Grounding out to Greene
A HARD-HIT BALL screams through the infield. The shortstop ranges waaay to the right. A knee slides smoothly along the dirt. The ball is backhanded into his glove. In one graceful motion the player springs up, turns and fires the ball to first base. There’s a harmony to his skill. No wasted movement or energy. His body moves in concert with his thoughts. Khalil Greene seems to apply feng shui to the art of fielding. The San Diego Padres’ 25-year-old shortstop has those long, surfer-blond locks. He listens to the music of Public Enemy. He’s one of the youngest players on the Padres’ roster. But though he’s had a little less than two years in the minors— and exactly one year and 33 days of majorleague service coming into the 2005 season —his work ethic, emotional maturity and unflappability allow Greene to pass as a cagey veteran.
“I knew that it was defensively where I could make the biggest impact,” Greene says about last year’s rookie season. “I knew I’d played good defense in the past. So if I could take it up a level and work hard enough, was prepared physically and mentally and was into it the whole time, I could make the plays that I’m making.”
Teammates were impressed. “He was better than advertised,” says All-Star second baseman Mark Loretta. “He’s made highlight-reel after highlight-reel play in the field, driven in a lot of big runs and hit some home runs.”
After such a productive and impressive rookie season, it’s reasonable for the Padres and fans to expect the same in 2005.
Not Greene. He’s expecting more.
IN 2004, GREENE EARNED the Padres’ starting shortstop job during spring training, sending eight-year veteran Rey Ordonez packing. Until a broken right index finger ended his season September 14, Greene was hitting .273, with 15 homers and 65 runs batted in. He finished second in votes for 2004 National League Rookie of the Year.
Ironically, Greene was runner-up to Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jason Bay. A former Padres prospect, Bay was sent to Pittsburgh along with lefty Oliver Perez in exchange for Brian Giles in late 2003. Roommates while both played for Triple-A Portland, Bay and Greene became fast friends—as fast as they shot through the minor leagues.
Greene’s not upset about finishing second. “I’m not really into awards and things,” he says. “And I don’t think Jason is, either.
There is a Zen-like balance about him. Perhaps that’s what helped him make it through a media-frenzied 2004 season—and will allow him to cope with his sophomore season in 2005. “I’m not very excitable,” Greene says. “I’ve gotten to the point where I know to just concentrate for those nine innings, then relax after the game. But while I’m on the field playing, I’m focused.
“I’ve never been driven by the reaction I get from what I do on the baseball field; it’s the actual act of doing it,” he says. “If I make a good play or hit a home run, it’s the act itself—it’s making that play—that I get enjoyment out of. It’s not people saying to me, ‘Man, I think you’re great’ or ‘Oh, what a great play.’ I appreciate it, but it’s not my driving force.”
To understand Greene’s makeup, understand his religion. He subscribes to the Baha’i faith, a religion practiced by some 5 million people, boasting a wide range of ethnicities and origins in Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, among others. The Baha’i make their world headquarters in Haifa, Israel, and preach oneness, harmony and eventual global unification among all races. One of its primary tenets: The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.
“I think everything is intertwined. And I think faith should encompass your whole life, not just certain aspects away from the field,” Greene says. “The way I handle success and failure, [my faith] is a big part of that. I try to apply it to everything, and I think in baseball it’s pretty big. Your faith really is your whole reason for existence.”
His Arabic first name is a tipoff. Khalil means “friend of God.” But most teammates call him “laid back.”
Blame that, perhaps, on growing up in Key West, Florida, home base to the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle. A laid-back lifestyle, however, belies the stoicism with which he approaches baseball. Greene has been seen taking 200 ground balls before games, and practicing plays he might perform maybe once or twice a season.
“[Baseball] just happens to be my occupation,” he says. “And it’s an enjoyable one. But you’re supposed to strive for perfection in whatever you do.”
GREENE’S BEEN STRIVING FOR PERFECTION since his high school days in Key West, then through his college days at Clemson University, where he won the NCAA’s 2002 Golden Spikes Award.
“Watching Khalil improve to the point where he unanimous national player of the year was very rewarding,” says Clemson baseball coach Jack Leggett.
“Achieving those heights and goals, getting awards and accolades and acknowledgments is somewhat gratifying, because you’re achieving what you’ve set out to do,” Greene says. “But I think society sometimes wants to magnify things a little more than what they are; they put more stock in certain things that maybe are unnecessary.”
Those words come from a guy who looks like Tanner Boyle, the feisty blond shortstop in Bad News Bears.
If Greene’s maturity continues to surprise, consider his actions during the 2001 college draft. It’ll help you realize why his middle name, Thabit—Arabic for “steadfast” —is appropriate.
The Chicago Cubs were interested in drafting him—even though he was coming off a subpar junior year at Clemson. But the Cubs underestimated Greene’s willingness to stick to his principles.
“Every kid in the draft has a cutoff point where they feel it might not serve their best interest to sign,” says Sam Hughes, a Cubs area scout. “For Khalil, it was the 10th round. But it never seemed like it was about the money or whatever.”
Hughes says Greene was drafted in the 14th round but was offered the monetary equivalent of a pick from the sixth round.
“Not to knock anybody,” Greene told Hughes, “but I think I’m just as good a player as some of the guys you took before me. So basically, I’m going back to school to prove it.”
Hughes argued, “Dude, you’re going to go back to school, and get maybe $5,000 more. C’mon, man, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” It was.
“So months later, I’m down at Clemson, and I see him taking some ground balls,” Hughes says. “He had a monster year, College Player of the Year, and assured himself of a first-round slot. I come up to him and say, ‘Dude, so I guess I was a little off on that $5,000 thing.’ He just started laughing and said, ‘Everything happens for a reason, Sam. No hard feelings.’
“It wasn’t the money. But because his word is so strong, I believe if we would’ve taken him in the ninth round, he would’ve signed.”
The Padres took Greene in the first round as the 13th pick overall. “It was never about money,” Greene says. “To have money be the driving force in your life—to have your motivation in life to be about accumulating wealth— that’s something I think can be shallow and limiting. And it doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness.” (In 2004, Greene’s salary was $300,500.)
“Life is an opportunity to show your worth, so to speak, and be able to acquire knowledge and use it in everyday life,” he says. “Going back to school, I wanted to prove something—I knew I could play better. I just felt, within a baseball framework, a person who’s drafted higher is going to be afforded more opportunities than someone drafted farther down the line. Say what you will, but a guy who’s picked in the first round is going to get a lot more opportunities to rise within the system than a guy who’s picked in the 14th round.”
AN ADMITTED HOMEBODY, Greene dines on a daily diet of oatmeal, tuna fish and chicken breasts. Routine is his lifestyle, and he’s comfortable with that.
Petco Park borders the hopping Gaslamp Quarter. But after night games, as the park empties into the revelry of restaurants, bars and clubs, and some of his teammates indulge in the night, this young Padre is content with an older man’s lifestyle. “I don’t really get out much,” Greene says. “I’m not too adventurous, and I don’t do too many things off the cuff. I don’t really like to explore or do any of that stuff. I’m pretty much a homebody.”
But Greene’s not at home watching himself making a spectacular play on ESPN —though odds are always good he’s made the highlight reel.
“The media elevates you to a status where people look at you in a whole different light,” Greene says. “I don’t think that’s necessary. There are a lot of noble professions out there with a lot of people doing good things around the world. And yet, it’s like if you’re not on television, you’ve haven’t made it. I’ve never agreed with that."