Book Review: The Way of Baseball
Former big leaguer Shawn Green contributes to zen library
The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH
By Shawn Green with Gordon McAlpine
Simon and Schuster, 2011
List Price: $24
I tried to read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" twice. Never made it past the second chapter. Maybe I would have gotten further if I had any interest at all in motorcycles, but I think the real issue is I wasn't Zen enough to find it compelling.
Shawn Green, even at a young age, felt a much stronger connection to Eastern philosophy than I ever did. He read the Robert Pirsig book as a high school senior, then, appetite whetted and mind opened, sought out other texts of a similar vein. Not what you would expect most aspiring ballplayers to have on their nightstands, but Green is hardly your average ballplayer.
Green was a first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 1991 out of high school in Tustin, Calif. He made his major league debut in 1993 and established himself in Toronto by 1995, spending the next five seasons there. The Jays traded him to the Dodgers after the 1999 season and he played five seasons in Los Angeles, finishing his career with the Diamondbacks and Mets before he retired in 2007.
Now the former major league outfielder has penned (along with co-author Gordon McAlpine) a new contribution to the Zen library. "The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH" is certainly more accessible than Pirsig's classic. While it may trigger thinking and analysis of your own life, it doesn't require your unwavering concentration to understand what Green has to say. His wisdom is all rooted in experiences from throughout his playing career.
Despite his predisposition toward spiritual teachings, Green's transcendence was unplanned. Off to a slow start with the Blue Jays in 1997, Green ran afoul of manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Willie Upshaw by resisting their efforts to turn him into a pull hitter. Upshaw forbade him to take batting practice without his supervision, relegating Green to a batting tee in the bowels of the stadium to work the kinks in his swing.
What began as a desperate act shrouded in anger and fear evolved into an enjoyable, even soothing, exercise. Green sought out the tee every day, in time losing himself in the repetition of swinging a bat. "My tee work had started out as a form of punishment, yet suddenly it felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise," he writes. "Was it becoming a meditation?"
Following the ritualistic steps of inhaling as he set the ball on the tee, holding the breath, then exhaling while swinging, Green rediscovered both stillness (peace) and his batting stroke. When Gaston finally put his name back on the lineup card, Green responded with a two-home run performance against Greg Maddux and the Braves.
Even after launching 77 home runs over the following two seasons, however, he still had a lot to learn, both on and off the field. Green says he lost himself at times in his ego following his move to Los Angeles in 2000. He also discusses his ongoing battle to achieve space and separation in his swing, and the necessity of stepping to the plate with "awareness," which enabled his body to take over and execute his swing without his brain messing things up.
Green says that he even began to feel a connection to pitchers, learning how to read them so well that nearly half of them tipped their pitches to him in some manner. "Entering the batter's box in a state of no-mind was a whole different story," he writes. "I couldn't help but benefit from all the wonderful tells that pitchers provided me."
Another major theme of the book is remaining rooted in the present, not allowing himself to get caught up in what he had achieved or worry about what was to come. Green learned to embrace every task, even life's routine chores, and do them with full awareness. Like many of his lessons, this one is applicable to any walk of life.
For those who aren't in tune with the whole Zen thing, Green also provides rare access to the inner thoughts of a major league star. He dissects his own swing and his approach to hitting as he troubleshoots his way out of a slump, and shares some of the unique exercises he employed to regain or maintain his stroke. He proves refreshingly candid and objective about his game, his weaknesses, and his fears and disappointments, including the distractions that disrupted his progress after signing with the Dodgers and a serious shoulder injury he tried to play through in 2003.
Green also shows an appreciation for the fans, detailing a special moment when he played a 45-minute game of catch with spectators prior to a game in Seattle in 1997. "As I ran off, the entire stadium gave me a loud ovation, which felt much more affectionate than any performance-induced cheering," he writes. "My teammates razzed me a little, but that didn't bother me. I'd had fun with forty-some-odd thousand fans."
The home crowd wasn't always easy on him, in part due to expectations inherent with the huge contract he signed with the Dodgers. The pressures of being regarded as the biggest Jewish star on the club since Sandy Koufax didn't help, and he found himself in a national spotlight after deciding to sit out on Yom Kippur in 2001, snapping his consecutive-game streak at 415. Three seasons later, when faced with a similar decision, he chose to play a Friday night game and sit out the following Saturday day game, pleasing no one with the compromise.
Green retired following the 2007 season, at the relatively tender age of 34, to spend more time with his wife and two daughters, and continue practicing the life lessons he learned on his 14-year journey in the big leagues. This memoir/philosophical guide may not convert his fans into followers of Buddha, but it will almost certainly spark some introspection.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.