Green on new gig: 'I see an opportunity'
New manager talks growing up in Kentucky, pinch-homering vs. Yanks, coaching in Minors
SAN DIEGO -- Before Andy Green really learned the importance of what it took to push himself, a sort of blue-collar, I-will-outwork-you decree that has served him well, he first had someone else doing the pushing for him.
Only, at times, it might have felt more like a shove.
Green, hired on Oct. 29 to manage the Padres, first learned valuable lessons in sport, humility and perseverance from his late grandmother, Virginia Wesley Rentz, known to all in his native Lexington, Ky., as "Wes" or "Weeso."
It was Rentz who first taught Green to play sports: soccer, baseball and, of course, basketball. She left a profound mark on Green and her words still resonate deeply with him.
"She was so incredibly unique," Green said of Rentz, who passed away at age 88 in 2010. "She was at every game I played. And she didn't lack for fervor, I'll say that. And she had this special way of doing things."
Rentz taught health and physical education for over 40 years at Henry Clay High in Lexington, but her roots in athletics went all the way back to 1945 with Transylvania University in Lexington, where she coached men's basketball.
But to Green, she was grandma -- with a twist.
Clad in her Wildcat blue hat and sweats, with a cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth, Rentz didn't just leave an indelible mark on her grandson. She also left one on all who set foot inside Lexington's Hagen Stadium, where her grandson played baseball for the University of Kentucky.
"People were wondering who this crazy, loud lady was," said Brandon Webb, who played with Green at Kentucky, and later, on the D-backs. "But everyone in Lexington knew her. Meanwhile, the other team is looking over trying to figure out who this fiery lady is. It was pretty cool."
Keith Madison, who was Green's head coach at Kentucky, can reel off as many Rentz stories as he can about Green, who played four seasons for the Wildcats.
"I wish you could have met her," Madison said. "She was a treat, but she could be tough on Andy, too. Some parents today have a reputation of being soft on their kids. But Weeso, she stayed on Andy and pushed him. But she was able to do it in a loving and fun way."
Green entered Madison's program as an unheralded player on an academic full ride whose abilities were initially questioned by Madison's assistants. He left as the school's all-time hits leader. Ability certainly played a big role in his success, but there was more to it, Madison said.
"A small guy, but his heart was bigger than he was. That became very obvious to me," Madison said. "… Andy has always been able to achieve what most others thought he could not.
"Most people thought he couldn't play SEC baseball or get drafted. But he did. No one thought he'd make it to the big leagues, but he did. Nothing Andy Green does surprises me."
Rentz surely would have been beaming from ear to ear when the Padres plucked the 38-year-old Green from the D-backs' coaching staff to be their next manager.
She might have also told Green to get to work, and that he had a lot on his plate trying to help turn around a team that hasn't been to the postseason since 2006.
The hiring was greeted by some level of surprise -- in San Diego and throughout the industry, as Green, who played parts of four seasons in the Major Leagues, comes to the Padres with a resume that isn't exactly dripping with experience.
Green managed four seasons in the D-backs' farm system before he joined Chip Hale's staff in Arizona this past season, where he coached third base.
"I was looking for somebody you can partner up with and go bounce ideas off of, whether that person was 68 or 38," said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. "That's why we chose [Green]. He's knowledgeable, he's prepared, he has a ton of energy, and I think he's going to connect well with everybody."
But if all of this seems like it's happening too quickly for Green, well, he gets that. He just doesn't agree with it.
"I can understand how the outside perception looks at it that way. But I've always been conditioned to go after whatever is in front of me," Green said last week as he sat in a chair in the lobby of a downtown hotel.
"Something the rest of the world might see as long odds, I see an opportunity."
The funny thing about all of this -- this life in baseball Green has made for himself -- is that for the longest time, he was certain his life would revolve around a different kind of ball.
"As a little boy, I would be in the backyard shooting hoops, not hitting baseballs," Green said. "I would dream of hitting that shot to win the NCAA championship. It's what every Kentucky boy dreams of."
Green grew up a long fly ball from Rupp Arena, where he frequented games as a youth. He idolized Rex Chapman and had a poster hanging over his bed. It was the last thing he saw each night and the first thing he saw each morning.
"Rex," Green said, "was my guy."
The problem, which Green never considered, was that he stood 5'9" and weighed about 165 pounds soaking wet. Hardly the prototypical hoops recruit for a powerhouse college basketball program.
"I hold onto a dream for a long time, and I held onto that one all the way through my senior year of high school," Green said. "But the package didn't work out too well."
