After two years away, Sizemore back in action with Red Sox

Friday April 25th, 2014

Despite missing all of the past two seasons, Grady Sizemore still plays the game as hard as ever.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

After both of his microfracture knee surgeries, Grady Sizemore would spend at least eight hours a day, and sometimes as many as 16, strapped into a device that did what he could no longer do: bend and straighten his own leg.

Sometimes Sizemore would have to sleep hooked up to the machine, called a Continuous Passive Motion device. It takes about eight weeks of using the CPM before a patient can even consider walking on the surgically repaired knee that has had a hole drilled into the bone.

So for 16 total weeks of his life, at a minimum of eight hours a day, Sizemore would have to lie stationary on his back, waiting for the CPM to bend his knee before straightening it back out again, over and over. This is how the man who was once called "Superman" by an opposing manager spent what should have been the prime years of his career.

"This was a never-ending cycle," says his father, Grady Sizemore Sr. "He'd have gotten mad if I told him, but I thought it was over after the [second microfracture] surgery. I didn't think his body could take any more."

Once the face of the Cleveland Indians, Sizemore was a fearless player who rarely missed a game, made three All-Star teams before his 26th birthday and was so good that his general manager at the time, Mark Shapiro, recently said of him, "He was the closest thing to the way people talk about Mike Trout right now, except not in a big market."

Then came the injuries. All told Sizemore played less than half a season in both 2010 and '11 and not at all in 2012 and '13 due to a variety of health problems, most notably the microfracture operations. Now he's restarting his career in Boston at age 31 after the better part of four years away from the field and six years removed from his best season. The Red Sox training staff says he's healthy, with the necessary strength to play a full season for the first time since 2008. And while Sizemore is patient, he's not fond of discussing this part of his past. How much deeper can he dig to describe the endless rehab when words rarely came to talk about his success?

"When you go through a lot of injuries it's never going to be the exact same," he says. "But I'm not going to change what made me a good player and I'm not going to hold anything back. If more injuries happen then more injuries happen. It's part of the game."

Any conversation with Sizemore means he'll get the same questions about his injuries and the once-promising future they derailed. And those questions get the same clipped answers delivered in a quiet voice. For Sizemore, there isn't much to talk about, just a job to be done.

"I don't think about it too much, man," he says "I just want to go and compete."

Tony LaCava, who first scouted Sizemore in 1999 and is now the assistant general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, says, "What's really important to emphasize about Grady is he was an unassuming kid who played the game hard. He's not one for talking, but he's got such desire and a tenacity in how he plays the game."

LaCava was the minor league director in Montreal during Sizemore's second season in the Expos organization, and found the Seattle-area native to be a disciplined young hitter and gifted outfielder with big league speed and an unassuming demeanor. As Cleveland's national crosschecker in 2002, LaCava pushed for Sizemore's inclusion as part of the package from Montreal when Shapiro dealt ace Bartolo Colon to the Expos. The famed trade also netted the Indians future Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and eventual All-Star and Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips, but it was Sizemore who became a superstar first.

From 2005-08, Sizemore averaged 27 home runs and 29 stolen bases with a .281 batting average and an .868 OPS, making the All-Star team each of the last three years while winning Gold Gloves in the last two and a Silver Slugger in '08. He also played in 639 of 648 regular season games, including one stretch of 382 straight. In 2006, the same year he signed a six-year, $23.45 million extension, he became the first player to hit 50 doubles, 10 triples and 25 home runs in a season since 1937. Ex-White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen once called him "Superman."

"He had the career potential of a player who could impact the game and every facet of it as well as the makeup and character to match the skills," says Shapiro. "He played the game with an intensity and an athletic prowess that people had not seen before."

And in the clubhouse?

"Sometimes you wouldn't even know he was there," says Shapiro. "But the second you stepped on the field, everybody knew he was around."

