THE KOSHER KID
Shawn Green is leading the Blue Jays toward the promised land
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?"
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."
NOT ONE OF SMILEY'S PEOPLE
Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski was scheduled to fly to
Los Angeles on Sept. 9, at which time, it was widely believed,
the Dodgers would offer him their general manager's job. But the
day before his trip Dombrowski instead re-upped with baseball's
worst team for another five years, at $1 million per season.
That the news came on the day Marlins president Don Smiley
dropped his ill-fated bid to buy the team from Wayne Huizenga was
no coincidence. After 14 months of trying to scrape together $165
million to meet Huizenga's original asking price, Smiley finally
resigned himself to the fact that he could not attract enough
investors. That left Boca Raton, Fla., commodities trader John
Henry--who had made a $150 million cash offer last month--to take
the team off Huizenga's hands, probably by the end of October.
Smiley had planned to keep the team's payroll at $14 million for
the next three years, slightly above its current level, but
Dombrowski had no desire to stick around such circumstances. But
Henry has said he will open his wallet to make the 1997 world
champions competitive again.
After getting assurances from Huizenga and Henry that a deal was
imminent, the decision was easy. "My wife and I love South
Florida," Dombrowski says. "We never wanted to leave. Now John is
committed to keeping the fans we have, to building a new stadium.
For me, there is hope again."
FROM FIRST TO NURSED
Losing nine out of 12 games isn't the end of the world when you
lead your division by 11 games with less than three weeks left in
the season, but don't try telling that to the Braves, who won
just three times from Aug. 28 through Sept. 9. "It's haunting
us," says third baseman Chipper Jones. "It's killing us."
Hey, easy with the self-flagellation, Chipper. The last thing the
Braves need is for someone else to get hurt. Atlanta's swoon came
at a time when shortstop Walt Weiss (left quadriceps) and second
baseman Keith Lockhart (right hamstring) were out of the lineup
for more than a week. Lefthander Denny Neagle missed two starts
with bursitis in his left shoulder. Reliever Russ Springer had
just returned from a two-week absence caused by a sore elbow, and
Rudy Seanez, the team's top righthanded setup man, has been out
since Sept. 5 with a muscle tear in his right forearm.
There was more to Atlanta's slide than injuries, though, which is
what had Jones, leftfielder Ryan Klesko and lefty Tom Glavine so
upset that they called a players-only meeting last Thursday. At
week's end the team was hitting .228 in September. The
smoke-and-mirrors act that is the relief corps fell apart after
the guys found a media guide, took a look at their credentials
and apparently decided that they had no business pitching as
effectively as they had all summer. So, during the team's recent
tumble, they blew five saves and lost five games. Two of those
losses were at the hands of John Rocker, who has been more of a
rockee since his string of nine straight hitless appearances
ended on Aug. 29.
Even starting pitching, the Braves' perennial strength, is now a
concern in Atlanta. Compounding the loss of Neagle is the fact
that wunderkind Kevin Millwood has one victory in the past four
weeks. Even Greg Maddux has been mortal. On Aug. 23 he allowed
three homers for the first time in 393 career starts, then
allowed three homers again two appearances later. The start after
that, on Sept. 8, he walked four batters in a game for the first
time in more than three years. On Sunday he had to leave the game
after the sixth inning with a strained muscle. Since July 31,
Maddux is 3-4 with a 3.71 ERA and is in danger of dropping out of
Cy Young contention after spending most of the season as the
favorite to win an unprecedented fifth award.
The Braves, who early in the season appeared to be a shoo-in to
finish with the National League's best record, could now wind up
with the third best, meaning they would lose home field advantage
in the first round of postseason play and have to face the Astros
or the Padres in the opening round instead of the wild-card entry
(the far-less-talented Cubs or Giants). As for how the team might
fare under those circumstances, at least one Atlanta player isn't
very optimistic. Says Glavine, "If the postseason started right
now, we'd last four games. Maybe. We should be ashamed of
THE LEAST WITH THE MOST
To the list of swell things expansion has brought us (diluted
pitching, diluted hitting, lots of bright new uniform colors,
etc.), add the following: one more race to watch come September.
While neither the Diamondbacks nor the Devil Rays will make a
fuss over it, the race to see which first-year team will finish
with the better (or less-dreadful) record is going on in earnest.
With a 1-0 win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 3, Arizona pulled ahead of
Tampa Bay for the first time.
Entering the season, the Diamondbacks looked like a lock to come
out on top. The deep pockets of managing general partner Jerry
Colangelo allowed them to pursue high-ticket veterans such as
righthander Andy Benes, third baseman Matt Williams, shortstop
Jay Bell and centerfielder Devon White. The organization was so
confident--some might say arrogant--that general manager Joe
Garagiola Jr. declared that he expected the team to finish at
.500, which would have been a record for an expansion team. (The
1961 Los Angeles Angels had the best rookie year, going 70-91.)
An 8-31 start put the kibosh on that kind of talk, though, and
now the Diamondbacks are trying their best to avoid 100 losses.
