To the average person, the life of a professional athlete is remote, untouchable and amazing. Countless children dream about the day they will step up to bat in the Major Leagues, calling their shot in the seventh game of the World Series, hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth to come from behind and win the championship. For a very select few, this dream becomes a reality.
Shawn Green is a regular guy made good. He's not a flashy celebrity with attitude and ego. He's a person with a great job who loves to work hard every day, inspiring himself and those around him to do their best. He's a team player, building relationships and cheering others on, making lasting friendships and setting lasting records. He's a private, low-key man who doesn't want the details of his life memorized by the public, yet graciously fulfills requests for interviews. In his fourth year with the Toronto Blue Jays, Green has endeared himself to fans in this town, known primarily for their love of hockey. Torontonians are fickle fans of America's national pastime: loving baseball when they're winning, leaving it when they're not. Spoiled by a sharp, early rise to success, Toronto fans have come to expect winning, and are willing to put up with the attitude of George Bell and the antics of Roberto Alomar, forgiving its athletes' many flaws if they produce. Shawn Green has no need to ask for forgiveness. He's a winner, improving steadily with each year, reaching milestones and personal bests with regularity. He's also a nice guy: During the months he spends in the city, he makes himself part of the community helping raise money for causes near and dear to his heart.
For many, Shawn Green is an idol. He's the All-American athlete, selected in 1991 for the first team of the USA-Today All-USA high school baseball team. He's smart choosing to go to Stanford before going to the minor leagues. He's generous, donating part of his signing bonus to the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority breakfast club, which provides food for needy children. He's also down-to-earth and unaffected, accessible to players and fans alike.
For some of us, Shawn Green is a very special kind of idol. As one of the few Jewish baseball players in the Majors, Green is an important and rare role model for aspiring Jewish athletes. He's aware of the responsibility that comes with his background, and is excited by his exceptional role in the Jewish community. "There are only a couple of players who are Jewish, so we get a lot of focus, a lot of attention," he says. "I've really enjoyed it. I'm proud to be Jewish, and to be a Jewish role model for kids."
Though Green's religion has automatically won him many fans, ritual did not play a large part in his upbringing, "I didn't have much time [for Judaism]," he recalls, "and being an hour south of LA, we were more limited. In LA, there're a lot of Jews. But where I lived, there were some, but not a ton. I think that was probably an influence on why we weren't as focused on our religion." Ironically, playing baseball in the Major Leagues has provided Green with more opportunities than ever before to become involved with, and educated about, Judaism. Green has been happy to take full advantage of the vibrant Jewish communities in many cities across North America. "I don't regret [my lack of education], but I would like to learn more about my religion. Since I've been in the big leagues, different Jewish communities, especially [in] Toronto and some other cities we play in, have reached out to me. I've learned more since I've been playing professionally that I did my whole life." The Toronto Jewish community has welcomed Green with open arms and invitations. "I've gotten invited to a lot of Jewish functions [like] the High Holidays. I get a million invitations."
Green has spent Yom Kippur at a synagogue in Toronto for the past three years, and plans to do the same this year. "If we're in town this year I'll be there again," he promises. "I've gotten lucky with this whole Yom Kippur thing." The team has been off that day for five straight years. Green is grateful he hasn't had to choose between baseball and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, especially with so many eyes on him. "It would be a tough decision, so I guess I'll have to wait and see. So far I've been lucky." And he is lucky again this year: "We get a day off that day." With the rigorous Major League schedule of 162 games, this type of repeated good fortune is rare and surprising; those who set the calendar are looking out for Green.
Born 26 years ago outside Chicago, green moved around with his family, who settled in Southern California when he was 5. The beautiful climate allowed him to play outdoor sports all year, a bonus for this extremely athletic child who played soccer, basketball and baseball extremely well. After his first year of high school, he focused exclusively on baseball. "I just loved it, and I guess it was what I was best at," he recalls. "I just wanted to play all the time." Green's family is very encouraging of his efforts. "My dad is really into it, and my mom is supportive of my whatever I do," he says. His older sister is also "a very athletic person," pursuing gymnastics until she was 16, when she started to get "too old and too tall."
Green shared the dream of many young baseball players, to play professionally, and worked hard to make it happen. "I always felt I had the potential to be in the big leagues, and it's something I always wanted to do, so I worked hard at it, playing year round." Green says he didn't feel pressured to succeed. "It was fun. All my good friends played baseball. We all played together and it was just my entertainment."
The baseball diamond is still a place where Green can hang out with his buddies; he's very close with his Blue Jays teammates, especially fellow youngsters Carlos Delgado and Alex Gonzalez. "We've been good friends for years now. I've been playing with Carlos on a regular basis for eight years. Alex was my first roommate in the minor leagues when I was 19. Alex and I have been playing together regularly for seven years." Having friends around adds to Green's enjoyment of the game, and gives him a support system in times of success or failure. "We're real close, we're all pulling for each other to do well. After a bad game, one of those two is always the first one to pat me on the back or vice versa."
