Green has become more aware of his Judaism. “We were always proud of our heritage,” Ira Green Says, “but Shawn wasn’t bar mitzvahed, and we weren’t very observant. Thanks to baseball, Shawn is now really in touch with his Judaism, and I think it is wonderful.”

Would Green do as Koufax did in the ‘65 Series and refuse to play on Yom Kippur? “I wouldn’t play, but I don’t have to worry about that this year. We’ve 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 I’ll join them at their bible study groups, and I usually answer, “Old Testament or New?”

Says Cole, “For as long as I’ve known Shawn, his religion has 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, “ France-- eh, the French weren’t very nice. Spain--very cool. Italy-- the 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 he is one of the best young players in the game, he’s good looking and he projects well. Jewish Cool.”

Even cooler is the way Shawn Green plays the game. Right after the emotional 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 solo homer in the seventh, stroked and RBI single in a rally that fell just short in the ninth. Watch him for any length of time, and he ceases to be a great Jewish ballplayer. He’s just a great player.

Incidentally, Ira and Judy Green still hold out hope that someday Shawn will become a doctor.