Shawn Green and the greatest game in MLB history

The greatest performance in MLB history happened 18 years ago today.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were facing the Milwaukee Brewers in the finale of a three-game series. Dodgers right fielder Shawn Green, a two-time All-Star, was struggling in the early going of the 2002 season, hitting just .231 through the first 42 games.

Los Angeles lost the opener in Milwaukee 8-6, but Green broke out of his slump with a pair of solo home runs. The next day, Green hit a triple in the Dodgers’ 1-0 win, but the best was yet to come. In the third game, Green had arguably the greatest offensive game in the history of baseball.

Not long before his epic game, Green had started studying Buddhism. He applied what he’d learned on the field that day in Milwaukee — and his focus on Eastern philosophy helped inform and inspire a performance for the ages. In his own words, Green recounts what happened at the plate during that game and how his newfound mental approach helped him perform as no baseball player had before.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

We had a 12 o’clock game in Milwaukee. I got to the ballpark around 9 a.m. to take batting practice. I hadn’t been playing well that spring, and I was struggling to get my timing down. I think a big part of it was because I’d had my best season in 2001, when I hit a career-high 49 home runs. I struggled at the start in 2002 because I felt like I needed to exceed it.

I wasn’t. A quarter of the way through the season I was on pace to hit 13 homers. I got booed for the first time in my career, during our last homestand before our trip to Milwaukee. I was the No. 3 hitter, and I was 0-for-18 [on the homestand]. It’s definitely painful when your home crowd turns on you. That Saturday, our manager, Jim Tracy, came up to me and said, “You really need a break, because you’re not playing well.” He benched me for a game against the Montreal Expos. I was a guy who wanted to play every day. So it’s kind of a big deal when the manager says, “You really need a break.”

In Milwaukee, I just wanted to ground myself with my tee work. Set up the tee, put the ball on the tube with the four seams facing the right way. Take a swing and kind of get my body where I feel the movements and I can connect with my breathing.

This wasn’t just my batting practice. This was my meditation.

At some point in high school, a friend of mine read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and turned me on to it. It resonated with me. Both my parents are Jewish, but my household wasn’t religious. I liked Eastern philosophy because it was about finding a way to stay in the moment, be focused and stay present. I devoured other books after that: “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” “Zen in the Art of Archery,” “Siddhartha.” All of them contributed to how I perceived baseball, especially by the time I was a professional. You know that old Zen koan, “Chop wood, carry water before enlightenment. Chop wood, carry water after enlightenment”? It really made sense to me because baseball is such a process-focused game. A lot of times the results don’t add up, so you just have to stick with the process, succumb to the daily routine and sort of let go of what the results are going to be.

That’s what I was trying to do on the tee that day in Milwaukee: listen to the sound of the ball as it hit the back of the net. It sounded like the swish of a basketball going through the net, a perfect shot. And I tried to connect with that sense. Something I really liked from “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” was when Dan Millman writes, “You’ll have to lose your mind to come to your senses.”

The thing about Zen and baseball and how I tried to play — it’s not like you do it all the time. You have to remind yourself to do these things right. And way more so than any other time in my career, that day in Milwaukee was when I was good about remembering to be present.

When I left the cage, I was in a place where my timing, my stride, everything was starting to feel in sync. It was the feeling I’d been searching for the whole season.

Top of the 1st, 1 out, no score

Glen Rusch was on the mound that day for the Brewers. I knew he would try to get me to chase a slider away. When I came to the plate for that first at-bat, we had a guy on second, Cesar Izturis, and I fell behind 0-2 in the count. I thought, “Here we go again, right?”

I took a breath. I wanted to take the doer out of the equation. I thought, “I’m just going to watch and then trust that the pitch is actually a good pitch to hit.”

It was down and away, and I just kind of stayed on it — my front shoulder didn’t turn really fast out of the way — and hit a hard ground ball down the first-base line, just inside the bag, for a double. We scored a run. I was standing on second thinking, “That’s a nice, quality at-bat right there.” I’d hit a triple the night before and we’d won 1-0. So standing on second the next day, I felt like things were at last starting to turn.

Top of the 2nd, 2 outs, 3-1 Dodgers

The second time up, we had runners on first and second and two outs, but I didn’t want to press. So much of Eastern philosophy is just staying relaxed and in the moment. I knew Glen was gonna try a fastball in. I took it for a ball. I didn’t overthink, but I knew what Glen was going to throw next: He was gonna come inside.