But Sizemore soon wasn't stepping on the field much at all. A couple of sports hernias and some minor elbow trouble limited him to 106 games in 2009, and he played just 33 games in 2010 after having his first microfracture surgery on his left knee. He came back in 2011 and played 71 games but had to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee that year while also undergoing another hernia operation. In 2012 he had back surgery in spring training and, in September, another microfracture operation, this time on his right knee.

Grady's parents, Donna and Grady Sr., were at his side when he underwent each of his operations. Long days of arduous rehab now replaced time spent on the baseball field. "We had just never dealt with major injuries before this," Sizemore Sr. says. The family lost track of all the surgeons and specialists they consulted. Grady Sr. recently struggled to recall the name of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based surgeon who correctly diagnosed why his son was relapsing, but couldn't come up with it. There were just too many to remember.

For Sizemore, it wasn't a question of if he wanted to come back, but rather if he'd be medically cleared to do so. The Scottsdale doctor emphasized that he had pushed his previous microfractures too hard in an attempt to get back on the field too soon. Just a simple prescription of walking 30 minutes per day would strengthen the knee without stressing it. The second microfracture surgery tested whether his body could withstand more rehab, but Sizemore had no intention of retiring.

"From such a young age, he was playing sports year round until he started to go through these surgeries," Sizemore Sr. says. "He got bumps and bruises like anybody else, but as hard as it was, he knew in his mind he could come back. It was just a sad and depressing time."

The second chance came with Boston, which was coming off a World Series triumph but had a question mark in the outfield. The Red Sox didn't want to pay what it would take to re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury, who eventually signed with the Yankees for seven years and $153 million, and knew top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. was still figuring out how to be a big league hitter. Boston, which did its due diligence to make sure Sizemore would be healthy enough to play, was also a natural fit for Sizemore. He was already acquainted with manager John Farrell, who was the player development director in Cleveland when Sizemore was an Indian. Farrell said that familiarity made it easy for the Red Sox to "understand who he is as a person [and how] he fits what we value in a player . . . he's smart, he's tough and he's got character."

In late January, Sizemore agreed to a one-year contract with a base salary of $750,000 with up to $3 million more in incentives. He will get $250,000 for each 25 plate appearances he makes between 225 and 500 and the same amount for simply spending 60, 90, 120 and 150 days on the major league roster, according to Cot's Contracts. If he channels his former self this season, he could be the best bargain in baseball. Through April 24 he was batting just .212/.264/.364 but he had played 18 of the team's 23 games, making 16 starts and never once leaving a game early.

"Everyone here knows who he was when he was in his prime, in that peak period he had with Cleveland," says Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. "That player fits on any team including ours, certainly. Grady is getting back into everyday baseball now and we see a lot of potential there."

Sizemore's return to action has been exciting for his family and those who have known him for years. Donna says she's happy to turn baseball on the television for the first time in two years. Even if his former star is now in a different uniform, Shapiro insists that the entire Indians organization and fanbase is rooting for him.

"I don't remember any other player coming back from his injuries to even play at the level that he's playing at now," Shapiro says. "And you just need to look at his professional, workmanlike approach to the game. He attacked his rehab the same way he attacks the game itself, without frustration, without emotion and set out with a strong sense of conviction to complete that task."

For his part, Sizemore admits he sometimes feels like he's "running in concrete" but says he's just glad to be back on the field: "I don't care where I hit or where I play. I just want to be in the lineup."

He certainly hasn't lost any of his on-field intensity. On April 7 he crashed full speed into the Green Monster while trying to make a play in a game against Texas, and he made a diving catch later in that same game.

He took even less time to show flashes on his old self at the plate. On Opening Day in Baltimore on March 31, he stepped in for his first major league at-bat in more than two years and promptly singled to rightfield. Sizemore came to the plate again in the fourth and hit a fly ball to deep right. He sprinted out of the box, going as fast as his rebuilt knees would take him, when the ball bounced back onto the field. Only when the umpires signaled that it was a home run did Sizemore break into a jog. He finished his circle around the bases with no smile and no limp, just taking one step at a time until he was back where he'd started.

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