Over the years, I’ve learned that sportswriters and athletes have a strange—and jarringly imbalanced—relationship. Actually, Buster Olney once told me a story that said it best. While covering the Yankees in the late ’90s or early 2000s, he broke a finger and was forced to wear a small cast. Upon arriving at Yankee Stadium to do his job, only one or two players even asked what had happened. Meanwhile, Buster, a New York Times beat writer (meaning he followed the team every … single … day), needed to focus and zoom in upon the smallest sprain to even the least-significant member of the club. Again, imbalanced.
I bring this up because I used to have an imbalanced relationship with Shawn Green. During his All-Star career with the Blue Jays, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Mets, I always considered Shawn to be something of a gauge. We actually started in the Majors around the same year (he with the Jays, me with SI), were born the same year (1972), had some nice conversations, etc. I wrote one of the earliest national pieces on Toronto’s blooming Jewish star, and always felt a kinship with the guy. Of course, I also felt this toward Torii Hunter, Mike Sweeney, Ken Griffey, Jr., Roger Cedeno, Gary Sheffield—and certainly none of them (Shawn included) probably felt it back. I was, after all, just a writer. One of many to serve as a clubhouse pest.
That said, Shawn Green remains one of the nicest, most decent guys I covered in my time at Sports Illustrated—and I still feel a quirky kinship. He was honest, punctual, well-liked and, obviously, productive. Though a large number of Jewish ballplayers have come and gone in my lifetime, Shawn’s certainly the best of the bunch.
Here, in the 52nd Quaz (I’ve made it a year!), Shawn talks about dealing with the media and dealing with decline; the joys of playing with Jose Canseco and Tilson Brito; the difficulties of adapting to life after the game. Shawn recently wrote a truly fascinating book, The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. He Tweets here, and recently launched a sports-related social media websiite, Jocktalk.com. It’s certainly worth checking out.
Shawn Green, swing away …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So I’ve always wanted to ask a ballplayer this, especially one I covered. When I was on the beat, I loathed the ritualistic nonsense of the clubhouse. What I mean is—I enter the room, I need to talk to Shawn Green. I see you at your locker. I wait to come over, you’re talking to Carlos Delgado, I pause, then I approach, you pick up a magazine, I pause. You know I’m there, I presume, but keep reading. I finally come over, ask a banal ice-breaker. Are you, as a player, as aware of this as I am?
SHAWN GREEN: The truth is, in general athletes don’t like the media. There are always certain guys you like, and there are always certain guys you can’t stand. The other writers all sort of get lumped into the middle. And, obviously, as an athlete the bigger you are in the game, the more attention you get. For me … well, it depended. In Los Angeles a lot of the players didn’t like T.J. Simers, because he could be very critical. I actually liked him, because I felt like I understood what he was doing. He would poke you, hope you’d blow up, then he’d poke you the rest of your life. I just never blew up, and I spoke to him without any incident or problem. What I didn’t like were the reporters who would just show up every once in a while, act like they were your best friend, then crush you in print. I understand reporters have to do their jobs, but that’s what bothered me—when it was unfair.
As for the clubhouse, there are definitely times as a player, it’s an unwritten thing, but you mess with reporters and make them wait a little while. I was much more likely to lean that way if I had a great game than a bad game. When I had a bad game I just wanted to take my medicine and move on.
J.P.: You turn 40 in December. As a person who made his living off of reflexes and speed and youthful power and explosiveness, is that weird for you?
S.G.: It’s strange. As a person, a dad and all that, it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t think about it. But in the context of being a former player, it’s very odd. Because 40 is that unwritten age when you’re supposed to be completely done—unless you’re a lefthanded pitcher. For me, I left the game on my own volition when I turned 35. I was talking about this the other day with someone. In my mind, I still feel like I can play like I did when I was 35. I think about the guys who play until they’re hitting .150 and they’re getting released in mid-May—that’s when aging as a ballplayer really hits you, because you see in right there, in your numbers. I never fully experienced that giant of a fall.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by the plights of retired athletes. Junior Seau’s death spoke, to me at least, in the oft-hollow feeling of having your glory behind you. You’ve been retired for five years—weird. How have you adjusted? And is “time with my family” really all its cracked up to be?
