No mere throwback, Grady Sizemore has already made history with his uniqueskill set
This is an article from the May 14, 2007 issue
THERE WAS once atime when the elite, multisport athlete gladly chose baseball, passing up thefame and floodlights of football Saturdays on American campuses for thescruffy, two-bunk dorms of places such as Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., andthe apprenticeship that involved afternoon minor league games played insweltering heat before about 50 fans and among players who, with fewexceptions, would never realize their major league aspirations. There was atime when players, upon securing that first big contract, thanked their teamand their parents for their loyalty, with not a whiff of entitlement. A timewhen a well-struck ball in the gap or a one-hopper to the mound obligated thesame effort on the base paths: full tilt.
If those dayssometimes seem as long gone as classic rock and 220.9-inch-long, four-door,452-cubic-inch-powered luxury convertibles made in Detroit, you haven't seenIndians centerfielder Grady Sizemore play baseball--or drive to work from hisdowntown Cleveland apartment. Sizemore will jump into his baby blue 1966Lincoln Continental convertible, the one with the suicide doors, theeight-track tape player and the occasionally balky alternator, turn up theDoors or the Beatles and steer his land yacht two miles to Jacobs Field to putin another hard day's night.
With Sizemore, 24,leading off and leading the way with a throwback style for the first-placeIndians, the present and future of baseball looks a lot like its past.
"You're doinga story on Grady?" asks veteran Cleveland reliever Roberto Hernandez, wholockers next to Sizemore-- whose own locker is, appropriately, hidden behind alarge pillar. "Good luck getting him to talk about himself. He's such aquiet guy who's only interested in playing baseball and doing what he can forthe team."
Says Clevelandgeneral manager Mark Shapiro, "There is a superstar player on our team, butif you walked into our clubhouse, you'd have no idea who it is.
"To watch himplay day in and day out is a rare treat. All of us, from the front office tothe players to the bat boys, are fortunate to see him every day. He is withouta doubt one of the greatest players of our generation."
Sizemore,according to the website baseball-reference.com, is statistically most similarto Hall of Fame slugger Duke Snider at the same age, and, as his on-basepercentage trend shows (.333, .348, .375 and, this season, .410 at week's end),he's getting better all the time. At 6'2" and 205 pounds Sizemore featuresa historic combination of extra-base power and speed. Last season, when he hit.290 with 28 homers, 53 doubles, 11 triples and 22 stolen bases, Sizemorebecame only the seventh player in history--and the youngest ever--with morethan 90 extra-base hits and 20 steals in the same season. (The others wereChuck Klein, Ellis Burks, Brady Anderson, Larry Walker, Ken Griffey Jr. andAlfonso Soriano, who, at 26, had been the youngest.) He was the first leadoffhitter since Anderson in 1996 to surpass 90 extra-base hits.
"A lot oftimes an extra-base hit is determined by how you get out of the box,"Sizemore says. "Last year was crazy. Just one of those years when the ballfound gaps."
At week's end heled the AL in pitches per plate appearance (4.50), was tied for third in stolenbases (nine), ranked fourth in runs (24) and walks (25), and was first in thehearts of baseball aficionados who marvel at his well-rounded skills andhumility. The guy is a walking, running, diving, hustling clinic.
Chicago White Soxmanager Ozzie Guillen calls him "the best player in our league" and"Superman." Two years ago, even as his White Sox celebrated the lastout of a division-clinching win, Guillen marched across the field specificallyto shake Sizemore's hand and tell him how much he admired him. Sizemore'steammates still talk about the catch he made in the last week of the 2006season, when he dived headlong on the cinders of the warning track, dangerouslyclose to the wall--in a meaningless game for an 84-loss team that had longbefore been eliminated from the playoffs.
"He's the kindof player every manager wants," Toronto manager John Gibbons says. "Hecan do it all, but what's so great is he plays the game the right way and hegives your team energy every day. He's a dirtbag. He'll do whatever he can tobeat you."
Says Shapiro,"I'm sure he'd be in the NFL right now if he weren't playing baseball. He'sthat kind of elite athlete. The game needs more like him."
As someone whoturned down the chance to play quarterback at the University of Washington, aswell as someone who said he hopes he can inspire other black athletes to playbaseball (Sizemore's father, Grady, is African-American and his mother, Donna,is white), Sizemore is a timely role model for baseball. Just don't expect himto sell himself beyond letting his game deliver the message.
