"I don't really like being the focus of attention," says San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene in what may be the understatement of the year. Yet for the time being at least, Khalil Greene is a story. Whether he likes it or not.
The first-round draft pick out of Clemson became the first member of the 2002 baseball draft class to land a starting position in the big leagues. At press time, he's played in all but four of the Padres' 81 games before the All-Star break. He started out like gangbusters, batting .304 in his first 23 games; as a result, he was named the National League's Rookie of the Month in April and he's one of the top two competitors, at mid-season at least, for Rookie of the Year.
He's one of the first, if not the first, members of the Baha'i faith to make the major leagues. He's damn sure the first major leaguer named Khalil (meaning "friend of God"). Even his diet-a redundant repetition of oatmeal and tuna, oatmeal and tuna, oatmeal and tuna-has drawn attention. And no media outlet, including this one, can resist mentioning his resemblance to Jeff Spicoli, the Fast Times at Ridgemont High stonerbud played by Sean Penn.
And while Spicoli possesses exponentially more mischievousness than the somber shortstop, Greene's surfer haircut (long, blonde, parted in the middle) and the baggy drape of his oversized Padres uni suggest that if life were anything like the movies, he would never be cast in the role of a pro baseball player.
The book on Khalil Greene, of course, has yet to be written. But this much is known: he has an exceptional work ethic. His defense is steady-at times spectacular. Teammates and coaches have referred to him as "calm," "quiet," "humble," "low key" and "even-keeled."
"I really don't look at certain qualities I have and say, "I'm this, this and this,'" Greene says in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. "I'm just who I am. I may be a little more open to people who know me a little bit better, but I think for the most part, that about sums it up."
There's got to be more to the story. Something, perhaps, that would explain why this very un-sporty San Diego alternative weekly is writing about him-in the music section, of all places.
Look up Khalil Greene on the Padres website and you'll find all manner of statistics. You'll find video clips of Greene leaping to snag a flare off the bat of Houston's Lance Berkman, Greene barehanding a deflected grounder and throwing out Seattle's Bret Boone, and Greene starting a double play against the Cubs from his belly, tossing the ball to second baseman Mark Loretta with his glovehand.
Under "Biography & Career Highlights," however, the website puts forth, "There is no biography information available for this player." The team media guide is only slightly more helpful: "Enjoys professional wrestling," it reads. "Especially Ric Flair."
"The pro wrestling thing's very dated," Greene says. "I don't think they've updated my bio since about 2000. You know, they had me out there weighing 210 pounds on the Jumbotron yesterday, which is far from being truthful."
Greene says he weighs 190 now, that the days of 210 were when he played third base early in his Clemson career.
"That was five years ago," he says. "I wasn't fat. I was thick. I was solid, you know. But whatever."
Like those 20 extra pounds, Greene's interest in pro wrestling has faded, but he maintains a near lifelong passion for another art form known for its loud and brash "look at me" style. It began a few years after Greene's parents moved the family from Pittsburgh (he grew up a Pirates, Penguins and Steelers fan) to the big little city of Key West, Fla.
"Hip-hop and that whole scene was just kind of emerging," recalls Greene, who was only 5 when his parents moved south. "My neighborhood was all young, but it kind of varied. It would be [kids] from about 8 or 9 up to about 14 or 15, and those older guys always had whatever was new that came out. You know, when you're younger you always want to kind of be like the older guys, so we kind of took that from them.
"I mean, we just loved that kind of music."
The first record Greene ever purchased for himself was a cassette copy of Run DMC's eponymous debut. "It wasn't exactly when it just came out," he says. "It was probably a year or so after, because I was like 7 or 8 at the time."
After his slightly out-of-date Run DMC purchase, he began to buy "anything that was coming out that was rap music that I could find that my mom would let me listen to," he says.
Ah, mothers-they're nearly as cautionary as religion. Which raises the question: is his taste in music at odds with the tenets of the Bah'ai faith?
"Yeah," Greene says. "I'm sure the subject matter and stuff a lot of times isn't conducive to the same belief system. But, you know, I try to keep it in perspective and not really look at it in those terms.
