The way Shawn Green found peace and harmony in the batter’s box during his 15-year major-league career was by getting out of his own way.
The cover of his new book that comes out today, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH” (with Gordon McAlpine, Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $24), gives a strong hint about that secret. The Zen brushstroke of the “enso,” which symbolizes staying in the moment when the mind is empty yet alert, poised for creativity and flow, is wrapped around the drawing of a baseball.
Despite how famously Green may be remembered during his years with the Dodgers (2000-04) as the most recognized Jewish player in the big leagues – he sat out a games in observance of Yom Kippur, once a head-to-head meeting against San Francisco in ’04 when the teams were fighting for the NL West lead in late September – his exploration of Zen and meditation could have made him the perfect Phil Jackson student.
For Green, it goes back to his days with the Toronto Blue Jays, frustrated about a lack of playing time, refocused on working out his aggressions on a hitting tee. That’s where he found solitude, a repetitive mantra that got him out of his head and into a zone.
“Most of us go our whole lives with our awareness trapped in the mind,” the former Dodgers All-Star writes on page 32. “We believe we are our thoughts and egos and nothing more. I always suspected there was more to my true essence than my incessant and repetitive thoughts and the insatiable desire of my ego. I had been searching for that greater part of me via the exploration of Zen and meditations, but it wasn’t until that work took root in my swing that I truly began to disconnect my thoughts and connect with my deeper of being.”
The 38-year-old Green, out of baseball and living with his wife in two daughters in Newport Beach since retiring after the 2007 season with the New York Mets, still has several records in Dodgers’ lore that may never be matched.
His four-homer game in 2002 at Milwaukee was part of a 6-for-6 day that saw him set the major-league record with 19 total bases in one game. He’s also got the Dodgers’ franchise record for most homers in a season – 49, in 2002.
At the time of his retirement, he was one of only four active players with at least 300 home runs, 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs, 400 doubles, a .280 average and 150 stolen bases.
Yet it was a different set of numbers — a six-year, $84 million contract extension he signed with the Dodgers after he was traded to L.A. before the 2000 season for Raul Mondesi — that knocked Green sideways.
He admits in the book that his ego got the best of him, trying to prove that he could replicate the statistics in a steroid-suspicious era that he put up with the Blue Jays for the first four years of his career and justify his salary to Southern California fans.
In a Q-and-A, Green goes more behind the numbers and into the meditative approach to life that can work on many levels:
QUESTION: This Zen approach to hitting a baseball, maybe it’s the kind of teaching that Phil Jackson tried to use as coach of the Lakers. It seems like something that can only work with individuals rather than an approach embraced by an entire team, especially in professional sports. Do you think it’s possible to get everyone on the same page to buy into that kind of thinking?
GREEN: I think you can in certain ways. (Jackson) has had an incredible amount of success doing what he does. A guy like Phil leads from that perspective and approaches the actual situations in the game and practice from that. I can relate it to baseball. When I work with kids on hitting, I’m trying to get them not to think. If we’re working on a tee, and they have a big looping swing, I’ll just put the tee higher or put it back father from the net. Just let them swing.
Q: The thought that jumps out after reading this book — you’d make a heck of a hitting coach on any big-league staff. Do you ever consider doing that now a days?
GREEN: I appreciate that. I just got out of the game because of the seven-and-a-half month commitment being away from home, uprooting the family. It all got challenging when school started. It would be the same thing as a hitting coach. But I love hitting and talking about it. I feel very comfortable with my philosophy of hitting. When I say it’s unique, it does have similar approaches to other players – one of them was Tony Fernandez – but I never had a coach really present it this way. Any hitter can related to certain passages of the book, so maybe that’s kind of positive way for me to help younger hitters.
Q: There would seem to be certain major-league players who have the same kind of swing as yours that you could relate to on more of a one-to-one basis. Are you into doing that kind of instruction?
GREEN: There have been a couple of players I’ve worked with – I’m not naming names – but there are some types of hitters I’d enjoy working with more because, being left handed, I can relate to type of pitching they’ll see. And I definitely think of the guys who are built similar to me, they often are slower starters because they have the longer limbs and they have a larger margin of error, so everything has to be in synch. A hitter who is smaller and more compact, like a Paul LoDuca, who can go to the opposite field a lot, they’re not super-streaky. Ryan Howard struggles. Richie Sexon would struggle. Even A-Rod. But when those lanky guys get it all together with their timing, that’s when the hot streaks get hotter.
Q: So what brought you to writing the book now?
GREEN: Well, I always wanted to write about the Zen approach to baseball. Early on, when I was pursuing more of an informal study of it, I’d keep journals. But the book didn’t present itself until I was really finished playing. That’s when the whole concept came about. I knew I had a solid career, with some highs and lows, and maybe this wasn’t something people expected to read after I retired, but I thought it could bring a perspective that made sense with lessons learned and lessons shared.
Q: So you could have written this during your career but maybe it was better to wait until it was over?
GREEN: I think at one point, the book could have ended with my four-homer day. That would have been a great climax. But it’s life, and baseball isn’t like that. There aren’t those so-called happy endings. I think that led me to writing more in chapter six about adding more lessons of life that I learned from earlier parts.