"If he were inNew York, he'd be [Derek] Jeter," Shapiro says.
Sizemore, in fact,happens to be very much like Jeter, and not only because of his strong parentalinfluence or the coincidence that both players are biracial. Both areenormously respected in their own clubhouse because they are superstars whovalue the goals of the team over the promotion of their individual profile.When a utility player runs out every ball and subjugates his ego for the team,it's expected from someone clinging to hold on to a job. But when your bestplayer brings that type of work ethic, the entire franchise and its culture ofteamwork is enriched.
One differencebetween Sizemore and Jeter, says Shapiro, is that the Indians' star is lessoutgoing. "I think I drive my agent crazy with the [endorsements] I turndown," says Sizemore. "I just want to go out on the field and play. I'mnot comfortable in front of the camera. I don't like seeing this mug onTV."
"I was at theAll-Star Game with him last year," says Blue Jays third baseman Troy Glaus,"and I'm telling you, he did not say one word the entire time. Not oneword. And it's not because he's a bad guy. He's just that quiet."
Asked what heloves most about baseball, Sizemore makes no mention of any individual skill orevent. "What's great is it really takes nine guys working together towin," he says. "Just to see it happen ... you take batting practice,ground balls, study the pitcher, then come together as a team.... There areone-on-one moments inside a game, but when everybody comes together and you winas a team, that's the best part."
"What's alwaysdriven Grady is a desire to please other people," says his father, who isknown in the family as Big Grady to his son's Little Grady. "He's alwayswanted the people around him to be happy, to please his teachers, his parents,his coaches, his teammates. He does it for everybody but himself.
"Individualattention? Oh, he just runs from that. I tell him, 'You've got to accept alittle bit of that. Some of the people are genuinely happy for you. They'resincere, and you don't want to turn away from that.' He understands, but he'snot really interested. He's always been that way. As a kid, whenever he wasgetting attention he would say, 'Why don't they write about so-and-so? He had agood game.'"
Sizemore grew upplaying sports in the Seattle suburb of Mill Creek with the same uncompromisingeffort he gives now. When he was five years old, Grady would tag out histhree-year-old brother, Corey, so often in baseball games in the family'scul-de-sac that his father would suggest he let Corey reach base just once in awhile.
"Oh, so youwant me to cheat?" Grady would reply.
Says the elderSizemore, "He only knew one way to play: the right way."
After hitting .457as a senior at Cascade High School and setting the school rushing record infootball, Sizemore was prepared to play both sports at Washington until theMontreal Expos selected him in the third round of the 2000 draft. "We werecoming off a Rose Bowl year," recalls former University of Washingtonfootball coach Rick Neuheisel, who's now the offensive coordinator for theBaltimore Ravens, "and our quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo was moving on tothe NFL. I thought [Sizemore] might be the next Tuiasosopo. He had greatinstincts, is a great competitor and has a very athletic body. If he'd been atrack guy, he'd have been a decathlete."
Sizemore's father,an insurance-claim investigator, and his mother, a bookkeeper, calculated itwould take a $2 million bonus to make it worth forgoing college. "Aftertaxes and expenses, a million dollars was enough to fall back on if it didn'twork out," says Big Grady. The Expos gave him the two million.
"He was alwaysgoing to play baseball eventually," the elder Sizemore says. "I knew hewas going to be a major leaguer from the time he was eight years old."
Sizemore startedhis pro career with the Gulf Coast League Expos in Bradenton, and on June 27,2002, almost two years to the day from when he was drafted, he was traded toCleveland. Then Expos G.M. Omar Minaya, operating a franchise mentioned as acandidate for contraction, but sitting only five games out of the wild-cardspot, shipped off veteran first baseman Lee Stevens, Sizemore and two otherprospects who would become productive major leaguers, pitcher Cliff Lee andinfielder Brandon Phillips, to get pitcher Bartolo Colon. (Colon won 10 gamesin just half a season for Montreal, which finished well out of the playoff huntwith 83 wins, before he was traded to the White Sox.)
"[Sizemore]was hitting .250, .260 in the Florida State League," says Minaya, now theMets' G.M. "We knew he was a good athlete and had played football.
"You have tounderstand, every team in baseball was preparing a draft board because theExpos players were going to be dispersed. [Class] A ballplayers or even DoubleA players didn't matter because we were looking at contraction at the end ofthe season. It was a no-brainer for me."