He threw a fastball on the inside corner. I swung at it. It broke my bat, but the ball took off toward right field. Home run. A three-run shot.

When you do that [homer with a cracked bat], you sort of just want to joke around, show off the bat to the guys: Look how strong I am! But the truth was, I didn’t shatter the bat. There was just a crack in it.

What the at-bat really showed me was that I was dialed in. Just completely relaxed. It was me trying to practice everything I’d read.

Top of the 4th, no outs, 8-1 Dodgers

I led off the fourth inning against a rookie I’d never faced before, Brian Mallette. I studied him as he warmed up. Once I was at the plate, I thought one pitch coming my way was a slider. So I waited back a little longer and crushed the ball for a home run. It landed on the walkway in right-center field. I didn’t even feel my legs moving as I jogged around the bases.

With each at-bat, I was getting deeper in the zone — to the point where it really started to feel like I was a spectator, where the pitcher’s throwing and it’s like I’m just watching how I react. What was even more interesting was that I didn’t feel the pressure to analyze my performance or try to hold on to this state. I was just a witness to it.

Top of the 5th, 2 outs, 9-1 Dodgers

The fifth inning was the easiest at-bat of the day. Same pitcher: Mallette. I knew he’d probably throw a two-seam fastball that ran away from me. He was young, and I’d already hit a double and two home runs, so he was going to keep everything to the outside part of the plate. He didn’t want anything to do with me. But the outside part of the plate is actually what I wanted. I have long arms and could extend them through the zone. He threw it exactly where I thought he would. I just crushed that one, deep to left-center field.

At this point, I’m 4-for-4 with six RBIs. So yeah: You could say I no longer feel like I’m in a rut.

Top of the 8th, no outs, 10-2 Dodgers

I lead off the eighth inning and I want to hit another home run — but I’m not over-trying either. I don’t change my approach. I’m facing a new pitcher, Jose Cabrera, and on a 1-1 count I swing at a pitch at probably mid-shin level. It was the hardest ball I hit all day. I just couldn’t get any air under it. A base hit to center field.

After the inning, Jim Tracy came up to me and said, “Greeny, why don’t you hit the showers?” I usually would have taken him up on it. The game was a blowout, and I wouldn’t have normally wanted to gear up for another at-bat — especially after a 5-for-5 day and when we were facing Curt Schilling the next day in Arizona — but I told him, “Hey, if we get a couple guys up in the ninth, I could get up again.”

Part of the reason I wanted to stay in was that I was surprised at being this spectator and not feeling any anxiousness to maintain that feeling, any pressure to hold on to this incredible wave that I’m riding. It was almost this Eastern-inspired curiosity: How is this not changing?

Top of the 9th, 2 outs, 14-2 Dodgers

Cabrera was still the pitcher. I wanted a pitch up in the zone, up above the shins where I’d hit the last one. He threw me one, and I swung as hard as I could. But I foul-tipped it.

So I just waited for the next one. It was on the inner part of the plate, and this time I swung even harder.

The ball landed above the walkway in right-center. The farthest shot of the day. I was just trying so hard not to smile so I didn’t show up the Brewers, but the fans in Milwaukee gave me a standing ovation. Me, the guy who’d just been booed at home.

Green goes 6-for-6 that day with six runs, seven RBIs and a record 19 total bases. ESPN’s David Schoenfield later picks the performance as the greatest by a hitter in MLB history.

I hear that a lot: the greatest performance ever. It’s wonderful to hear. I could get very streaky. The first pitch I saw in the next game — in Arizona, against Curt Schilling — I hit for a home run. I ended up with two more hits that day. And the day after that, I had two more home runs and six RBIs. Later that year, I had four home runs in four at-bats across two games against the Angels. Crazy, crazy streaks. The point is: I think studying Zen and Eastern philosophies all those years, they allowed me to go deeper in the zone than other guys.

It made me a better player. It’s helped to make me a better person, not think about what you should or shouldn’t have done. Just take this moment in front of you. Focus on that.

Green played for five more years, retiring before the 2008 season, and at one point was one of four active players — the others being Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Sheffield — with 300 homers, 1,000 RBIs and 150 stolen bases. In 2011, he published a book about the game and his study of Eastern philosophy called “The Way of Baseball.” He lives in Southern California.