(AP)PEORIA, Ariz. - Throughout his first full season in the major leagues, San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene was singled out for his defensive wizardry, preternatural calm and, by years end, his hot bat.
All along, though, he couldn't wait for the day when he was no longer a rookie.
"I felt there was a certain stigma attached to being a rookie," Greene said recently at spring training. "You're separated from everybody else, and it was my intent originally to try to feel like everybody else and fit in on the field, off the field. The constant questions about being a first-year player always seemed to arise, and it separates you that much more, like you haven't arrived.
"So I feel now that I'm just like everybody else and there's no questions about whether I'm the best first-year player. I'm just a good player."
That's as good an explanation as any for why Greene went out of his way to distance himself from the buzz surrounding the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2004. After being billed as the early favorite, he finished second to Pittsburgh outfielder Jason Bay, a former Padres farmhand who roomed with Greene when both played for Triple-A Portland.
When the award was announced last November, Greene said he was glad Bay won.
The past few months have done nothing to change his mind.
"I wasn't too concerned about it then and I'm less concerned about it now," he said. "Its my second year, so there are no sophomore-year trophies out there to win."
Bay won the award after hitting 26 homers and driving in 82 runs in only 411 at-bats.
Greene's coaches and teammates, however, believe they know who was more valuable. Greene, a 2002 first-round pick from Clemson, couldn't match Bays offensive numbers - he hit .273 with 15 home runs and 65 RBIs - but his glovework made the highlight reels almost nightly and his remarkably even-keeled demeanor was a positive clubhouse influence.
"I think he took everybody by surprise," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "We knew Khalil was talented, but I dont think anybody knew he was going to have that kind of year."
Plus, Greene heated up as the weather cooled. Far from smacking into the so-called rookie wall, Greene was at his best when the Padres were locked in a late-season pennant race. In August, he batted .311 with five homers and 16 RBIs. In mid-September, he homered four times during a three-game series against Colorado at Coors Field.
"I just think it was his work ethic, his conditioning," Bochy said. "He just takes such good care of himself. Its a tribute to how consistent his is with his routine. He never appeared fatigued."
All the conditioning in the world, though, couldn't prevent the fluke play that ended Greene's season. On Sept. 13 in Los Angeles, he broke his right index finger while trying to field a hard grounder off the bat of the Dodgers Antonio Perez, limiting him to pinch-running duty for the final three weeks.
"It was somewhat disappointing in the way it happened, the fact that we were still in the playoff race and I felt like I was starting to play better than I had up until that point offensively," Greene said. "But I was never bitter about it or anything. That's part of the game."
Greene is now preparing for a season in which he will hit two spots higher in the lineup, jumping from eighth to sixth, and in which his starters role is unchallenged.
Last spring, the Padres brought veteran shortstop Rey Ordonez to Arizona to compete with Greene and provide a fallback in case he wasn't ready to handle everyday duty. A few weeks into camp, Ordonez walked out, reportedly because he saw the writing on the wall.
"Regardless of whether I'm battling for a starting spot, there are a lot of things I want to do and get better at," Greene said. "Honestly, I'm not looking at this year any different than I did last year or the year before."
Spoken like a true non-rookie.