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SULTAN OF SWAT WHEN HE'S NOT TAGGING BALLS FOR THE ATLANTA BRAVES, LEFTFIELDER RYAN KLESKO TAGS ALONG ON DRUG BUSTS

April 08, 1996
April 08, 1996

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April 8, 1996

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SULTAN OF SWAT WHEN HE'S NOT TAGGING BALLS FOR THE ATLANTA BRAVES, LEFTFIELDER RYAN KLESKO TAGS ALONG ON DRUG BUSTS

THE DRIVER turns the corner, kills the headlights and closes in
on the first crack house of the evening. There are 14 law-
enforcement officers and one big league baseball player in the
back of the van, and as it approaches the address on the search
warrant, their idle chatter stops. The cops tighten their helmet
straps and grip their weapons. The player adjusts his
bulletproof vest. "Thirty seconds out," says the driver, a
narcotics agent who is overseeing the operation. "Time to go to
work."

This is an article from the April 8, 1996 issue Original Layout

As the van tears up the driveway, its doors swing open. The cops
spring out of the vehicle as if their seats were on fire and
dash toward the house. A team of snipers carrying AR-15 assault
rifles surrounds the small, run-down house. One officer totes a
boomer, a tool designed to break open doors. Others are armed
with MP5 semiautomatic weapons and with handguns. Ryan Klesko,
the 24-year-old leftfielder for the Atlanta Braves and an
honorary deputy sheriff for Palm Beach County, Fla., waits for
the last officer to exit the van and then follows closely
behind, his cheek full of chewing tobacco and his eyes glowing
with anticipation. Lots of people enjoy watching the TV show
Cops. Klesko, who hit three home runs in the Braves' World
Series triumph over the Cleveland Indians last fall, prefers the
real thing.

The Palm Beach County sheriff's office is holding search
warrants for four houses on this unseasonably cool Friday night
in March, and this first house is the one from which the other
three obtain their drugs. The raid begins with the report of a
flash-bang, a small explosive device whose loud and frightening
detonation announces the arrival of the Special Response Team, a
SWAT-like elite unit of the sheriff's department.

The flash-bang is tossed through an open door of the tiny house,
and when it explodes, the house fills with smoke. Some of the
occupants hit the floor and wait facedown to be handcuffed. One
suspect, in an attempt to dispose of drugs, pushes his hand
through a windowpane in the back of the house, slicing open his
arm. The cops search for drugs and weapons quickly and
efficiently, as if the operation were as routine as stopping a
speeder. The ballplayer watches in awe, like a wide-eyed kid who
has been invited to sit in the dugout at a World Series game.
There are lots of things to do on Friday night in South Florida,
but as far as Klesko is concerned, nothing beats busting bad guys.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is what I would be doing
if I weren't playing ball," he says. "I really have a lot of
respect for these guys, because they risk their lives every day
to keep scum off the streets and keep the cities safe." Klesko,
meanwhile, risks his life to watch. Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

When he signed with the Braves in 1989, Klesko decided downhill
skiing was too risky and gave it up. These days, his off-field
activities include scuba diving, boar hunting, spearfishing,
archery, target shooting and surfing. He cuts back on the
adventures when baseball season begins, but he still sneaks away
for an occasional field trip. On a recent day off, he drove from
the Braves' spring training base in West Palm Beach to Orlando,
where he and some friends spent $1,000 to rent Typhoon Lagoon, a
water park at Disney World, for almost three hours of
boogie-boarding and surfing.

"Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow?" says Klesko, who
had a home run and four RBIs in Atlanta's 10-8 Opening Day
victory over the San Francisco Giants on Monday. "So if I get a
chance to do something today, I do it. That's the way I look at
life."

Last year the Braves' World Series drive was only one of
Klesko's adventures. On the field he hit .310 with 23 homers and
70 RBIs in just 329 at bats, and he emerged as a star in the
National League. Off the field he watched a stock car race from
Dale Earnhardt's private box, he went backstage after concerts
by Van Halen and country singers Brooks & Dunn, and he hosted
the members of the rock group Boston in the Atlanta clubhouse.