Meantime, they seem to have found a silver lining in the process
of self-discovery. "One of the greatest things an organization
can do is evaluate its own people," says Arizona manager Buck
Showalter. "People spend too much time evaluating everybody else.
You better evaluate your own people first. It'll be nice going to
spring training next year knowing some things about some people."
Showalter now knows, for instance, that youngster Karim Garcia
(.213, six home runs, 33 RBIs through Sunday) is not the answer
in rightfield, while rookie Travis Lee (20 homers, 61 RBIs) gives
him a potential franchise cornerstone at first base. He also
found out that Tony Batista can hit. After the 24-year-old belted
16 homers in fewer than 240 at bats, Showalter finally moved the
underachieving Bell (.251) to second base so Batista could play
shortstop every day.
But the most important lesson Showalter learned was that spending
big bucks on pitching at the outset is foolish. Benes (13-13) has
been no better than expansion draft pickup Brian Anderson
(11-12), and Willie Blair was an appalling 4-15 before being
traded to the Mets for slumping outfielder Bernard Gilkey.
When it comes to pitching, Arizona could take a lesson from the
Devil Rays, who put together a promising but inexpensive staff.
Through last Saturday, Tampa Bay was fourth in the American
League in ERA, a position that, should they hold it, would be the
highest ever for an expansion team. Cuban refugee Rolando Arrojo
(13-12 with a 3.67 ERA, 10th in the league) has been a
certifiable ace, and 24-year-old righthander Julio Santana was
4-4 with a 4.03 ERA in his 17 starts at week's end. The
bullpen--populated by no-names such as Scott Aldred, Albie Lopez,
Jim Mecir and Esteban Yan--has been among the league's best with
an ERA of 3.92, good for third in the AL through last Saturday.
Good pitching alone hasn't been enough for Tampa Bay, though. As
has been the case in Arizona, the big-name vets counted on to
provide offense--third baseman Wade Boggs, designated hitter Paul
Sorrento and first baseman Fred McGriff--have been disappointing.
After a 20-25 start, the Devil Rays' anemic offense (their 103
home runs are tied for last in the league) sent them plummeting.
"When we got off to such a good start, I think we put some
[unreasonably high] expectations on ourselves," says Sorrento.
"[The drop-off] was caused by a combination of things. When we
pitched well, we didn't hit. When we hit, we didn't pitch well."
In other words, they were an expansion team.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A REGULAR GUY No longer platooning, Green is having his most productive year. [Shawn Green batting]
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SMITH [Jack Clark in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER RUNDOWN FEELING An injury to Lockhart contributed to Atlanta's late-season swan dive. [Keith Lockhart in game]
This season millions went to the ballpark to watch Mark McGwire
in his pursuit of Roger Maris's home run record. Opposing
infielders and outfielders were often no more than spectators
themselves, because a majority of McGwire's plate appearances
resulted in the fielders' doing nothing. In fact, no one in
baseball history has had a combined home run, walk and strikeout
total (not-in-play, for purposes of this chart) greater than
McGwire has amassed this season. Also, of the 17 players who had
a combined 300 not-in-play appearances in a season--including Jack
Clark (right)--no one had a higher percentage of his total plate
appearances result in not-in-plays than McGwire in '98. By
contrast, Sammy Sosa's 282 not-in-plays account for just 42% of
his plate appearances.
Player, Team Year Plate App. Not-in-Play Pct.
Mark McGwire, Cardinals* 1998 626 357 57.0
Jack Clark, Cardinals 1987 559 310 55.6
Rob Deer, Brewers 1987 566 300 53.0
Jack Clark, Padres 1989 594 303 51.0
Jay Buhner, Mariners 1997 665 334 50.2
Jim Wynn, Astros 1969 653 323 49.5
Jim Thome, Indians 1997 627 306 48.8
Mark McGwire, A's; Cardinals 1997 657 318 48.4
Gorman Thomas, Brewers 1979 668 323 48.4
Jim Thome, Indians 1996 636 302 47.4
Mike Schmidt, Phillies 1975 674 319 47.3
Cecil Fielder, Tigers 1990 673 318 47.3
Mike Schmidt, Phillies 1983 669 316 47.2
Reggie Jackson, A's 1969 677 303 44.8
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1923 699 304 43.5
Frank Howard, Senators 1970 706 301 42.6
Bobby Bonds, Giants 1969 720 300 41.7
*McGwire's numbers through Sunday's game.