Luckily, baseball did. Green was drafted by the D-backs in the 24th round of the 2000 Draft, though he was never counting on professional baseball. He wasn't the only one.
"I never really thought about him playing professional baseball because I always felt he had this good job lined up where he would go after school," Webb said.
In fact, Green was so unprepared for the Draft, and for a career in professional ball, that he actually scheduled his wedding and subsequent honeymoon in June.
"No one in baseball does that," he said.
When the D-backs called to inform him he had been drafted, Green told them he was getting married and had a honeymoon set for Hawaii. The organization was surprised, and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, then the scouting director of the D-backs, told Green he had a $2,000 bonus with a ticket to Class A ball.
"When Mike heard I had a honeymoon, he said I could go for a week, but, 'You're only going to get $1,000,'" Green said. "But I held out and got the honeymoon and the $2,000."
Flash forward to last month, when Green interviewed for the Nationals' managerial job. The moment Green walked into the room, Rizzo was waiting for him.
"He asked me if I bought my suit with that extra $1,000," Green said, smiling.
Green, hitting at every level, moved up the D-backs' system and arrived in the big leagues on June 12, 2004. Three days later, in his second big league at-bat, Green pinch-hit for Webb in the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd at Chase Field in a game against the Yankees.
He jumped on a 2-0 fastball from Jose Contreras, lining it over the wall in left field. As he circled the bases, his head was spinning.
"Until I managed, that was the highlight of my career," Green said. "That first big league hit, that first big league home run. I'm running around the bases, looking at Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, thinking, 'This is what it's supposed to be.' It was a sold-out crowd. I even got a curtain call."
Green had made it. He was on his way.
"Then I hit under .200 the rest of the way," he said.
Green hit .199 over parts of three seasons (2004-06) with the D-backs, bouncing between the big league club and Triple-A. His career wasn't going as he had hoped, and while he had previously eschewed the chance to play in Japan, he jumped at it in 2006. His wife, Jessica, was pregnant with the first of their three girls.
He played part of the 2007 season with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. It was an experience he is glad to have taken. Not just because it made sense financially, but also for how it helped shape him for what was to come thereafter.
"It shaped me in a profound way. I always identified myself as the hardest worker. I thought that I got after it more than anyone else," Green said. "But then I went halfway across the world to a nation of people who all worked harder than I did.
"If that wasn't my identity, what was? I was a good communicator, but I couldn't speak the language. But I think going through that process gave me a great deal of empathy for players coming over here from every country. That experience and relatability aspect is very usable to where I'm sitting right now."
Green returned to the United States and made it back to the big leagues in 2009 with the Mets. He had one hit in four at-bats, allowing him to hit an even .200 in his big league career.
"I finally, in 2008, learned to condition myself to be present and not worry about where I ended up," Green said. "It took a long time to get to that point. I was able to be at peace where I was, which enabled me to release some of the stress I had, and allowed me to be a better player.
"That liberation of the pressure allowed me to enjoy the game as I never had. It was the impetus for wanting to stay in the game."
The only dilemma was that Green wasn't sure how to do so. So he opted to put pen to paper -- fingers to the keyboard in some cases -- to draft letters to all 30 Major League teams, expressing his interest in a job.
"It was my resume, some emails, phone calls and letters. Some of the letters got on a few desks, but probably most of them ended up in a shredder somewhere," Green said.
Green's first job was managing the D-backs' summer entry in the Arizona League, where the game-time temperatures -- think triple digits -- often outnumber the fans in the crowd. This is baseball's bottom rung.
"I came in wanting to serve the guys. I thought leadership was based in service, and I wanted to create an environment where people followed that lead. But I was probably stepping on toes left and right because I was passionate and zealous. I was telling everyone the way it should be," Green said.
Veteran infielder Geoff Blum, who was on an injury rehabilitation assignment, spent one month in Arizona as he worked his way back from knee surgery and was around Green at the outset of his managerial career.
"The best thing about Andy is [his] enthusiasm for the game," Blum said. "His understanding of how hard and how humbling the game is made him a good example for the kids there. He was very nurturing but forceful at the same time."
Along this path, Green has adopted and adapted. He's helped develop his coaching style and what his philosophy is going to be from people who have come into his life -- among them, Madison, Hale and former teammates like Webb.
"Over time, you realize people like to have a voice in the fray … rather than being told how it's going to be," Green said. "I think that's how I've changed in those five years. In my heart of hearts, I have a responsibility to the Padres to be better in two years than I am today.
"I'm not done. I'm not a finished product. You have got to listen to people if you want to get better. I've done that. That's enabled me to learn. If you don't ask for honest feedback, you rarely ever get it."