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Blue Jays Star Green Is Taking Baseball by Storm

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer

NEW YORK – Shawn Green is not, and never will be, the palpable presence of, say, his former Toronto Blue Jays teammate and inspiration, Jose Canseco, or the mammoth Mark McGwire. For a blossoming baseball slugger, the 26-year-old sweet-swinging, smooth-fielding left-handed outfielder is strikingly slender. He is notable for a certain stillness in his manner and economy of movement in his play, more like the New York Mets' John Olerud or the New York Yankees' Bernie Williams.

But Green, who had hit safely in 28 straight games until stopped by Detroit on Sunday, already has been likened to Joe DiMaggio for his consistency and Ted Williams for his power.

Because he's Jewish, Green also is being called the new Hank Greenberg. In fact, he is Major League Baseball's new Greenberg; Green's grandfather shortened the family name.

"What makes him good is that he's always working, hitting all the time in the offseason," said Yankees reliever Dan Naulty, brought together briefly with his friend as Toronto visited New York for three games this week. The two live close to one another in southern California during the offseason. "He's a lot stronger than he looks. One day, we did some lifting and he's in a different league. He's a great guy. He worked with the kids from my high school for three days, showed up every morning, stayed for seven hours each day, for nothing, just because he cared."

Green is an emerging leader on the Blue Jays, and possibly more – a potential ambassador for baseball of the order of Cal Ripken. "I don't like to say no, even though growing demands can be time-consuming," Green said, amiably letting reporters consume his time in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.

In a break-out fifth season with the Blue Jays, Green leads the American League in total bases and slugging percentage, and has hit 31 home runs and driven in 89 runs while batting .319. A treat to watch in batting practice, he'll hit balls to the opposite field like Wade Boggs or drive them to the third deck.

"He's probably the best player I've seen in person," said Billy Koch, the Jays' rookie closer. "He's going to be a very good player for a long time."

A more experienced observer, Jays hitting coach Gary Matthews, termed Green "a five-star player – he can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field." But Matthews also sees in Green a player trying to improve. "He's still young. They're beginning to pitch him tough. He's not the finished product yet, but this season he realizes he can do almost anything."

Proud of Heritage

Green was born in Des Plaines, Ill., near Chicago. His father Ira played basketball at DePaul during the 1960s and always loved baseball. The family moved to New Jersey when Shawn was 1 year old, and later to California. Ira, who according to Shawn "still throws in his two cents" to him, admired Sandy Koufax. Shawn grew up following another Jewish player, Steve Stone, a Cy Young award winner with Baltimore in 1980.

"It's nice to be mentioned in the same breath as him," Green said of comparisons with Greenberg, the former Tigers' slugger of the 1930s and '40s. But Green is smart enough to know that he hasn't yet matched a merely mortal Jewish hitter, the sometimes-overlooked Al Rosen, who in 1953 for Cleveland hit 43 home runs, drove in 145 runs and batted .336.

Green said that he is proud of being Jewish, that "my being Jewish separates me from most players and it'll separate me for my whole career."

Growing up, he sneaked into games at Anaheim and San Francisco and once got Ripken's autograph. He graduated from Tustin High in Tustin, Calif., with a 4.0 grade-point average after taking college-prep courses. He then accepted a baseball scholarship at Stanford but instead turned pro when the Blue Jays made him their No. 1 draft choice in June 1991. He reads more than ever – John Irving, coach/author Phil Jackson and, his favorite book as one seeking answers to questions about human existence, Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha."

Last offseason, Green traveled to Europe – Spain, Italy, France – with teammate Carlos Delgado. Green's favorite city: Milan. "Beautiful women. Good food." Paris? "Hated Paris. Unfriendly people." Snubbed by waiters. (If he can come to master left-handed pitching, however, he might also develop a taste for Paris).

His emergence this season, he said, was a matter of "confidence, I guess. You go through different stages." His first Toronto manager, Cito Gaston, used him as part of a platoon. But Gaston's successor, Tim Johnson, boosted his confidence by playing him every game and current manager Jim Fregosi lets him hit away on 3-0 counts. During 1998 spring training, Canseco told Green he could be a "30-30" player – 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. "That was the first I ever thought of it," Green recalled. "He said he would never speak to me again if I didn't."

So compelled, Green finished with 35 home runs and 35 stolen bases.

This was a mature Green compared with 1993, when he hit four home runs in 99 games at Class AA Knoxville. Called up by the Blue Jays for three games at the end of the season, he was informed by one teammate that four home runs made for "a good week." Another chimed in, "A good day."

He was a rail, 6 feet 4, weighing in the 160s. He said he weighs 197 now, although he doesn't look it and admitted, "I have trouble keeping my weight up. I have to eat a lot not to lose weight." Ted Williams said the same thing, when he was young and lanky like Green.

What Might Have Been

Three hours before game time at Yankee Stadium, Arthur Richmond walks into the visitors' clubhouse looking for former Yankees among the Blue Jays – and for Green, whom Richmond once envisioned wearing pinstripes. Sixty years in baseball, Richmond officially is a Yankees' "senior adviser/consultant" but, as ever, he does everything for the team except suit up; he used to write DiMaggio's speeches. Former Yankee David Wells embraces Richmond, kissing him on the cheek. Former Yankee Homer Bush, a rookie second baseman hitting above .300, promises Richmond that he'll keep up his good work. Richmond chats up Green, then relates in a conspiratorial whisper a conversation he had with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner about "Shawnie."

"I did the best I could to get him on the Yankees," Richmond said. "I talked to Steinbrenner. I said, 'Do you know what this kid would do for you?' This was about three years ago. I said, 'All the Jews in New York, this kid will put them in the seats.'

"Steinbrenner says, 'How can a guy named Shawn be Jewish?'

"I say, 'Well, it happens. Listen to me, dammit.' So he listened." Up to a point, anyway." Richmond now endures feelings that tear his insides apart, having to root sometimes against the kid he loves.

"What a fine guy," Richmond said. "He's never 'gone uptown,' you know, never become a big shot. He could be the MVP"

A Team on the Rise

Green personifies the Blue Jays. Like Green, the team itself appears to be re-emerging as a force but with room for improvement. The Blue Jays have yet to clear the barrier of beating division rivals head to head, going 2-16 this season against New York and Boston. Had they followed their 3-1 victory Tuesday night by beating the Yankees on Wednesday afternoon, the Blue Jays would have headed to Texas only four games out of first place. In an important game, their youth gave way to the Yankees' experience and depth in an 8-3 defeat. In his last at-bat in a 1-for-13 series, Green showed rare emotion by slamming his bat to the ground after hitting a lazy fly ball.

Still, the Blue Jays started Thursday with a half-game lead over the Red Sox in the race for the American League wild card. "We have a nice team. We have a nice young team," Fregosi said. "And they'll get better."

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company