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Promissed Land
Michael Bamberger
December 13, 1999
Back home and richer by $84 million, Shawn Green is immersing himself in two traditions: Dodgers baseball and Judaism
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December 13, 1999

Promissed Land

Back home and richer by $84 million, Shawn Green is immersing himself in two traditions: Dodgers baseball and Judaism

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PLAYER

TEAM

YEAR

HR

SB

POSITION

Shawn Green

Blue Jays

1999

42

20

Rightfield

Ken Griffey Jr.

Mariners

1999

48

24

Centerfield

Ken Griffey Jr.

Mariners

1998

56

20

Centerfield

Barry Bonds

Giants

1997

40

37

Leftfield

Larry Walker

Rockies

1997

49

33

Rightfield

Barry Bonds

Giants

1996

42

40

Leftfield

Barry Bonds

Giants

1993

46

29

Leftfield

Ryne Sandburg

Cubs

1990

40

25

Second base

Paul Newman's half Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too, Put them together, What a fine-looking Jew!

Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song is on the radio regularly in this most wonderful time of the year. The next time Sandler updates the tune, maybe he'd consider adding the following lyrics:

Shawn Green's not Irish.
He is in fact a Jew.
The best Judeo batsman
Since that awesome Rod Carew!

Jews have a long history with baseball. The children of Jewish émigrés, seeking to distance themselves from the old country, embraced the national pastime in large numbers. In time, Jews became owners. (Among the Jewish team owners today are Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox and Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets.) They became executives. (Donald Fehr, the head of the players' union, and Bud Selig, the commissioner, have at least one thing in common.) Jewish players are even in the Hall of Fame. Carew. Hank Greenberg. And of course Sandy Koufax, a staple of rabbinical sermons to this day for what he did on Oct. 6, 1965, when Yom Kippur and the first game of the World Series shared calendar space: Koufax went to synagogue, not to the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins.

Now there is Shawn David Green—a surname that was Greenberg only two generations ago—one of perhaps eight Jewish players on big league rosters. If Green had a dollar for every bar mitzvah he was invited to over his first five years in the big leagues, all with the Toronto Blue Jays, he'd be rich.

Come to think of it, he is rich. On Nov. 8—as part of a four-man trade with the Blue Jays that sent slugging outfielder Raul Mondesi to Toronto—the Dodgers signed Green, a 27-year-old outfielder who bats lefthanded, to the fourth-largest contract (total value) in baseball history, $84 million over six years. Green has been a true every-day player in the majors for only two years, last season and in '98, when he had 35 stolen bases and 35 home runs. (After that season a headline in the New Jersey Jewish News read TORONTO BLUE JAYS' SHAWN GREEN BECOMES FIRST JEW IN 30-30 CLUB.) Green's '99 numbers were whopping: 190 hits for a .309 average, 42 home runs and 123 RBIs, a .588 slugging percentage, one error in 346 chances and 20 stolen bases in 27 tries. Scouts speak of five-tool players. Green may have a sixth. He can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field. And he can think.

Green is a 1991 graduate of Tustin High in Orange County, about 40 miles south of Dodger Stadium. He ranked third in his class, never made less than an A in four years there and was admitted to Stanford. As classes were beginning during his freshman year, he signed with the Blue Jays for a $725,000 bonus. For two years he attended classes during the first semester and then played for a Toronto minor league team.

He's a reader—one of the books that shaped him is Siddhartha, the Herman Hesse novel set in India about a man's search for holiness—and like a lot of readers, he's not a big talker. Green's father, Ira, says his only son doesn't say anything without thinking about it first, which makes something Shawn said this fall particularly fascinating. In the throes of the trade talks, he declared that he would sign a long-term deal only with a ball club in a city that has a significant Jewish population. For Shawn, this was a new one. Given that Green did not have a bar mitzvah, that he does not attend synagogue, that he is not learned in the customs of his religion, it was an altogether unlikely prerequisite. Why the Jewishness of his team's city became important to Green is not something he can easily articulate. It has something to do with all the bar mitzvah and seder invitations he has received since coming to the bigs. It has something to do with his ongoing discovery of what it means to be a Jew.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner—not a Jew—had a fantasy about bringing Green to New York City, which has almost 2 million Jews. But in the end, only the Dodgers had a chance. Green wanted to go home. He wanted to play where his performance could help turn his team into a contender. "My father and I talked about going to the Yankees," Green says. "But if I go there, and they continue to make the playoffs, what have I really contributed?" Los Angeles had the necessary Jewish population: nearly 600,000 in the metropolitan area. The Dodgers could afford Green, and they needed to do something with Mondesi, who was highly paid, hugely talented and deeply miserable in L.A. Finally, the Dodgers had the legacy of Koufax.

The other day Green was in one of those brightly painted, brightly lit Southern California cafes, eating huevos rancheros, drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and reading. Nobody bothered him. He often goes unrecognized, even in his own gym. His manner could not be more unassuming. He was wearing sneakers, shorts and a black, short-sleeved shirt. He's a handsome guy, with dark hair, dark skin and a long (6'4"), lean (200 pounds) body that is topped by a long, lean face. (Note to matchmakers: He's not married, but he's all set, thanks.) He actually looks like Koufax circa 1962. While eating his breakfast, Green happened to be reading a piece on Koufax that ran in SI in July:

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