While many of his teammates have gained reputations for taking a
businesslike approach to the game, Klesko prefers to attack each
day as if he were serving a warrant. He doesn't watch MTV; he
lives it. Most of the Braves share a passion for golf, but
Klesko generally can find more exciting ways to fill a day.

Klesko grew up in Westminster, Calif., just outside Huntington
Beach, but five years ago he settled in Boynton Beach, Fla., 20
minutes south of the Braves' spring home. He shares a waterfront
house with his girlfriend, Michelle Penzenik, a dance instructor
and a former Miss Palm Beach County. The surfing off Florida
isn't nearly as challenging as it is off California, but Klesko
has found plenty of other ways to get his kicks.

In 1990, when Klesko was still a minor leaguer, Penzenik
introduced him to scuba diving and to Jeff Garten, a local
diving instructor and five-year veteran of the Palm Beach County
sheriff's office. Klesko and Garten hit it off instantly. In the
off-season three years ago Garten invited Klesko to spend an
evening with the Special Response Team, and Klesko has been an
unofficial member ever since. For a man who never stops
searching for his next adrenaline rush, finding the team was
like catching the perfect wave.

Throughout the off-season and into spring training, Klesko goes
along on drug raids whenever his schedule allows. Many times the
officers find weapons during these raids. Occasionally they are
greeted by attack dogs. "Young guys do exciting and interesting
things," says Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "If Ryan
puts himself at risk, it's entirely his risk."

Klesko, who doesn't bother to wear a mask to hide his identity
on the raids, doesn't feel he's taking a great risk, although he
probably wouldn't mind if he were. "I just enjoy watching these
guys do their jobs," he says. "They know exactly what they're
doing at all times. They study the house, and they take all
kinds of precautions. They've never had to shoot a suspect when
I've been along. A couple of dogs, maybe, but no people."

The relationship has proved to be beneficial to both sides:
Klesko has outfitted the Special Response Team in black Reebok
shoes and Ray-Ban glasses. Charles McCutcheon, the sheriff of
Palm Beach County, in turn presented Klesko with an honorary
deputy's badge earlier this year. Klesko is proud of the badge
and is determined to replace it with the real thing. He plans to
take the necessary exams to become a reserve officer in the
sheriff's department. "Then I'll actually get paid for my work,"
he says.

This baseball season, for the first time, Klesko's name appears
to be tattooed on the Braves' lineup. He signed a one-year,
$315,000 contract on March 1; he will most likely bat sixth and
play leftfield. In the past, when he arrived at Atlanta's camp
in February, six weeks of uncertainty lay ahead. Klesko had been
considered a power-hitting phenom since high school, but these
were still the Braves. Openings come more easily on the Supreme
Court than in the Atlanta lineup.

"That's the toughest thing about this organization: There are so
many great players," Klesko says. "Nothing is given to you.
Bobby [Cox] has always been the kind of manager to break in the
young guys slowly. I had a hard time dealing with it for a
while; I'd be down in the minors complaining and griping. I'd be
hitting .290 with 16 home runs and wondering, When do I get to
play in the big leagues? After a while, I was waiting for a
trade."

Klesko caught a break a couple of years ago when another
thrill-seeking Atlanta outfielder took his off-season adventures
too far. Ron Gant, an All-Star leftfielder for the Braves in
1992, broke his leg in a dirt-bike accident in February '94,
creating an opportunity for Klesko at least to platoon in
leftfield. He batted .278 with 17 homers in 245 at bats and
finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
"If Gant didn't get hurt," he says, "there probably still
wouldn't be a spot for me."

Last season Klesko proved that he was more than just a part-time
player. He hit .331 from June 6 until the end of the regular
season and wound up with a .608 slugging percentage, which would
have placed him second in the National League if he had gotten
enough plate appearances. Then he took his place on the World
Series stage. At Cleveland's Jacobs Field, after the Braves won
the first two games at home against the Indians, Klesko became
the first player ever to hit home runs in three straight Series
road games.

