One Sizemore Fits All
No mere throwback, Grady Sizemore has already made history with his unique skill set
By Tom Verducci
There was once a time when the elite, multisport athlete gladly chose baseball, passing up the fame and floodlights of football Saturdays on American campuses for the scruffy, two-bunk dorms of places such as Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., and the apprenticeship that involved afternoon minor league games played in sweltering heat before about 50 fans and among players who, with few exceptions, would never realize their major league aspirations. There was a time when players, upon securing that first big contract, thanked their team and their parents for their loyalty, with not a whiff of entitlement. A time when a well-struck ball in the gap or a one-hopper to the mound obligated the same effort on the base paths: full tilt.
If those days sometimes 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 seen Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore play baseball -- or drive to work from his downtown Cleveland apartment. Sizemore will jump into his baby blue 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible, the one with the suicide doors, the eight-track tape player and the occasionally balky alternator, turn up the Doors or the Beatles and steer his land yacht two miles to Jacobs Field to put in another hard day's night.
With Sizemore, 24, leading off and leading the way with a throwback style for the first-place Indians, the present and future of baseball looks a lot like its past.
"You're doing a story on Grady?" asks veteran Cleveland reliever Roberto Hernandez, who lockers next to Sizemore -- whose own locker is, appropriately, hidden behind a large pillar. "Good luck getting him to talk about himself. He's such a quiet guy who's only interested in playing baseball and doing what he can for the team."
Says Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro, "There is a superstar player on our team, but if you walked into our clubhouse, you'd have no idea who it is.
"To watch him play day in and day out is a rare treat. All of us, from the front office to the players to the bat boys, are fortunate to see him every day. He is without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation."
Sizemore, according to the website baseball-reference.com, is statistically most similar to Hall of Fame slugger Duke Snider at the same age, and, as his on-base percentage 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 features a 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, Sizemore became only the seventh player in history -- and the youngest ever -- with more than 90 extra-base hits and 20 steals in the same season. (The others were Chuck Klein, Ellis Burks, Brady Anderson, Larry Walker, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alfonso Soriano, who, at 26, had been the youngest.) He was the first leadoff hitter since Anderson in 1996 to surpass 90 extra-base hits.
"A lot of times 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 ball found gaps."
At week's end he led the AL in pitches per plate appearance (4.50), was tied for third in stolen bases (nine), ranked fourth in runs (24) and walks (25), and was first in the hearts of baseball aficionados who marvel at his well-rounded skills and humility. The guy is a walking, running, diving, hustling clinic.
Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen calls him "the best player in our league" and "Superman." Two years ago, even as his White Sox celebrated the last out of a division-clinching win, Guillen marched across the field specifically to shake Sizemore's hand and tell him how much he admired him. Sizemore's teammates still talk about the catch he made in the last week of the 2006 season, when he dived headlong on the cinders of the warning track, dangerously close to the wall -- in a meaningless game for an 84-loss team that had long before been eliminated from the playoffs.
"He's the kind of player every manager wants," Toronto manager John Gibbons says. "He can do it all, but what's so great is he plays the game the right way and he gives your team energy every day. He's a dirtbag. He'll do whatever he can to beat you."
Says Shapiro, "I'm sure he'd be in the NFL right now if he weren't playing baseball. He's that kind of elite athlete. The game needs more like him."
As someone who turned down the chance to play quarterback at the University of Washington, as well as someone who said he hopes he can inspire other black athletes to play baseball (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 him to sell himself beyond letting his game deliver the message.
"If he were in New 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 parental influence or the coincidence that both players are biracial. Both are enormously respected in their own clubhouse because they are superstars who value 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 best player brings that type of work ethic, the entire franchise and its culture of teamwork is enriched.
One difference between Sizemore and Jeter, says Shapiro, is that the Indians' star is less outgoing. "I think I drive my agent crazy with the [endorsements] I turn down," says Sizemore. "I just want to go out on the field and play. I'm not comfortable in front of the camera. I don't like seeing this mug on TV."
"I was at the All-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 one word. And it's not because he's a bad guy. He's just that quiet."
Asked what he loves most about baseball, Sizemore makes no mention of any individual skill or event. "What's great is it really takes nine guys working together to win," he says. "Just to see it happen ... you take batting practice, ground balls, study the pitcher, then come together as a team.... There are one-on-one moments inside a game, but when everybody comes together and you win as a team, that's the best part."
"What's always driven Grady is a desire to please other people," says his father, who is known in the family as Big Grady to his son's Little Grady. "He's always wanted the people around him to be happy, to please his teachers, his parents, his coaches, his teammates. He does it for everybody but himself.
"Individual attention? Oh, he just runs from that. I tell him, 'You've got to accept a little bit of that. Some of the people are genuinely happy for you. They're sincere, and you don't want to turn away from that.' He understands, but he's not really interested. He's always been that way. As a kid, whenever he was getting attention he would say, 'Why don't they write about so-and-so? He had a good game.'"