S.G.: I wouldn’t say it’s been hard. It’s a definite change for sure. It is an interesting topic. And I think it’s something—Jackie Robinson said, “All baseball players die twice.” I get it. You build such a huge personal identity based upon a sport, and you attach yourself to it. It’s what you’ve done your whole life … and then it’s over. And it’s not like you have another skill set. It is everything you’ve ever done. Hitting a baseball. Throwing a baseball. I was talking about this the other day with a friend of mine. I think a lot depends on how you retire. Was it smooth? Was it awkward? Did you fight to hang on? You obsess your whole life to reach a point. It’s hard to try and put that energy into something else. There’s nothing else you’ll ever do that you’ll be nearly as good at.
J.P.: What about the adulation? Is it missed?
S.G.: Honestly, more than I would have ever expected. It’s amazing how fast you go from being a celebrity to just a person. And that’s good in most ways, but hard in some, too. Fame can be kind of intoxicating. And if you’ve played 10 … 20 years, you’re very used to it. And all of a sudden it no longer matters who you are. You’re out of the game a few years, you’re pretty close to forgotten. I mean, to this generation of kids Michael Jordan is no different than black-and-white images of Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth. It seems so distant.
J.P.: Here’s a random one–I’ve always been sorta fascinated by the whole Tim Johnson thing. Hot young manager, does a seemingly good job with the Blue Jays—then, boom, lies about his Nam service and never returns to the Bigs. How bad was it?
S.G.: Pretty bad. First, I have to say, Tim was always good to me. He was the first guy to give me a shot to play every day. I really appreciated him and all that. But the talk around the clubhouse, and the media—I don’t see how it was going to work out at that point. There are some things you can’t do. And once the train leaves the station … well, it had left. The thing is, he did a very good job. He took over a team that was fledgling, we added Jose Canseco, who hit, like 45 home runs, which helped. But we went from mediocre to being right in the Wild Card race under Tim. He knew how to manage.
J.P.: You’ve talked about playing in next year’s World Baseball Classic for Israel. I say this with all due respect—you’ll be a 40-year-old reformed Jew who, I’m guessing, has never visited Israel and digs the taste of bacon. Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?
S.G.: You’re right—I’ve never been to Israel. I really want to go, of course. But I don’t think it’s a stretch. The rules are you have to have one Jewish grandparent, or your spouse does. I totally want to do it. It’d be a true honor for me. There’s a tight bond between Jewish baseball players, and this would be tremendously significant for us. On a sports level, it also gives me a reason to start swinging a bat again and get back out there. And it’s for a narrow span of time, so I don’t have to put years into it. Have I been swinging a lot right now? No. I’ll auction off hitting lessons at charity events, so I take a handful of swings. But do I think I can get back to a pretty strong level? Yes, I do. And this would be an honor for me.
J.P.: You debuted with the Jays on September 28, 1993, but got a World Series ring. Do you value it? Like, did you feel a part of team?
S.G.: It’s nice to have it, but I don’t really value it. It’s cool to show people what a World Series ring looks like. But I’ve always been more about earning stuff. Had I earned it, it would be a totally different deal. So it’s not like a treasured possession of mine. It’s cool to have, but I’m not wearing it around.
J.P.: What is it like to fade? What I mean is, are you aware of it? Power’s leaving, reactions not so quick? How do you know? And how do you deal? And how’d you decide to retire?
S.G.: I don’t think I ever really … hmm … I still felt like I’d hit 40 home runs at the end of my career. That’s what I really felt. But, in reality, the balls weren’t quite … I would hit balls well in BP, and when they left my bat I thought for sure they were going far out. But they didn’t go as far as I thought … as far as I used to. At the time I thought it was maybe mechanics. Because it’s not like there was a physical change in me—I weighed 205 pounds from my mid-20s until the end of my career. That part was very frustrating, in that it just stopped working the same way and I felt like, Jeez, these balls should be going farther. I thought maybe it was mechanical, because I hurt my shoulder and changed a bit, and never got back the leverage. I was 35, and 35 is older in baseball, but during the PED era a lot of guys were getting stronger in their late 30s. It must have been from all their wisdom (laughs).
