- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Oh, no, Grady Sizemore said Wednesday, he wasn't injury prone as a kid growing up in Washington state.
Never fell out of a tree or got hit by a car?
On second thought ...
"I actually did both of those things,'' he said, seemingly startled by the memory. "I was going to tell you, 'No, I'm not injury prone,' but I did both of those things in elementary school, so I guess I am.
"I fell off a playground thing and hit my head pretty good. I got hit by a car while riding my bike. Nothing really happened. I got a little bruise.''
That was it?
"Nothing major. It knocked me out, yeah.''
That's not major?
"Well, I woke up feeling fine. I had a baseball game that night. I wanted to play, but my dad wouldn't let me.''
Hey, those are the types of things that can happen to any kid. Sizemore played football, baseball and basketball at Cascade High in Everett and never got hurt. He played well enough to sign a letter of intent to play quarterback and center field for the University of Washington before he was given a $2 million bonus to sign with the Montreal Expos.
The Expos, facing contraction, traded Sizemore to the Cleveland Indians, and yes, well, he did run into a brick outfield wall at Class A Kinston, N.C. After a couple of weeks, he mentioned his wrist was hurting, but X-rays showed nothing. His team was headed for the playoffs, so after taking a little time off, he finished the season. It was only after the season that an MRI revealed he had been playing with a fractured wrist.
"One of those things you could tell something was wrong but hoping it was soreness that would go away,'' he said. "It was hurting but not keeping me from playing.''
Oh, but when healthy, which was nearly all the time, how Sizemore played. An All-Star three times by the age of 25. Two Gold Gloves. One Silver Slugger. In 2006, when he was 23, he became the youngest player ever to have more than 90 extra-base hits and more than 20 stolen bases in a season. He led the league in runs scored with 134 and doubles with 53, while playing in all 162 games that season.
He didn't miss a game in 2007, either, when he led the Indians to an American League Championship Series rendezvous with the Red Sox, one in which the Tribe took a 3-1 series lead before succumbing to the Sox.
Ozzie Guillen, who managed the White Sox, had a nickname for Sizemore: Superman. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro called him "one of the greatest players of our generation.'' If he played in New York, Shapiro said, he would have gotten the Derek Jeter treatment. Quiet, intense, total effort on every play.
Sizemore played in 382 straight games before he finally missed one due to a sprained ankle in April 2008. That was one of five games he missed all season. He became the 10th player in AL history to hit 30 or more home runs and steal 30 or more bases in a season. He was the most feared leadoff man in the game, the combination of speed and power that conjured memories of Rickey Henderson.
Grady Sizemore was 26 years old. Trade his future for anyone else in the game? Get serious.
And then that future arrived.
Number of days since Grady Sizemore last played in a professional baseball game (majors or minors): 874. And counting.
Number of surgeries in the past 53 months: 7.
The kid who fell off a playground apparatus and was hit by a car while riding his bike was struck down by a series of calamities beyond a child's worst nightmares. Two sports hernias. Back surgery. Elbow surgery. Three surgeries on his knees, including microfracture surgery on both knees.
A word about microfracture surgery: Dr. Richard Steadman, the famed knee specialist based in Vail, Colo., who has treated pro athletes across the spectrum as well as members of the U.S. Olympic team, developed the procedure in the late 1980s. The surgery was more common among NBA players, with discouraging results initially, although Amar'e Stoudemire of the New York Knicks has been something of a success story since having the procedure in 2005. Baseball players have had the procedure as well, including former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., former Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez, Tigers infielder Carlos Guillen and Rangers pitcher Derek Holland.
The operation involves creating tiny holes, or microfractures, in the bone, releasing bone marrow intended to build new cartilage. Those holes are created with a type of awl. We're talking centimeters here, but Sizemore said his microfractures were bigger than many. That's not a good thing.
As daunting as the surgery is, the rehab is worse.
Imagine having to lie on your back eight hours a day for the first eight weeks after surgery, with your knee attached to something called a constant passive motion machine, which keeps your knee constantly moving, ensuring that it remains lubricated without bearing any weight.
Sizemore did that. Twice. First on his left knee, in May 2010. Then with his right knee, 2 1/2 years later, in September 2012.
"It's miserable,'' he said with a mirthless laugh. "You basically lie on your back, and it moves your knee up and down, just to kind of get motion in that joint. Not a great experience.''
How do you pass the time?
"You don't,'' he said. "But you don't have to lie there eight hours straight. You could break it up, maybe three hours at a time. I tried to get as many hours as I could during the day, then try to fall asleep if I could. If I couldn't, I'd try to go as long as I could.''