His performance fueled rumors that Atlanta would not re-sign
veteran first baseman Fred McGriff, who became a free agent at
the end of the season. Considering that first base is the
position Klesko played most often in the minors, and considering
that he's still awkward in the outfield, it seemed a natural
move. But in December the Braves signed McGriff to a four-year,
$20.5 million contract and dispatched Klesko to leftfield, where
he will have to get comfortable for the prime of his career.
Deputy Klesko insists he is glad that Crime Dog McGriff is
staying in Atlanta, even though it means Klesko must put away
his first baseman's mitt. "I honestly felt like we needed
[McGriff] back," says Klesko. "He's a good friend and a good
presence in our clubhouse." As for his own presence in the
outfield, Klesko says, "I think I played well in left last year,
especially in the second half. I don't care if they tell me to
catch; I'm glad to be in the majors and playing for the world
champions."

Of the three home runs Klesko hit in Cleveland, he has no
trouble selecting the most memorable: It was the one that almost
struck his mother. Lorene Klesko doesn't get to see her son play
in person much anymore. She has had a number of health problems
since she accidentally inhaled hazardous chemicals while on her
job packing aerospace parts four years ago. She has trouble
breathing and is often forced to stay in her house, close to the
air conditioner or humidifier.

"If she gets a cold, it's like being deathly ill," says Ryan.
"Sometimes I call her up, and she can barely talk."

Still, Lorene made it to Cleveland to see Ryan crank one into
the right-centerfield seats in Game 4. The ball landed a few
rows in front of her, and she introduced herself to the man who
caught it. In a sign of these memorabilia-crazed times, the man
asked Lorene for a photo ID, and then he offered her a deal: She
could have the ball in exchange for two balls autographed by the
entire Braves team, a few pictures and a bat. Lorene considered
it a bargain. "I can't even explain the feeling," she says. "I
was sitting there with Michelle, and I said, 'Come on, Ryan, hit
one to Mom.' Next thing I know, the ball is landing 10 feet in
front of me. It was just incredible."

For Ryan it was the highlight of his career. His mother, he
says, is the reason he made it to the big leagues. His father,
Howard, and Lorene were divorced when Ryan was in high school,
and before that, Howard was frequently away at work in the oil
fields off Long Beach, Calif. It was Lorene who caught for Ryan
in the backyard, sitting on a flipped-over water bucket to give
him a good target.

"I did the same thing for his two sisters, who were pretty good
softball players," says Lorene. "It was no big deal." At least
not until young Ryan learned the deuce. Lorene had no trouble
with his fastball, but one day she took a nasty curveball in the
leg and returned from her doctor on crutches. "Ryan's dream was
to play in the big leagues," Lorene says, "and I just did what
every mother would do: I helped him follow his dream."

Ryan says he tried for years to pay his mother back with a new
car, but she resisted. Finally he just walked into her house and
put the keys to a Ford Thunderbird on the kitchen table.

"When I was a kid, my mom would watch baseball on TV and say to
me, 'See those guys? You're going to be one of them someday,'"
Ryan says. "I never thought it was possible, but she always
believed in me."

Lorene was in Atlanta in October to share her son's World Series
triumph. "The morning after the last game, we were sitting
around just enjoying the whole thing," says Lorene, "and Ryan
said to me, 'Well, Mom, we won the World Series. What next? I've
got a World Series ring. I've done just about everything I
wanted to do in life. What am I going to do now?'"

He'll think of something.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Someday Klesko hopes to be a full-fledged, gun-toting member of the sheriff's Special Response Team. [Ryan Klesko and members of Palm Beach County Special Response Team]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Klesko's big bat assures him a place in the Atlanta lineup despite his lack of expertise in leftfield. [Ryan Klesko]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES A volunteer can't pack a gun in a raid, but Klesko may carry a weapon with which he can do some damage. [Ryan Klesko, holding baseball bat, with members of Palm Beach County Special Response Team on drug raid]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Klesko gave up downhill skiing, but surfing? No way, dude. [Ryan Klesko holding surfboard]