"I've been thinking about that a lot lately, and just more kind of seeing it from the artist's point of view and understanding it's an expression and they're trying to provide you with some insight of what their life has been about in some way. Then [you] kind of see it from there and not turn away from it just because it might not be something you might agree with.
"You know, I'm not big into the extreme forms of language and stuff like that. It's more than that. I like lyricism a little bit more. I like beats a lot. I really have a thing for that. I mean, with a lot of music, it's been said before-it's just a matter of rephrasing it and putting it a different way that hasn't been done. So I like guys that kind of have a little lyrical wit. They say something clever and you kind of sit back and go, like, "That was a good line right there.'"
Greene began penning lyrics for himself back in junior high school. "I was always into writing," he says. "To me, it's kind of an outlet. I think it helps you express yourself, whether it's something that's more serious or just having fun."
The life of a pro ballplayer is a hectic one. Not unlike a touring band, there's constant travel, strange hotels, media requests, hangers-on and a performance nearly every night. But there's also a fair amount of down time, and Greene uses his to write some hip-hop lyrics of his own almost every day.
"It's usually more on travel days and stuff," he says, "like on the plane, or on the bus. I've been doing a lot more lately. I've taken a lot of the notebooks I had before-because I had so much stuff written down and I hadn't really gone back over it. So I just go back over it and kind of circle what I thought would be worth repeating. I kind of just weave in and out of things and look at what I think would be OK and then transfer it from one notebook to another.
"Sometimes," he says, "ideas spark, like, consistently, and then other times, you know, you just listen and you don't really think about writing anything. You just listen."
Greene takes a laptop, a CD player and the notebook on every road trip the Padres make. The CD case is loaded with instrumentals so he can put down his own lyrics to pre-recorded music. This doesn't mean he's not on the lookout for new releases. Far from it.
"Every Tuesday is usually when music comes out," he says, "and I'll check online and see what's coming out and what I need to get and I'll just walk across the street. There's like a little store right there, like a Sam Goody or something, and I'll just go grab it." Greene estimates he buys about two CDs a week, spending about $1,500 a year on music. For someone who received a $1.5 million signing bonus when he turned pro, the expenditure seems more than reasonable.
At the mention of money, the rookie shifts in the folding chair in front of his locker. If anything close to embarrassment surfaces during the conversation with Khalil Greene, this is the moment.
"That's probably the one thing that I'd say I do actually spend money on," he says. "I mean, I don't go out and buy a lot of shoes or clothes or hats."
Greene mentions his major in college, sociology, and how he learned that schizophrenics create "like a word salad of lyrical material." It's not unlike what he aims for in his own writing. "There's no real direction," he says. "It's just lyrics upon lyrics upon lyrics."
Friends have seen and heard his work, and one day he wouldn't mind sharing it with a larger audience. "I wouldn't be opposed to giving it to somebody and letting them do it," he says, "just to have it out there, somewhere, where someone would hear it. But that's never really been my goal.
"I never started doing it just to say, "OK, one day I'm going to pursue this. I'm going to make a CD, or I'm going to do this or do that.' If it ever does evolve, that'd be great. But if it doesn't, that wouldn't bother me at all. I just think it'd be fun to work with it and try to create something."
By now, the kid is used to performing in front of large crowds. The smallest of this three-day visit to Yankee Stadium is over 49,000. But his "stage" as a rap artist, more often than not, is a first-class hotel room in any one of two-dozen major league cities. Could the first-year major leaguer, so resistant to the spotlight, ever stand up and front his own band?
"No, I don't think I could," he says.
"I mean, I play baseball because it's something I've done for almost my whole life. The crowd is almost just-I wouldn't say irrelevant-but I don't really even take it into account. It could really be 1,500 people or it could be 15,000 people and I'd be the same player.
"You can deal with it in baseball because you're concentrating so hard, and maybe you would do that onstage, but I just don't think I'd be good for it. If I do it, I'd like to do it behind the scenes. You know, I really haven't had any kind of direction or anything. I listen and I know what I like, and I know what I think sounds good and then I write just whatever I write."