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The Kosher Kid

Shawn Green is leading the Blue Jays toward the promised land

by Mark Bechtel and Jeff Pearlman

About three years ago Arthur Richman, a senior adviser in the Yankees' media relations department, went into George Steinbrenner's office and told the Boss about a part-time major league outfielder with a mediocre glove, a propensity to whiff and a dynamic-as-matzo public persona who would, in Richman's words, "immediately boost our attendance."
"Are you kidding me?" asked Steinbrenner. "Who?"
"This Jewish kid in Toronto—Shawnie Green."
The Boss was taken aback. "His name is Shawn," Steinbrenner said.
"And he's Jewish?"

No longer platooning, Green is having his most productive year.

Richman, a devout Jew, relives the exchange with zest. Back in '95, when Green seemed in danger of falling victim to the Brad Komminsk syndrome—great minor league player, not much of a big leaguer—Richman recognized the outfielder's potential. "Give George credit," Richman says. "He looked at Shawnie, saw he was a talent and did everything he could to bring the kid to New York. But Toronto wouldn't give him to us. Too bad."

Richman can still picture Green—tall and slender, dark brown eyes, wavy brown hair and chiseled features—in pinstripes, luring New York's substantial Jewish population to the ballpark, just as Sandy Koufax did in Brooklyn and Los Angeles more than 30 years earlier. "He's probably the best Jewish hitter since Hank Greenberg," says Richman. "New York would love him."

Maybe so, but Blue Jays execs—who a few times came close to trading Green to a team other than the Yankees, their American League East rivals—aren't likely to let their powerful rightfielder go anywhere now. Green is putting the finishing touches on a breakout year, with his 32 home runs and 33 stolen bases through Sunday, making him the first 30-30 player in Toronto history. His 92 RBIs were a career high. Most impressive, after three years of floundering in Toronto as the can't-miss prospect who was missing, Green has led the up-and-coming Jays (81-68) to within striking distance of the once untouchable Red Sox in the wild-card race. "If he had been getting this kind of playing time three years ago," says teammate Alex Gonzalez, "his stats this year wouldn't be such a surprise."

When he was called up by the Blue Jays for a taste of their '93 world-championship season, Green, the team's first draft pick two years earlier, was Toronto's top prospect—smooth lefthanded swing, graceful runner, rifle arm. The next year, with Triple A Syracuse, he led the International League with a .344 average. But upon graduating to the majors he became a platoon player under Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. "All I've ever wanted is a regular opportunity," says Green, who before this year hadn't had more than 429 at bats in a big league season. "Not just against righties, but everyone."

Rookie manager Tim Johnson granted the outfielder his wish in 1998. Green, who has never hit lefties well, still doesn't (.220 through Sunday). He also strikes out too much (130, third in the league). But Johnson has kept him on the field, and Green has easily eclipsed his career-best power numbers (54 RBIs in '95 and 16 homers last year).

Still, no matter what his stats, Green's religion—thanks to the limited number of Jewish ballplayers—is usually topic No. 1 in the stories written about him. Recently, after the Blue Jays won 11 straight to get within five games of the Red Sox, Green had to confront the Koufax question: Would he, as the Hall of Fame lefthander did in the '65 World Series, skip a game to observe Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays? "I'd probably go with religion first," says Green, who is regularly invited to seders and bar mitzvahs of Toronto fans.

The questions will only intensify if Toronto—at week's end an American League-best 27-12 since July 31—continues its charge. Yom Kippur will be celebrated beginning at sundown on Sept. 29, the first day of the Division Series. Johnson's club, 12 1/2 games behind Boston as recently as Aug. 26, has flourished behind the 2-3-4 punch of Green, outfielder-designated hitter Jose Canseco (42 homers, 100 RBIs) and first baseman Carlos Delgado (31 home runs, 104 RBIs), one of the best back-to-back-to-back power combos in the league. The Jays' starting rotation, meanwhile, has become consistently efficient, with surprise contributions from converted reliever Kelvim Escobar (4-0, 1.47 ERA in his last four starts through Sunday) and 23-year-old righthander Chris Carpenter (11-7), who are helping to compensate for Pat Hentgen's rocky year (12-11, 5.17).

"Boston has to be nervous," says Johnson. "If you wear that uniform, you always hear about the Curse of the Bambino. It's hard to get it out of your head."

Green is well aware of the line of topflight Jewish ballplayers—from Greenberg to Al Rosen to Koufax to Elliott Maddox—that has pretty much dried up since the Orioles' Steve Stone won the 1980 Cy Young Award. Green tells a story about a game two years ago, when the Blue Jays were in Milwaukee soon after Rosh Hashanah. "Jesse Levis was the catcher," Green says, "and Al Clark was umping home. It's probably the first time three Jews stood at the plate at the same time. We were wishing each other a happy New Year."

This season nobody need wish Green a happy anything. "This is all I've worked for," he says. "A regular job playing baseball with an emerging team. It's already been a great year."