History was made 20 years ago today, on May 23, 2002, a Thursday afternoon getaway day at Miller Park. When the dust settled from a 16-3 Dodgers blowout of the Brewers, right fielder Shawn Green had produced a box score line for the ages: 6-for-6 with a modern record-tying six runs scored, a record-tying four homers, a record-tying five extra-base hits, seven RBIs and a record-setting 19 total bases.
There had been little warning. After setting the Dodgers’ single-season home run record the year before, Green was off to a slow start. Home fans were booing and media criticism was intensifying.
“The only difference this year is what I did last year, and the numbers are going to come once my swing is right,” Green told the Los Angeles Times at the height of his struggles. “But I can’t try to rush it and focus on the external expectations. That’s not going to help anything.”
Given a day off on May 18, Green set to work on that swing, as he described in his 2011 book, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph.” He took batting practice until the point of exhaustion, looking to take his mind out of the equation and let his body do the work. A blister formed on his hand from all the hacks. The results quickly followed.
After homering twice in the May 21 opener at Milwaukee and tripling the next night, things escalated in the series finale. Green lined an RBI double in the first inning, smacked a three-run homer in the second, followed that with solo shots in the fourth and fifth, squared up a single in the eighth and finally blasted a long solo homer with two outs in the ninth.
“The ball had been looking like a ping-pong ball,” Green said afterward. “Today, it probably looked like a softball. It slowed down a lot. The last six weeks, the ball seemed to be going fast, and I was having a tough time, jumping at pitches. Today, I was able to sit back and wait for it.”
Without a doubt, Green had just enjoyed one of the greatest games by a position player in MLB history. But was it the greatest? How do you even determine that? It’s hardly a simple question.
No such number exists on the other side of the ball, and “best” could be defined in a variety of ways.
The run-producing approach: Two players have driven in a dozen runs in a game, and both were Cardinals: Jim Bottomley in 1924 and Mark Whiten in 1993. Whiten also hit four homers.
The out-avoiding approach: Max Carey of the 1922 Pirates is the only player on record to have nine plate appearances in a game and reach base safely in each of them, going 6-for-6 with three walks in an 18-inning marathon against the Giants.
The nothing-but-homers approach: Green’s former Blue Jays and Mets teammate Carlos Delgado is the only player to get at least four plate appearances in a game and homer in each, doing so in 2003.
All of those performances have an argument, as do many others. And that’s without even considering the sort of adjustments for era, ballpark and opponent quality that tend to come up more often when evaluating entire seasons or careers.
But what if you simply define “best” as doing the most damage? By that measure, Green’s performance is unrivaled. Consider these AL/NL firsts, which go back to at least 1901:
• Green is the only player to both score and drive in at least six runs in the same game.
• Green is the only player to hit four home runs in a game while also collecting six total hits.
• Green is also the only player to have six hits in a game with five of them going for extra bases.
• Green’s four homers, double and single add up to 19 total bases. That broke Joe Adcock’s Major League record of 18, set in his four-homer game in 1954, and it remains the record today (Josh Hamilton has also since reached 18).
It was an astonishing feat, not only for its sheer magnitude, but also in the way it burst forth from what had been a miserable season. When Green arrived in Milwaukee a couple of days earlier, he had collected 19 total bases in his previous 18 games, combined. In one series at Miller Park, his slugging percentage jumped from .346 to .494, while his season home run total tripled from three to nine.
“My swing became literally effortless, and everything came together to a degree that I never imagined possible,” Green wrote in “The Way of Baseball.”
If it had ended there, Green’s place in the record books was already secure. But it was only the beginning of one of the most blistering power-hitting streaks in MLB history.
Green homered three more times in three games at Arizona. He went deep again in the Dodgers’ first game back in Los Angeles, joining Frank Howard (1968) and Albert Belle (1995) as the only players to launch 10 homers in a seven-game span.
Perhaps it was simply an All-Star-caliber slugger regressing to the mean after a prolonged slump. Or maybe, as Green described it, he had found “the zone.” Either way, the torrid hitting continued.
From that first game in Milwaukee through mid-June, when he homered in four straight plate appearances over two games against the Angels, Green became one of only six hitters to bash as many as 17 big flies in a 23-game span. The company is impressive, to say the least.
Most HRs over 23 games (within one season)^
21 – Sammy Sosa, May 24-June 21, 1998 (.337/.375/1.021)
18 – Barry Bonds, May 17-June 12, 2001 (.384/.553/1.151)
17 – Shawn Green, May 21-June 15, 2002 (.379/.456/1.023)
17 – Sammy Sosa, Aug. 4-28, 2001 (.444/.505/1.111)
17 – Mark McGwire, July 9-Aug. 6, 1999 (.333/.449/1.025)
17 – Giancarlo Stanton, Aug. 4-27, 2017 (.402/.485/1.046)
^For players with multiple overlapping stretches, only one is listed
“You’re fully aware and alert,” as Green described his state at the time to MLB.com in 2012. “You’re not up there thinking, but you’re completely present in the activity you’re doing, and everything happens on its own.”
By the time Green finally ran into a homer drought early in the second half of that season, he had circled the bases 24 times in 43 games while hitting .335/.425/.861. Only Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Stanton and Babe Ruth have ever hit more big flies over such a single-season span.
In the end, after all the early hand-wringing, Green ended up exactly where he was supposed to be. His 154 OPS+ and 7.0 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) matched his marks from the year before, and he topped 40 homers and 110 RBIs for the second straight season. Following up a sixth-place NL MVP finish, Green placed fifth for a 92-win Dodgers club that narrowly missed the playoffs.
It was never quite the same after that. Green battled a power-sapping shoulder injury as he entered his 30s, and his numbers fell. He moved on to the D-backs and Mets and retired after the 2007 season.
Green finished his stellar career with 328 home runs, but four in particular have stood the test of time. That one afternoon in Milwaukee, he staked a legitimate claim to the best game ever produced by a big league hitter.