From the end of the 2008 season, his third as an All-Star, Sizemore played a total of 210 games over the next three years for the Indians. Just 33 games in 2010, then 71 in 2011, which ended with an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee.
The Indians elected not to exercise the $9 million option on Sizemore's contract for the 2012 season, but they didn't pull the plug on him, either. They signed him to a one-year, incentive-laden $5 million deal. Sizemore went to camp, cautiously optimistic that he could play. And then his lower back gave out on him.
"Coming back from the knee surgery, the knee wasn't feeling great,'' he said. "One day my back kind of tightened up, and the next thing you know, it's something major. I was just doing basic stuff. I was doing stuff like we're doing in the field here, taking BP, playing catch, fielding balls.
"At that point, I was in such a bad position, the way my knees were feeling, the way my body was feeling, the way I was moving -- everything was out of sync. Once one thing broke, everything kind of followed. I wasn't moving like I normally would. I was working against myself.''
That year was bookended by two more surgeries: the back in May, then more microfracture surgery, this time on his right knee, in September. When the season ended, Sizemore was out of baseball.
But not out of chances, or the will to give it one last shot. The Red Sox last month signed Sizemore to a one-year, $750,000 major league contract, with performance and roster bonuses that could be worth an additional $5.25 million. One Sox official called it a "lottery pick": small investment, potentially a big payoff.
Sizemore has been cast as a potential rival to rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. to start in center field, but here's the reality check: At this stage, Sizemore is competing only against himself, and a body that has betrayed him time and time again. It's way too soon to know whether he can return to being the player he was.
"I don't know what's possible,'' he said. "It's been so long. I've gone through so many major injuries. I can't tell you, 'Oh, I can get back to that,' and say it with 100 percent confidence. I think there's potential there, if I can stay healthy. I definitely feel I can, but again, I've got to see what it feels like when I get out there.
"That's kind of what I'm excited about. I really don't know, if I feel good and it's one of those things where I pick up and it's easier each time I go out there, who knows? The first year, my durability is going to be the big thing. Can I stay healthy? Can I stay on my feet? Can I be consistent?''
Remember, Sizemore hasn't been on a baseball field in almost two years. He started playing catch and hitting only in the past three months, and that has all been in the cage. That's where Red Sox scout Steve Peck went to see him in Arizona, where he also observed Sizemore's rehab workouts. The Sox were encouraged by what they saw. So were a number of other teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, who thought they were closing in on a deal.
"It was getting to the point where I wanted to make a decision, and it just so happened that meeting with Boston came right around the same time,'' Sizemore said. "I had to make a choice, and I chose Boston.''
One of the reasons he did, he said, was that Dr. Dan Dyrek, who recently was promoted to director of the team's medical services after being coordinator last year, met with Sizemore and evaluated him before he signed with the club. Dyrek, who gained fame for his work with Larry Bird and was supervisor of David Ortiz's recovery from his Achilles tendon injury, laid out a plan for Sizemore's recovery. That offered hope to a player who said much of the rehab from his knee injuries had been on a trial-and-error basis.
"He explained what he thought, what he saw,'' Sizemore said. "A lot of it made sense. He gave me a lot of confidence, that if I did come here I'd be in a good situation where they would monitor me and have a good game plan for me every day. To get me back to not just getting healthy but staying healthy.''
He's going to need time.
"I don't think it would be wise [to try to] go out there and play every day,'' he said. "I think they're probably looking to ease me in on a controlled basis. I'm excited to see what happens. I feel I can still contribute on a high level and still have that same type of play I had before [the injuries]. It's just a matter of, can I stay healthy, can I put it together and stay on the field for a full season.''
Sizemore said that at this stage, he has had little discussion with the club on what it expects from him this spring. During informal workouts this week, he has spent most of his time playing center field with Bradley, hitting in the same group.
"I've probably bonded with him more than anyone else here,'' he said. "A good kid, a good player. High energy.''
But Sizemore said he expects to take reps at all three outfield positions and go from there.
"There's no easy way to deal with what I've gone through the last three, four years,'' he said. "It's frustrating. There's no easy way around it. You've just got to fight through it the whole time.
"It went by slow, but all of a sudden now I'm here. Now it's all a blur. It's one of those things where it's all behind me, and now I'm looking forward. I had a lot of success early, but I still feel like I didn't reach my full potential. Obviously it's going to take me awhile to get my timing down, my rhythm down, back in baseball shape, but I'm looking forward to it.
"I'm looking forward to see what it feels like to be out there again, and what kind of player I can be.''
Grady Sizemore has endured. Now he just wants to play.
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