Q: That zone you were in during May of 2002, which you describe in far more detail – “Now I’m among the league leaders in home runs and RBIs and everybody loves me. My crazy successes on the field last week have swept away the negativity that surrounded my start to the seasons. With critics no longer breathing down my neck, it’s easier to chop wood and carry water” – do you find ways to experience that in your life now, whether it’s with your family, religion, self-consciousness behaviors? Can you related it to a non-baseball world?
GREEN: There is. It’s really when you feel yourself and know yourself as that silent, non-judging observer. There’s times when it happened as I was writing this book. Sometimes you get on streaks where everything just comes and it’s not straining. You’re not judging. It’s a freer, open process. It can be the same kind of thing with your kids if you’re having a great day at the beach or at the park. As a kid, you might remember having some kind of belly laugh, but it’s never quite the same when you try to replicate it. You can’t force those moments. But it’s about being in the present and allowing those things to come, then make them count.
Q: In the book, you mention about your encounter with Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, asking him to drop your no-trade clause after the 2004 season. What that a pretty disappointing moment?
GREEN: I had met him when he first came in as the owner, in spring training and through the season. And I was at a point where I wanted to finish my career as a Dodger, but I could see what was going on even though we had just won (and made it to the playoffs). I wouldn’t put it all on the McCourts, but there was also (new general manager Paul) DePodesta trying to make his mark on everything. I just saw the writing on the wall and you don’t want to be where you’re not wanted.
Q: So what kind of view do you have of the Dodgers’ current situation with the McCourts and the team management now? Would all that be too much of a distraction for you?
GREEN: I don’t think as a player it makes that big of a deal performance-wise. Where it is a factor is when you approach the trade deadline, and your competitors get all those key pieces, and you’re not. That’s where the frustration comes. As a player, they were told a couple of months ago that they didn’t have worry about their paychecks coming in. But really, as a player, you want to win and there’s always pride and commitment. You really don’t deal that much with the front office.
I played for four different teams, and there always seemed to be some (off-the-field) issue. In Toronto, it was the team being up for sale. It was nothing as drastic as what’s going on with the Dodgers, but all that affects players more from the trade deadline aspect, and from attendance. When that’s way down and the fans are disappointed with ownership and concerned about security, all that excited energy changes.
Q: Does that keep you from going out to a Dodgers game now adays?
GREEN: I’ve never really been to a game as a fan in pretty much 20 years. It’s a little strange for me to sit in the stands. It feels weird. I’ll work with some prospects. One time I went to a game in San Diego with a friend of mine who had a son to be on the field, but otherwise . . .
Q: Growing up in Orange County (a Tustin High graduate), the Angels weren’t your team?
GREEN: I lived in San Jose until I was 12, so I really followed the A’s and Giants more back then. But I think I was more a fan of individuals players. When I was living here, and the Yankees were in town, I wanted to see (Don) Mattingly. When the Red Sox came, I wanted to see (Wade) Boggs. That was always my approach.
Q: Have you seen the new book on Hank Greenberg, called “The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One,” an interpretative biography by Mark Kurlansky? He writes about how Greenberg, when he plays in the 1930s and ’40s, was “caught between the Jewish world and the baseball world, and there was no way to please everyone,” and how he was uncomfortable with all the kind of adulation he received from the Jewish community but it finally took him many years to understand it. Does any of that resonate with your playing days?
GREEN: He was also playing in a much more difficult time to be Jewish. It’s amazing to think that was only a short time ago. I definitely felt an obligation, and I embraced it as a role model, but there were times when it was a little daunting. I know I couldn’t have gone to play in New York in the prime of my career because that would have really been overwhelming. At the time I was traded to the Dodgers, there was talk of being traded to the Yankees, and that might have been a bit too much for me to handle. L.A. is under the microscope but it’s a much easier market to play in.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In Toronto, I got a taste of it with a couple hundred thousand Jewish people living there. The team would send me to Jewish schools to speak, and that’s where I stated to learn more. I welcomed it and I was proud to be different than 95 percent of the other major leaguers. But at times was challenging. Every city we’d go to, I had some kind of newspaper reporter who wanted an hour long chat, or there’d be a situation where I’d be asked to go to a community center in Chicago and speak about hate crimes. I just happened to be one of the most well-known Jews in baseball. But I wouldn’t paint a picture of having a lot of frustration about it. Athletes have all kinds of distractions. Mine were different, but then there are the kind of things that (Hideo) Nomo had to go through when he came over (from Japan), and had a slew of media following him everywhere. That’s just part of the challenge, not to get lost in all the expectations.
Q: There are several other books you refer to in your book – “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist” about creating your own person legend, Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” What kind of books are your reading now?
GREEN: I’m re-reading “The Alchemist” to my 8-year-old daughter, and it works. Every night we’ll read five-to-10 pages, and there are some things I cut out because she may not understand it all, but that’s nice to read over and over again.
Q: When people recognize you now, away from the field, does your ego handle it OK?
GREEN: The ego always comes back, and you never get to a point to where you ‘overcome’ the ego. The ego pulls, that’s never ending. You go through spurts of meditation, every day, 15-to-20 minutes, where you lose focus. There’s always a push-pull as life challenges you and your responsibilities increase or decrease. You have to learn how to live with that give and take.
Q: Last thing: You write about how when playing in Toronto, on days that would get you down, you’d just go back to your room — you lived at the stadium in those suites in center field — and just lock in on the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” When was the last time you resorted to watching that?
GREEN: (laughing) Not in a while. But it does seem to always come back on cable eventually.