Before I can tell you why Shawn Green should not play at all, I have to tell you about Leroy Kelley. Leroy Kelley was an outstanding running back for the Cleveland Browns. He is deservedly in the NFL Hall of Fame, and if he is not widely remembered today, it's likely only because he replaced a running back of legendary status, the great Jim Brown. But for me, Leroy Kelley was greater than almost any athlete in the world.
In grade school I was obsessed by sports. Like many young men, I pasted pictures of my favorite players on my wall--in those primitive days, they were pages ripped from sports magazines and affixed with Scotch tape. I wrote away for autographed pictures from the teams and got scores in return. Most had simple signatures. Some carried gnomic utterances, such as Roman Gabriel's picture, which read, "Always 110%, Roman Gabriel" which was either an exhortation to effort or an astonishing egotism.
Only one of my heroes wrote a letter worth reading, Leroy Kelley, number 44. It was not fancy--a mimeograph on yellow paper. It said that, as happy as he was to provide the autograph, I should remember that football was not as important as studying and making something of oneself. Here was a player preaching values beyond football. I never forgot it.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Shawn Green as he contemplates whether or not to play on Yom Kippur. His personal decision has been made awesome by the intense public focus it has attracted. We sports fans have read a lot of blather about his obligation to his team, his promise to be part of the sport, and the amount of money he is being payed. Our society is not one that might educate him about his decision. As much as I appreciate his position, however, I regret that he did not say no.
"Of course not!" should have been his first, final, and simple answer. "There are values above baseball, above money, above work. What self-respecting Jew would play on Yom Kippur?"
Oh, what he might have done with that simple declaration.
Mr. Green has said that he is not a religious man, so perhaps this is too extravagant an expectation. Fair enough. If we cannot appeal in terms of gratitude, then let us appeal in terms of self-respect.
Shawn Green was a Jew before he was a baseball player. He was a Jew before he was a public figure. It is part of who he is, and if he takes himself seriously, he will honor that part of him, even when others think it is less important, or unimportant. His predecessor, the Dodgers' great Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax, elected not to pitch in a World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax is honored not because he was a religious man but because he paid tribute to who he was.
Koufax has been quoted as saying that Green's decision is tougher because he, Koufax, was one of five pitchers in the rotation, and could pitch another day. Green is an everyday player, and an essential one. But honoring who you are is not a piecemeal decision. Twenty years from now, Green's decision to sit out both games of the holy days might have stood as a signal example of principle among people who will never remember who won the pennant in 2004.
To those who point out that Green is well paid to play when the Dodgers are playing, I have a question. Is there no room in this society to make a statement that says, "Money does not override everything?" In an age when athletes shift cities the way they change socks, and fans know it is all about money, wouldn't it be great if someone said, in clear, ringing tones, it is actually not about money? It is not even about my teammates' expectations? It is about the expectations of a tradition that is about 3,000 years older than the Dodgers and a community that was here long before and will be here long after the game of baseball.
To explain why Shawn Green shouldn't play on Yom Kippur I should remind you of Eli Herring, an offensive tackle for Brigham Young. Herring is a devout Mormon who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract with a professional football team because he refuses to play on his holy day, Sunday. Today Herring teaches high school math for $25,000 a year.
A reporter questioned Herring's decision, of course; wouldn't he be a role model to more kids as a famous football player? I hope someone has mentioned to Shawn Green what this faithful Mormon said to the reporter. Quoting the old hymn, Eli Herring answered, "You can't be a beacon if your light don't shine." It was a lesson I heard from Leroy Kelley when I was a child. I wish the children of America had heard that lesson from Shawn Green today.