Sizemore had hitonly three home runs in 912 at bats in the Montreal farm system, butCleveland's reports on him--especially those from farm director Tony LaCava,who had worked the previous season as a national cross-checker forMontreal--raved about his athleticism and maturity. "He was the mostdisciplined teenage hitter I have ever seen," says LaCava."Twenty-pitch nights were not uncommon for him. And he played the game theright way from Day One. He ran hard 90 feet to first base all the time and hada quiet confidence and determination. The package was all there."
Shapiro, at thetime of the trade, compared Sizemore to Trot Nixon and Brad Wilkerson, decentlefthanded hitting outfielders but never considered star players. Two yearslater, at 21, Sizemore was in the big leagues to stay, developing power andraising expectations. (His spike in power, Shapiro says, was a naturaldevelopment for a player who, despite the low home run totals, was already agood gap hitter.) Before last season Shapiro signed Sizemore to a contractthat, with a club option, is worth $31.45 million over seven years, buying uphis arbitration-eligible years as well as two years of free-agenteligibility.
When asked thenabout surrendering such leverage, Sizemore expressed his happiness with theteam's faith in him and the financial security. He also sat down his parentsand told them, "You don't have to work anymore." Big Grady and Donnahave since retired and last week moved to Arizona. Little Grady? With thewindfall he splurged only on the '66 Lincoln and a house in Arizona he shareswith Corey, a house he admits he cleans with obsessive zeal.
"I wash myhands a lot, too," says the baseball dirtbag. "I've got this thingabout cleaning, I guess."
Ever thorough,Sizemore, despite flying headlong around outfield walls and bases, hasn't satout a game in more than two years and typically shows up for work five hours ormore before game time. His enthusiasm hasn't changed much from his days as akid, when he would interrupt Big Grady's television viewing by announcing,"Let's go hit!"
"ButGrady," his dad would say, "it's freezing outside."
Nevertheless, thetwo would soon be hitting plastic balls in the backyard or baseballs on anempty field--never a cage, because they wanted to see the flight of the balloff the bat. Big Grady would throw a bucket of 40 or 50 baseballs to LittleGrady, who'd spray them all over the field, then they'd round up the balls anddo it all over again.
"He alwayssuggested it; I never had to come to him," Big Grady says. "It's whathe did for fun."
Says Shapiro,"Grady wants to be great, not just good. And what you're starting to seenow is maybe that once-a-decade convergence of effort, energy, talent,athleticism and baseball ability. It's all coming together."
Through Sunday,the Indians owned the second-best record in the AL, at 18--10, and Sizemore hadreached base 52 times while scoring 24 runs. (In only one game had he failed toget on at least once.) He had worked the count full in 23.1% of his plateappearances, up from 16.6% last year, including an eighth-inning at bat againstToronto righthander Jason Frasor in a tie game last Thursday night. True toLaCava's early reports, on the 20th pitch he faced that night, Sizemore belteda game-winning ground-rule double.
Afterward, hardlyraising his voice above a whisper and with his head bowed, Sizemore actuallyspoke about himself and his growth as a hitter. "I feel comfortable in thebatter's box," he says. "I feel like I can be the same hitter at 0 and2 as I am at 2 and 0, not worrying about the outcome as much as just working onputting a good at bat together."
With that,culminating what for him was a Churchillian address to a few reporters, LittleGrady slipped out of sight behind the thick pillar that hides his locker,content with the reward of victory and the promise of tomorrow, another day towear the baseball uniform and, better still, get it dirty.
Sizing 'Em Up
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From his playing style to his pulled-up socks to his vintage ride, Sizemorerecalls a black-and-white era and a wide range of centerfielders, past andpresent.
Sizemore is on track to double his 22-stolen base totals of each of the lasttwo years. He'll also accumulate plenty of triples (11 in both '05 and '06)because of his ability to hit to the gaps.
Despite a batting average that has been hovering around .250, Sizemore--whoseon-base percentage has improved each of the last three years--had a .410 OBP atweek's end.
He is not quite Lynn or Jim Edmonds, but he chases down plenty of balls and isadmired for his willingness to run into walls even in the most meaninglessSeptember games.
Last year Sizemore became only the seventh player in history--and the youngestever--with more than 90 extra base hits (including 28 homers) and 20 steals inthe same season.