Sizemore grew up playing sports in the Seattle suburb of Mill Creek with the same uncompromising effort he gives now. When he was five years old, Grady would tag out his three-year-old brother, Corey, so often in baseball games in the family's cul-de-sac that his father would suggest he let Corey reach base just once in a while.
"Oh, so you want me to cheat?" Grady would reply.
Says the elder Sizemore, "He only knew one way to play: the right way."
After hitting .457 as a senior at Cascade High School and setting the school rushing record in football, Sizemore was prepared to play both sports at Washington until the Montreal Expos selected him in the third round of the 2000 draft. "We were coming off a Rose Bowl year," recalls former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, who's now the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, "and our quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo was moving on to the NFL. I thought [Sizemore] might be the next Tuiasosopo. He had great instincts, is a great competitor and has a very athletic body. If he'd been a track guy, he'd have been a decathlete."
Sizemore's father, an insurance-claim investigator, and his mother, a bookkeeper, calculated it would take a $2 million bonus to make it worth forgoing college. "After taxes and expenses, a million dollars was enough to fall back on if it didn't work out," says Big Grady. The Expos gave him the two million.
"He was always going to play baseball eventually," the elder Sizemore says. "I knew he was going to be a major leaguer from the time he was eight years old."
Sizemore started his 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 to Cleveland. Then Expos G.M. Omar Minaya, operating a franchise mentioned as a candidate for contraction, but sitting only five games out of the wild-card spot, shipped off veteran first baseman Lee Stevens, Sizemore and two other prospects who would become productive major leaguers, pitcher Cliff Lee and infielder Brandon Phillips, to get pitcher Bartolo Colon. (Colon won 10 games in just half a season for Montreal, which finished well out of the playoff hunt with 83 wins, before he was traded to the White Sox.)
"[Sizemore] was hitting .250, .260 in the Florida State League," says Minaya, now the Mets' G.M. "We knew he was a good athlete and had played football.
"You have to understand, every team in baseball was preparing a draft board because the Expos players were going to be dispersed. [Class] A ballplayers or even Double A players didn't matter because we were looking at contraction at the end of the season. It was a no-brainer for me."
Sizemore had hit only three home runs in 912 at bats in the Montreal farm system, but Cleveland's reports on him -- especially those from farm director Tony LaCava, who had worked the previous season as a national cross-checker for Montreal -- raved about his athleticism and maturity. "He was the most disciplined teenage hitter I have ever seen," says LaCava. "Twenty-pitch nights were not uncommon for him. And he played the game the right way from Day One. He ran hard 90 feet to first base all the time and had a quiet confidence and determination. The package was all there."
Shapiro, at the time of the trade, compared Sizemore to Trot Nixon and Brad Wilkerson, decent lefthanded hitting outfielders but never considered star players. Two years later, at 21, Sizemore was in the big leagues to stay, developing power and raising expectations. (His spike in power, Shapiro says, was a natural development for a player who, despite the low home run totals, was already a good gap hitter.) Before last season Shapiro signed Sizemore to a contract that, with a club option, is worth $31.45 million over seven years, buying up his arbitration-eligible years as well as two years of free-agent eligibility.
When asked then about surrendering such leverage, Sizemore expressed his happiness with the team's faith in him and the financial security. He also sat down his parents and told them, "You don't have to work anymore." Big Grady and Donna have since retired and last week moved to Arizona. Little Grady? With the windfall he splurged only on the '66 Lincoln and a house in Arizona he shares with Corey, a house he admits he cleans with obsessive zeal.
"I wash my hands a lot, too," says the baseball dirtbag. "I've got this thing about cleaning, I guess."
Ever thorough, Sizemore, despite flying headlong around outfield walls and bases, hasn't sat out a game in more than two years and typically shows up for work five hours or more before game time. His enthusiasm hasn't changed much from his days as a kid, when he would interrupt Big Grady's television viewing by announcing, "Let's go hit!"
"But Grady," his dad would say, "it's freezing outside."
Nevertheless, the two would soon be hitting plastic balls in the backyard or baseballs on an empty field -- never a cage, because they wanted to see the flight of the ball off the bat. Big Grady would throw a bucket of 40 or 50 baseballs to Little Grady, who'd spray them all over the field, then they'd round up the balls and do it all over again.
"He always suggested it; I never had to come to him," Big Grady says. "It's what he did for fun."
Says Shapiro, "Grady wants to be great, not just good. And what you're starting to see now 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 had reached base 52 times while scoring 24 runs. (In only one game had he failed to get on at least once.) He had worked the count full in 23.1% of his plate appearances, up from 16.6% last year, including an eighth-inning at bat against Toronto righthander Jason Frasor in a tie game last Thursday night. True to LaCava's early reports, on the 20th pitch he faced that night, Sizemore belted a game-winning ground-rule double.
Afterward, hardly raising his voice above a whisper and with his head bowed, Sizemore actually spoke about himself and his growth as a hitter. "I feel comfortable in the batter's box," he says. "I feel like I can be the same hitter at 0 and 2 as I am at 2 and 0, not worrying about the outcome as much as just working on putting a good at bat together."