I finished this short, well-written book a few weeks ago, puzzled over it a bit, and decided that it deserves a place on my list of essential baseball reading. Because this is not just another ex-ballplayer’s standard trip down memory lane. Working with co-author Gordon McAlpine, Shawn Green has given us something new, a book that is thoughtful, intelligent, meditative, and, yes, zen.
Green’s approach to the book — and life, and baseball — transcends the game while at the same time remaining firmly rooted within it. Carlos Delgado, one of Green’s closest friends in baseball, describes it well:
“Shawn Green takes us beyond the glamour of Major League Baseball and exposes what it’s like to be a professional athlete: the daily inner struggle to find peace and balance in our lives, and the pressure to perform. He puts ‘finding stillness’ into terms that transcend baseball and apply to everyday life. Ultimately, The Way of Baseball will appeal to an audience far beyond just baseball lovers.”
In some ways, this is as much a “Zen Book” as it is a “Baseball Book.” It is a spiritual book, and yet it offers as detailed a look into the art of hitting as almost any book I’ve encountered. There’s a terrific section early on when Green writes about his conflicts with Toronto manager, Cito Gaston, and hitting coach, Willie Upshaw, at a time when the Blue Jays were focused on turning Green and John Olerud into pull hitters. At one point, Upshaw expressly forbid Green from going into the batting cage without Upshaw’s direct supervision.
Angry and petulant, benched by Gaston, Green retreated to the privacy of the batting tee. Day after day, Green spent long periods alone on the tee, focused on his swing. He writes with clarity about his hips, his stride, his front foot, his inner thought process as a hitter — – and it becomes a a quest for stillness and a receptive mind. Green recalls:
“Four or five days into it something changed. I began to enjoy it. After the first fifteen or so swings, my mind would quiet and the swings would start to feel more fluid. I began to enjoy the twenty to thirty minutes I spent at the tee every day, even developing a routine of moving the tee to different places in the strike zone. I would visualize game situations and pretend I was facing all of the pitchers that I was currently being forced to merely watch from the distance of my seat in the dugout. I began to notice the sound of the ball swishing against the back net, like a perfectly shot basketball. I even made a ritual of placing the ball onto the tee the same way every time. My breathing became rhythmic: inhaling as I put the ball on the tee, holding my breath as I got in my stance, and exhaling as I took my swing. What was happening here? My tee work had start out as a form of punishment, yet suddently it felt like something else, something more than just a hitting exercise.
Was it becoming a meditation?”
So, okay, he’s a California kid who is into yoga and zen. He’s a little out there, not exactly a Pete Rose type. But Green was also one hell of a hitter in his prime, which is something that’s easily forgotten, especially for Mets fans who only witnessed his decline. (Aside: There’s a classic blog piece from 2003 written by Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts fame, and it focuses on Green’s labrum injury, “The Shawn Green of Old Will Not Return.” Weisman remains one of the best baseball bloggers ever, a pioneer, so check it out.)
This is not a book that every baseball fan should read. It’s not a classic of the order of The Glory of Their Times, The Boys of Summer, or The Dollar Sign on the Muscle. But this is a slender volume that makes a meaningful contribution to the game and deserves a place in most baseball libraries.
POSTSCRIPT: In the comments section, one of our regular readers embedded a brief talk by Shawn Green at the TED Conference. Definitely worth seeing. Just click on comments and you are there. Thank you, Alan.