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Blessed with courage of convictions

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001

Picture the night. The sun descending beyond the outfield bleachers, the breeze gently pushing summer into a place for memories.

Picture the fans. Alive with the kind of vibrancy that comes when hope and fear accept an uneasy truce in the heart.

This is Dodger Stadium on Sept. 26. It is the final home game of the season and the final meeting between the Dodgers and Giants. Their rivalry has spanned a century of baseball and has convened once again in 2001 with both teams playing for the West Division title and the National League wild card.

This is the day Shawn Green has chosen to end the longest current consecutive games streak in major-league baseball. Although, in a way, the decision has more to do with commitment than choice.

Sept. 26 is Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. A day for reflection and fasting. A day for repentance.

On this Day of Atonement, will Green be forgiven?

Will the masses understand what the soul requires?

Green is no ordinary player. He has hit more home runs this season than any Dodger before. And this likely will be no ordinary game. The Dodgers, having lost two in a row during the past weekend, have gone from a half-game ahead of the Giants to 1 1/2 games behind in the wild-card race.

But, then again, if the game were meaningless, the decision would be, too.

"I'm definitely not looking forward to missing a game, especially against the Giants with a few days left in the season," Green said, when announcing his intentions last week. "But it's something I have to do ... to go out there and play would be disrespectful."

There will be some who scream. They will protest that Green owes it to the fans and his teammates to play. They will shout that he is obligated to his employers, who signed him to a six-year, $84-million contract.

They will not realize that Green's stance takes more courage and conviction than most can comprehend.

"For a Jewish kid, for a Jewish adult for that matter, this is a very meaningful statement," said Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the dean of religious studies at the University of Southern California. "But the lesson is transferable beyond the boundaries of one religion.

"There is a message here that if you have a religious commitment that conflicts with the general culture, if you believe deeply enough and seriously enough in your faith, then it's okay to follow your beliefs. It is showing an allegiance to what really matters."

Dr. Laemmle said the Jewish community in Los Angeles still talks about a similar stand taken by Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur.

The Dodgers instead used Don Drysdale on two days' rest, and he was quickly knocked out of the game by the Twins. As the story goes, manager Walter Alston was grousing in the dugout about the turn of events when someone suggested the Dodgers would have been better off if Drysdale were Jewish, too.

(Koufax would lose Game 2 to the Twins, but the Dodgers eventually won the Series in seven games.)

This is the first time Yom Kippur has fallen on a date that conflicted with a game during Green's major-league career. And, it has been suggested, he might have reacted differently if it happened several years ago.

Green did not grow up in a particularly religious home and did not strongly embrace his faith as a younger man. Even today, he does not keep kosher and does not describe himself as deeply religious.

Yet, as his star has grown, he has become acutely aware of his place in the Jewish community. At a time when many athletes are disassociating themselves from the concept of role models, Green hopes that his decision will carry a message to, and resonate with, Jewish children.

"Basically (to) say that baseball, or anything, isn't bigger than your religion or your roots," Green said.

Green has played more than 400 games in succession, the longest streak in the majors since Cal Ripken took a day off in 1998.

He has demonstrated an abundance of talent and an equal amount of heart. If not for Green, the Dodgers surely would not even be in a position to contend.

So keep this in mind when Sept. 26 rolls around. Appreciate what is at stake for the Dodgers, but remember what Green's absence represents.

He is not asking for praise or devotion.

Just to worship.

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