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JewishJournal.com

July 1, 2004

Home Run

http://www.jewishjournal.com/sports/article/home_run_20040702

Shawn Green hits a home run off New York Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras during the second inning of inter-league play in Los Angeles, June 20, 2004.  Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Shawn Green hits a home run off New York Yankees pitcher Jose Contreras during the second inning of inter-league play in Los Angeles, June 20, 2004. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Shawn Green sits quietly in the Dodgers dugout waiting for pregame batting practice to begin. His unassuming nature seems at odds with his 6-foot-4 figure; his quiet presence inconsistent with his celebrity.

But then Green seems to live in contrast. He is not observant but is proud of his Jewish roots. He is not religious but understands his actions reflect upon the Jewish community, and he acts accordingly. He's an icon to religious children, but is intermarried. He shuns the spotlight but steps up to his Jewish role model post.

Green never set out to become a public Jewish figure. He grew up in a nonpracticing family in Tustin. He didn't attend Hebrew school; he never had a bar mitzvah.

"I'm still not really religious," the Dodgers' first baseman said. "But when I started playing in Toronto and traveling around, people from the Jewish community reached out to me. So I learned a lot more about my heritage."

Since then, Green has become a household Jewish name. When leaving Toronto five years ago, Green asked to be placed in a city with a significant Jewish population. He skipped a crucial 2001 game against the San Francisco Giants, because it landed on Yom Kippur. He's been honored by Jewish groups and spoken at Jewish events.

Still, Green is clear about the extent of his personal observance; he does not inflate the role Judaism plays in personal life, in his family life.

Green met his wife, Lindsay -- who is not Jewish -- in line at a Wahoo's Fish Taco restaurant. After talking for a few minutes they realized that they were set to go on a blind date just a few days later. Last year, the happily married couple had a daughter, Presley.

"Fatherhood is the best thing I've experienced in my life so far," Green said.

Green said he plans to give his daughter an understanding of both her religious heritages. "We're going to expose her to everything. She's lucky, because she gets to celebrate all the holidays," said Green, straightening his long legs away from the bench.

With the birth of his daughter, Green gained a greater appreciation for his young fans.

"It changed the way I interact with kids around the stadium," said Green, who admits to spending most of his free time messing around on his Apple computer, tinkering with digital pictures and videos he's taken of his daughter. "I understand when parents are a little pushy to get their kids to the front of the line for autographs. I understand a little bit more now, because I have a daughter of my own."

It's the Jewish kids who have claimed Green as their own. Before every home game, a crowd of children gather near the field, hoping for autographs or just a hello from the left-handed power hitter. The stands are filled with children clad in No. 15 jerseys, children who keep Shawn Green bobbleheads on their nightstands and marked Shawn Green free T-shirt day in their calendars (May 14).

"The best feeling is when someone comes up to you and says, 'Hey, how you doing? I enjoy watching you play.' Or when a kid asks me for an autograph and has that appreciative look in his eyes. That means a lot to me," Green said.

Green is not the first Jewish baseball player, nor the only one to currently play in the league, but he is today's most celebrated. Mention "Jewish sports" in a conversation, and his is the first name to be dropped. Google Jewish baseball players, he'll have the most links -- well over a million. Survey young Jewish baseball fans, and he's their favorite.

"It's amazing that one of the best players in Los Angeles is Jewish," said 11-year-old Eli Mordecai, a student at Torah Emes. "I play baseball all the time. When I pick up the bat, I try to swing like Green, then I run the bases like Green. I even wear my hat like him," said Eli, who was celebrating his birthday at Dodger Stadium.

As a child, Green dreamed of being a baseball star, not a Jewish star. But slowly, he came to see himself as his community sees him; he began to understand why his success means so much to them.

"There are not a ton of Jewish athletes; there are several really good Jewish baseball players and a few in some other sports," said Green, his eyes focusing on the field. "So I understand that Jewish kids who follow baseball are going to follow me, because I'm Jewish. I would have done the same thing as a kid; that's just how it is."

The kids seem to do more than follow Green, they adore him. They admire him.

"Shawn Green is my favorite player," said Janice Spiegel, 10, a student at Sinai Akiba. "He's my favorite, because he's good, but also because he's Jewish."

The children like knowing there's a Jewish uniform on the field. They brag about Green; they identify with him.

"Usually, we're looking up to Michael Jordan or Shaq, but with Shawn Green, it's different," said Noah Miller, 14. "You think that could be me."

Green understands that Jewish children look up to him; he knows his high-profile position comes with responsibility. Setting an example for his young fans, Green fills his life with mitzvot, or good deeds.

Every year, he donates $250,000 of his salary to the Dodgers Dream Foundation, an organization that builds baseball fields in impoverished neighborhoods and neglected parks. He is active in The Johnny Fund, a pediatric leukemia organization, and was at one point the spokesman for KOREH L.A., which sends out Jewish volunteers to increase literary rates among children.

Even during his recent hitting slump, Green said his performance, or lack of it, can teach something to the kids who watch his every play.

"People who really pay attention to baseball will see that even their favorite players struggle," said Green, who's batting average fell to .249 this year. "We always talk about how baseball is so much like life, but it really is. There are a lot of ups and downs; you just try to ride the wave, get through the tough times and not dwell on them. There's a lesson in that."

Green leads by example. He's not known for his wild partying or outlandish behavior. His life is not the stuff of tabloid headlines and water cooler gossip.

He's private, slightly superstitious and noticeably normal. He listens to Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Metallica -- even a little bit of country. He tries to eat healthy but admits to sneaking his share of hamburgers. He prefers not to travel in the off-season and tries to put his family first.

"I like to stay low and out of the spotlight, stay home and be pretty mellow. Now that I have a family, I just really enjoy spending time with them," Green said.

Green may avoid the limelight, but his Judaism will always draw attention. Members of the media, the Jewish community and baseball fans everywhere qualify Green as the Jewish hitter.

But would it not be saying more if a Jewish athlete could play alongside non-Jewish athletes without marking him a phenomenon? Major League Baseball draws players from all ethnicities and backgrounds and seldom makes note of these issues.

So why dwell on Green's religion? Labeling Green as unique may inspire Jewish children, or it may dishearten them, reminding them how few Jews succeed in professional sports.

"I see both sides of it. You're always going to feel a closer connection to someone with the same background as yourself," Green said. "That doesn't mean a Jewish kid's favorite player is always going to be Jewish. It means he can relate to the customs that a Jewish person was raised with."

"I think in that sense, it's nice to see those people in your favorite endeavors, whether it's baseball or movies or whatever," he said. "I'm glad these kids feel they can relate to me."

Green, the accidental celebrity, has found balance between his private life and his public persona. He's grown into his role in the Jewish community with grace.

"I'm comfortable with it," said Green, smiling.

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