Another player who has been a big support to Green is the recently departed Jose Canseco, with whom Green formed a fast and strong friendship. "I miss Jose a lot. He taught me a lot. He gets a bad rap, a lot of bad publicity, but he's one of the best teammates I've ever had." Green particularly misses his antics and sense of fun, a playfulness that often got the talented slugger criticized by the media. "He's really fun in the clubhouse, he's like a big kid. I guess that's why he got into trouble. He's a big kid with a lot of money and a lot of fame, and he does things like a kid would do." Also recently departed is record-setting, Cy Young-winning pitcher Roger Clemens, whose demand for a trade angered many Toronto fans. Green misses the remarkable pitcher's skills, but laments his behavior and the effect it had on the way people perceive Clemens. "He was great to play with, I learned a lot from him. He was a great competitor and still is. I guess I was disappointed in the way he went about leaving Toronto. I think it definitely tainted his image." While Green's own contract with the Jays expires at the end of this year, he has no complaints about the city or the organization. "I love Toronto. It's a great place. It feels like home to me now."
Though Green has been with the Blue Jays organization for the past eight years, he did not follow the traditional path of most baseball prospects. Rather than entering the minors directly from high school, he elected to attend Stanford University for a little over two years. This was a very difficult decision; Green was "torn" between risking his baseball future and risking the immediate opportunity of a higher education at one of the finest institutions in the United States. He eventually worked out a compromise that satisfied both his educational and baseball aspirations. "I went to school in the winter and then went to spring training. [I] played all summer. In the off-season, I went to school. I decided to take my chances and try to get to the big leagues. At the same time, if things didn't work out, I didn't want to be four years away from graduating college. I got a couple of years in to ease the load if I eventually had to go back." Green credits his dedication to education to his Jewish roots. "Being Jewish, education was an important thing in my family." Nevertheless, the demands of a baseball career and a university career proved to be overwhelming, especially when he made it to the big leagues. "School was hard to go to because, after the season, it's pretty draining mentally. When I was accepted to the big leagues, I went to school one off-season for a little bit, just for a quarter, and it was really hard to focus. After a long season, you just want a mental break and not have any obligations." Green may not want obligations, but he acknowledges they are part of being a baseball star and he is prepared to fulfill them both during and after the season. "It is hard during the season because we play every day. The time constraints are tough. But in the wintertime, I'd like to try to do more, and as much as I can during the season, [to] give in different ways. I like to do things with kids." Given the demands on his time, Green has to pick and choose where to dedicate his attention and resources. The Jewish community is high on his priority list. He's already been involved with numerous organizations, including the United Jewish Association, 65 Roses Sports Club and youth baseball clinics. "I've tried to do a few things to help out as much as I can, and I'd like to do more now the I've been here a little while. It's hard to be selective in what areas you want to focus your time and your energy, especially during the season, but I'm going to start figuring out where I want to help and in what areas. It'll be largely in the Jewish community."
Green is a believer in sharing his good fortune, giving both his time and money back to the community. He always signs autographs before games, understanding the excitement children have for their baseball heroes. "I was a fan of players, I would love to watch hitters. I would collect certain guys' cards. That's something I understand as a player now: I understand what it's like to be a fan." Green keeps his fans updated with an on-line journal he writes regularly (http://www.athletedirect.com/samplegre.html) as well as making the effort to talk to the people who come out to see him. "Reaching out to the fans is definitely a priority."
Green has drawn more fans as he has developed into one of the most impressive players in the Major Leagues. His statistics continue to improve, and he is among the league leaders in important categories, including home runs, total bases, and extra base hits. Last season was a breakthrough for him, as he joined only eight other players in American League history (and was the first Blue Jays player) to achieve at least 30 home runs and 30 steals in a season. Though Green had not planned to reach the milestone at the beginning of the season, things fell into place and it quickly became a feasible goal. "Midseason, the numbers were around target. So all of a sudden, I was focused on getting it."
Despite his strong showing, Green is more concerned about the team than his personal achievements. "I just want to have good years and do my part. I don't worry about the stats. I feel that, of I play well, the numbers will take care of themselves." Green attributes part of his success to a genuine love of the game. "It's too bad everyone isn't as fortunate to get to do what they love. I know a lot of people are slaving away at a job they don't like, and that's a shame because when you love something, that's when you are going to be successful at it." He also knows that getting where he is took a lot of hard work, and a bit of luck. "I always planned to be in the big leagues, I expected to be in the big leagues, but sometimes you don't realize how good it is until you stop and think about it. No matter how hard someone works, how much talent they have, they still have to be really fortunate and understand that a lot of people would love to trade places with them."
Thanks to Hyla for taking the time to type this article and send it on to me.