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ATLANTA--The night before opening day, Phil Nevin decided he wanted to see what the soft-spoken rookie was all about.
Nevin has season tickets to Los Angeles Clippers games, so he asked Khalil Greene if he wanted to make the trip from San Diego to watch a Clippers game.
"It was like pulling teeth to get a conversation out of him for about 2-1/2 hours on the way up there," said Nevin, a veteran first baseman for the Padres. "He's an interesting person. He's different."
At the game, Nevin began to see a different side of Greene. Having never been to an NBA game, Greene spent the evening rattling off obscure statistics that even Nevin didn't know.
"It was amazing listening to his knowledge of NBA players and things like that," Nevin said. "He seemed to know a lot about different players and the league. It didn't seem like something he would know about. I was kind of impressed."
Major league baseball followers are making a similar discovery of Greene, a former Clemson star who is playing his first full season in the big leagues. Despite an intensely introverted demeanor that elicits curiosity and mystery, the 24-year-old Greene is making a loud statement as a shortstop for the Padres.
"His way of going about his business, he's not going to stand out," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy.
"He could almost go unnoticed in games. But you see day-in and day-out what he does for you."
JUST ANOTHER YEAR
Bochy and the rest of the league have recently seen evidence that Greene could blossom into one of the game's stars.
Last Monday, he was named the National League rookie of the month after batting .304 with eight doubles, 10 RBIs and 11 runs.
On successive days against Montreal, he produced the winning hits with a double and a triple.
Of course, Greene -- the Padres' first-round pick in the 2002 draft -- is the last person to get wrapped up in big numbers and bigger hits. While being questioned about his sudden success before his Padres began a three-game series at Atlanta last week, Greene's short, measured responses revealed that he hasn't changed a bit since his days at Clemson.
"Khalil is very low key, very even-keeled," Bochy said. "He's not one to show his emotions, good or bad."
It's been that way since Greene was a small child in Key West, Fla., pursuing a baseball career with single-minded determination and discipline. It's been that way since he became a believer in the Bahai Faith, an independent religion that his mother and father practice.
And it's been that way since Greene signed with Clemson over Miami and moved to the quiet town that seems made for the quintessentially quiet guy. While breaking records and compiling one of the most brilliant seasons in college baseball history, Greene always seemed to remain true to himself -- which meant keeping to himself and refusing to publicly exult in his achievements.
So it shouldn't be any surprise to hear him say that nothing has changed since he finished his Tigers' career by earning collegiate player of the year honors in 2002.
"I mean, it's just another year, you know?" said Greene, who spent most of 2003 in the minors before being called up to the Padres on Sept. 3. "It's just now, I'm here."
The 5-11, 210-pounder resists an opportunity to take a shot at critics who said he couldn't succeed in the big leagues as a shortstop.
"There have been detractors throughout who thought I might not have been able to play that, but I'm not going to say I'm happy that I proved somebody wrong or anything like that," he said. "I'm not really too concerned about other people's opinions about what I can and can't do. I've always known that, if given the opportunity, I could play the position."
The Padres' trip to Atlanta was a homecoming of sorts for Greene. While living two time zones away on the West Coast, keeping in touch with his former coaches and teammates isn't easy.
That's what made the series against the Braves so special. Greene had his own cheering section -- including his mother and father, who made the trip from Greenville -- for each of the games.
On Thursday, Clemson coach Jack Leggett canceled practice and led an eight-person caravan to Turner Field, bringing along a group that included his two children, pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan and assistant coach Bradley LeCroy.
"It was awesome to see Khalil and watch how he fits into the whole professional baseball scene," Leggett said.
"He fits right in. It's like you wouldn't even know it. He's just a natural at being able to blend in with people."
And Greene didn't disappoint. After being switched to leadoff hitter from the No. 8 spot, he hit his first homer of the season on the second pitch of the game.
Afterward, Greene was able to meet with the traveling party from Clemson.
"He was real glad we were there and appreciative that we all came down," Leggett said. "He's just very humble, very unassuming. ... He's the same guy he was when he was here. He's no different, believe me."
By most accounts, Greene has put himself near the top of the list for National League rookie of the year honors. Entering this weekend's series at Florida, he was hitting .292 with 11 RBIs and nine doubles.
Greene addresses the statistics and potential accolades with a predictable response: Chill, dude. It's only May.
"Obviously I'm happy where I'm at, but it's always been the goal," he said. "I still think there's a lot of things to be done. You can choose to look at it and be happy where you're at, but I still think you've got to push to try to excel and make some things happen.
"So I'm not really going to sit back and just be happy to be here. I'm attempting to make some kind of impact."
The impact has been felt with the Padres, who are struck with maturity and wisdom that seem far beyond Greene's years. His practice habits and preparation for each game -- routines for which he credits Leggett -- have made the biggest impression.
