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Major League Minyan

Shawn Green: The First Jewish Superstar Since Sandy Koufax

By Jason Levin

Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Shawn Green's wish this year is not to break Mark McGwire's home run record, but to have a bar mitzvah. The first Jewish baseball superstar since Sandy Koufax, Green (shortened from Greenberg by his grandfather) wants to become a man, Jewish style.

"I've learned a lot more about my religion, about my heritage, and I would like to have a bar mitzvah," he said in a recent interview. "I've got a full plate right, but I'm going to see if I can somehow accomplish that."

The lean 6-foot-4, 200-pound native of Tustin has already accomplished a great deal in his short time in the major leagues. He's among the top 10 in five major hitting categories and is on pace to hit more than 40 home runs. Last year, Green became the first Jewish player ever to steal at least 30 bases and hit at least 30 homers in the same season.

"I don't know about that distinction," Green said. "But I do get a kick out of being, for Jewish kids, what Hank Greenberg was to my zaideh and what Sandy Koufax was for my father."

For the first time in memory, there are almost enough Jewish players in the major leagues to start a minyan, including three all-stars: Green, Mike Lieberthal (Philadelphia Phillies) and Brad Ausmus (Detroit Tigers). The increased number of Jewish players has generated enormous interest in baseball from Jewish fans.

"I definitely get a lot of support from the Jewish community," Green said. "I might not get booed as bad as somebody who isn't Jewish in certain cities, because there are always some Jewish fans at the games who are cheering a little bit, and it feels good to be welcomed like that."

In the clubhouse, Green is often kidded about his religion, and he gives as good as he gets. "Sometimes, the Christian guys will ask me to join their Bible study groups, and I answer, 'Old Testament or New?' " the sweet-swinging lefty said.

Green's father, Ira, worked in sales for Johnson & Johnson, and his wife and two children traveled from coast to coast before settling in Tustin. Green was always a baseball fan and happily recalls finding out that in 1980, when he was 7, the pitcher who won the Cy Young award for pitching excellence that year was Jewish.

"Sure, Steve Stone, he won it, and I remember reading that he was Jewish. When you're Jewish and dreaming about playing in the majors, it helps to have someone like you who's succeeded," he said.

Entering high school, Green was a talented but skinny prospect with little power. By the time he was a senior, scouts from across the country were lining the backstop at Tustin High, marveling at his all-around skills. An A student whose mother, Judy, hoped that he'd become a doctor, Green planned to go to Stanford, but the Blue Jays made him an offer too good to refuse, and he left to pursue his major-league dream.

He moved rapidly through the Blue Jays' minor-league system and, by 1995, was in Toronto. His talent and generous nature made him an immediate hit with both his fellow players and the Jewish community. He consistently gets invitations to bar mitzvahs from strangers in Toronto's large Jewish community and has been featured in the Canadian Jewish News and Shofar magazine.

Green also has a huge following in Chicago, home of his grandmother Sara, who has a Direct TV hookup just to watch her grandson's games. A dutiful grandson, Green calls her every week. Last year, after losing a clubhouse bet, Green had to dye his hair blond, but waited until he left Chicago so as not to give bubbie any tsuris.

His parents, who run a baseball school and batting cage in Santa Ana called the Baseball Academy, are proud of what their son has accomplished, even if he didn't become a doctor.

The question on the minds of many Jewish fans is whether Green would do as Koufax did in the 1965 World Series and refuse to play on Yom Kippur. "I wouldn't play, but I don't have to worry about that," he said. "I already checked the schedule, and this year I have Yom Kippur off."

The Blue Jays are in contention for the playoffs, and, right now, Green is staying focused on that team goal above any individual honors.

"I don't like losing, and nobody likes playing for empty seats, so being in the playoff race is great for me and for Toronto, and I'm hopeful we can squeeze in there and surprise some people," he said.

The multitalented Green, handsome and erudite enough to be picked by Major League Baseball as a spokesman for its children's programs, is on the threshold of sports superstardom. His excitement about his burgeoning interest in his faith, and willingness to discuss it, means that Jewish athletes may have found a spokesman for the new millennium.

"I think Jewish parents are so focused on education and studying that there wasn't much emphasis on sports. I think now Jewish kids are getting more involved, playing a little more and getting out there as much as anybody is," Green said.