J.P.: You played in the PED Era. What do we do with it all?
S.G.: It’s a total mess. I don’t have a good answer. To me, the thing that’s gonna suck is that there are guys who will get in who were dirty, but who never got caught. In a way, it’s not fair to guys like Clemens and McGwire, who have been all over the news, while other players who also used get in. But what are we supposed to do? I don’t know. I’m as interested as everyone else about the next few years—what happens with Barry? With A-Rod? There are some interesting guys coming up. Personally speaking, what frustrates me is how we’re all tainted. All of us.
J.P.: Jose Canseco was your teammate in Toronto. You sorta liked him, no? And how do you feel about his book, Juiced?
S.G.: I did like Jose. It doesn’t mean I approve of everything, but I have to say, Jose was very, very influential in one way on my career. Early on, during a spring training, he came up to me and said, “If you don’t go 30/30 this year, I never want to talk to you again.” Here’s one of the greatest offensive players of our era, with speed and power and all, and he’s saying that to me? It meant a lot, and had a very powerful impact.
As for the book—I’m not mad at him. I mean, he kind of sold out friends of his, and it seemed, to a certain degree, because of sour grapes. He blew the whistle on baseball, and maybe that’s been good and he deserves credit, but the way it all went down … sour grapes. Also, on the one hand, a lot of the guys he pointed out, he was right about. On the other hand, his memory seems a little out there. I’m not sure I believe everything as fact. But am I mad at Jose? No. Not at all.
J.P.: I’m a tortured writer. Why in the world would anyone write a book?
S.G.: I’ve always wanted to write a book, oddly. Even though I have a co-author, I wrote 300 pages. We would discuss the approach to a chapter. I’d write it, then I’d give him 20 pages, he’d churn it down to 10-15. He made it a lot better. I like the process of it. Writing a book was on my bucket list—I really wanted to do that. I really enjoyed it. It could be torturous at times, but it was the chance to write about a perspective I always had that I was able to implement into baseball. There are a lot of sports fans who never would read a zen book; maybe they would now.
Seeing the book as a completed product was also really cool. It’s nice to have a product I created. As a baseball player, I have a legacy and numbers. But there’s nothing, other than watching highlight films, than one can hold.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SHAWN GREEN:
• Ever think you were about to die in plane crash?: Yes. Flying however many times you do as a player, there are always a couple of flights where your knuckles are white.
• Five greatest players you ever played with: Carlos Delgado, Robbie Alomar, Adrian Beltre, Jose Reyes, Gary Sheffield.
• Five closest friends from baseball: Carlos Delgado, Dave Roberts, Matt Herges, Adrian Beltre, Pat Hentgen.
• We give you 500 ABs right now—what’s your line?: .282, 20, 70
• Afterlife?: Yes.
• Three things you’d change in the game?: Oh, Jeez. 1. This is a tangent, but either Mondays always off, or a bunch of doubleheaders to provide some days off. Doubleheaders can be a pain, but it’d be worth it for a day to just rest.; 2. I’d get rid of much of the whole Moneyball approach. I like old salty scouts evaluating players; 3. Make every getaway game a day game.
• Donald Trump calls and wants you on Celebrity Apprentice. You in?: Not a chance. It’d be a cry for desperation at this point.
• The world wants to know, what was it like playing with Tilson Brito?: Ha, ha. Tilson Brito was a quiet guy. I liked his voice—very raspy. And he was always happy.
• Would you ever do broadcasting?: It sounds fun. I don’t know. I’m not super animated. I’m pretty mellow. The one thing I would enjoy is being part of the game.
• Could an openly gay ballplayer survive today?: I think so, and I think there will be one at some point. There might be some issues from heckling fans, but that’d be the worst of it.
• Are you coming out?: My wife just got in the car. I think it’d surprise her.