"The first thing you notice about him after playing with him a long time is how well prepared he is," Nevin said. "There's not too many guys that are that young who go through the preparation he does. He practices plays that he may only have to make once or twice a year. He studies opposing pitchers. He's just an intelligent player. You don't see that too often in a guy that just gets into the league."
Said Bochy: "He's so prepared. Every play that's out there, he has his way of practicing those plays either on the field or in the clubhouse. He's not going to be surprised by anything. Anything he tries, he has tried before."
Sooner or later this season, there will probably come a time when Greene will struggle. With most other rookies, Bochy could see himself worrying about a small slump growing into a prolonged funk.
He doesn't seemed concerned about Greene, who will probably approach the lows the same way he has confronted the highs -- unemotional, unruffled, and ultimately unfazed.
"He's handled the tough at-bats and errors," Bochy said. "The few he's made, he's handled it well."
There's little reason to expect that to change.
"He's had ups and downs already," Nevin said. "He stays even-keeled and you don't even notice. It doesn't seem to bother him. He knows there's another day tomorrow, and that's a rarity for a guy that's really not used to playing every single day."
PALMETTO STATE PROS
Khalil Greene isn't the only Palmetto State college product doing well in professional baseball. A list of former Clemson, South Carolina, Citadel, College of Charleston and Charleston Southern players who have appeared in games this season (won-loss record and earned run average for pitchers; batting average, home runs and runs batted in for position players):
Player Pos. School Team/Classification 2004 stats
Kris Benson P Clemson Pirates/Majors 3-2 3.96
Billy Koch P Clemson White Sox/Majors 1-0 5.40
Matthew LeCroy C Clemson Twins/Majors .200-0-0
Billy McMillon OF Clemson Athletics/Majors .240-1-2
Jeff Baker 3B Clemson Visalia/A (Rockies) .327-1-12
Patrick Boyd OF Clemson Frisco/AA (Rangers) .195-2-9
Gary Burnham OF Clemson Louisville/AAA (Reds) .270-1-8
Ryan Childs P Clemson Ottawa/AAA (Orioles) 0-1 12.00
Josh Cram P Clemson San Jose/A (Giants) 1-0 3.68
Matt Henrie P Clemson El Paso/AA (Diamondbacks) 3-2 6.61
Mike Holtz P Clemson Durham/AAA (Devil Rays) 0-1 1.93
Michael Johnson 1B Clemson Lake Elsinore/A (Padres) .224-6-18
Matt Padgett OF Clemson Albuquerque/AAA (Marlins) .275-4-14
Mike Paradis P Clemson Ottawa/AAA (Orioles) 0-0 14.81
Steve Pyzik C Clemson Rome/A (Braves) .231-0-2
Ryan Riley Inf Clemson Bakersfield/A (Padres) .188-0-0
Jarrod Schmidt OF Clemson Dayton/A (Reds) .000-0-0
Adam Everett SS USC Astros/Majors .283-1-3
Brian Roberts SS USC Orioles/Majors .333-1-8
Scott Barber P USC El Paso/AA (Diamondbacks) 1-0 3.38
Peter Bauer P USC Carolina/AA (Marlins) 3-1 2.77
Steven Bondurant P USC Kane County/A (Athletics) 4-2 2.62
Kip Bouknight P USC Colo. Springs/AAA (Rockies) 0-2 6.75
Jon Coutlangus OF USC Hagerstown/A (Giants) .184-0-8
Mike Curry OF USC Pawtucket/AAA (Red Sox) .222-0-3
Trey Dyson OF USC Vero Beach/A (Dodgers) .395-0-3
Lee Gronkiewicz P USC Akron/AA (Indians) 0-0 3.60
Justin Harris Inf USC Hickory/A (Pirates) .250-0-8
Chris Hernandez P USC Hickory/A (Pirates) 0-0 4.35
Marcus McBeth OF USC Modesto/A (Athletics) .188-0-4
Drew Meyer SS USC Frisco/AA (Rangers) .212-0-3
Matt Coenen P CSU Greenville/AA (Braves) 0-1 5.85
T.A. Fulmer P Citadel Inland Empire/A (Mariners) 2-1 2.12
Dallas McPherson 3B Citadel Arkansas/AA (Angels) .309-2-17
Chris Morris OF Citadel High Desert/A (Brewers) .284-0-12
Jason Gilfillan P Charleston Colo. Springs/AAA (Rockies) 0-1 1.88
Jeremy Schmidt P Charleston Potomoc/A (Reds) 0-0 4.15
Zach Strong 1B Charleston San Jose Giants/A (Giants) .289-0-6
Note: Some players in Major League organizations have yet to appear in games this season because of injury or Extended Spring Training assignments, including C Matt Lauderdale (College of Charleston/Padres), OF Brett Spivey (College of Charleston/Rockies), OF Lee Curtis (College of Charleston/Red Sox) and P Britt Reames (The Citadel/Athletics); former Major Leaguer and Hanahan High School star Bryce Florie is 0-0 with a 1.42 earned run average with Albuquerque/AAA (Marlins).
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