- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

SAN DIEGO — This city’s hottest new attraction stands out because of his unique first name, baggy uniform and a physical resemblance to celluloid party animal Jeff Spicoli.

And that’s before Khalil Greene turns it loose with his glove and bat for the San Diego Padres.

The rookie shortstop already was fast becoming a fan favorite — and the Padres’ best shortstop in a long time — when a recent game put him over the top.

Greene made three sensational diving plays to account for four outs against the Chicago Cubs, including two plays in one inning, one of them a smash to the hole by Sammy Sosa.

He then launched a mammoth foul ball off the top of the four-story Western Metal Supply Co. building in the left-field corner at Petco Park. Had it hit 10 feet to the right, it would have dwarfed a homer Sosa hit a few innings earlier.

“If that would have stayed fair, he would have gotten a lot of votes for mayor,” manager Bruce Bochy quipped.

Mayor might be out of Greene’s range, but one election he could carry is for NL rookie of the year.

“I tell you what, man, if he plays like that every day, boy, those were some of the finest plays I’ve seen from a young shortstop in a long time,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. “Especially the fact that a lot of young players make great plays and are in a hurry and get up and throw it away. But he’s pretty cool.”

Impressive stuff to everybody but Greene. The 24-year-old from Key West, Fla., carries himself with a quiet confidence and tries not to get too stoked by good plays or bummed out by bad ones.

“If I can’t get any hits, I try to go out there and make some plays and contribute somewhat so at least I’m not just a mannequin out there,” Greene said.

The first position player from the draft class of 2002 to reach the majors, Greene is in just his third season of pro ball. He rose quickly through the minors, was solid during a September call-up and then played so well during spring training that Rey Ordonez, a former three-time Gold Glove winner, walked away.

Before he left, Ordonez told Bochy: “Hey, the guy’s good. I know he’s good. I know he’s your future.”

Greene said he’s simply taking advantage of an opportunity. If he had been drafted by the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, he knows there’s no way he would have reached the bigs so quickly.

“With San Diego, they gave me an opportunity to play shortstop, which a lot of other teams, coming out of college, weren’t sure whether I could stay there,” said Greene, whose first name means “friend” in Arabic.

Greene originally was drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round in 2001 but returned to Clemson for his senior season. His stock soared after he hit .480 with 26 homers and 86 RBI, won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top player and led the Tigers to the College World Series. The Padres then took him with the 13th pick overall.

“I always knew I had the ability to do it. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it,” Greene said. “Which is what I think about a play like a diving play. It’s a brief instant where it can be past you or you make the play. So you’ve got to be ready to do it, and it’s the opportunity to get that chance to do it.”

Greene seemingly has plugged the Padres’ black hole at shortstop. Since Chris Gomez flamed out during the 2001 season, the Padres have relied on less-than-stellar players like D’Angelo Jimenez, Donaldo Mendez, Deivi Cruz and Ramon Vazquez.

It’s been a long time since the Padres had a big-time shortstop. Their last All-Star was Tony Fernandez in 1992. The last to win a Gold Glove was Ozzie Smith in 1981, his last season in San Diego.

“He makes acrobatic plays,” Bochy said. “I think he can draw some comparison to Ozzie. He’s so agile, so quick getting up.”

Even crusty veterans like first baseman Phil Nevin know the Padres have a keeper. Coupled with 23-year-old third baseman Sean Burroughs, the Padres could be set for years on the left side of the infield.

“Each day he impresses you more and more,” Nevin said.

Being on the receiving end of Greene’s throws means Nevin sometimes misses the first part of his big plays.

“It stinks because I’m always running to the bag and I never get to see them until they show the replays,” Nevin said. “I saw the one in the hole, and I almost didn’t go to first because I was kind of watching him, going, ‘Wow.’

“What people can’t see is the amount of velocity he puts on the throw. You don’t see that kind of arm from guys who field it cleanly and throw.”

Greene spends a lot of time in the weight room, where he even spreads out mats and practices making diving plays.

“He expects to make some of those plays,” said his double-play partner, second baseman Mark Loretta.

Greene is hitting .262 with 13 extra-base hits, including one homer, and 14 RBI.

He has power, but it’s deceptive in part because he wears a baggy uniform. He said the uniforms at Clemson were so tight that once he got to the minors, he requested the biggest uniform possible.

“He’s got virtually no body fat,” Nevin said. “His diet is unbelievable. He comes in here and eats his tuna and vegetables and that’s it.”

The blond hair hanging out the back of his cap helps emphasize the comparison with Spicoli, Sean Penn’s character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

“He’s got the look,” Bochy said. “I think he could have been a world-class surfer if he’d tried that.”

Greene also has impressed his teammates with his work habits. He credits a good upbringing and his faith.

“I think I have a good sense of who I am as a person,” he said. “I think that helps. I know where I am as an individual and where I want to be, and I know what I need to do to get there.”

Greene appreciates the attention he’s received but tries to stay grounded. One thing he doesn’t do is go home and watch sports highlights, which, more and more, include his plays.

“I just think it kind of fuels an ego of some sort, and I think regardless of what type of person you are, the more you hear about that and want to see it, eventually something’s going to change,” he said. “I try to keep that in perspective.”

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