- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As they worked out together this winter in Arizona, Jonny Gomes didn't lobby Grady Sizemore hard to sign with the Boston Red Sox. It was a respect thing. As a veteran player, Sizemore was entitled to make a decision without someone constantly in his ear.
And Gomes honestly did not know what Sizemore was hoping to do. Did he want to come back to a National League team, for whom he could be double-switched? Did he want to go to a small-market team where he could attempt a comeback under the radar? Did he want to go to a team where he could be a DH?
"I picked his brain to figure out what he wanted," Gomes said Wednesday morning. "When he told me he wanted to bat leadoff and play center, I said, 'I know a place,' you know?"
So here are the Red Sox four days from the first game of the 2014 season, and Sizemore is knee-deep into a comeback that almost defies belief. He has had seven surgeries since 2009 and hasn't played a game in two years, yet he's already rewired the dominant question of Sox camp from "How are the Red Sox possibly going to replace Jacoby Ellsbury?" to "How much, if at all, will the Red Sox miss Jacoby Ellsbury?"
"It's borderline unfair that we have the option to save money and replace a 30-30 guy with a 30-30 guy," Gomes said of Sizemore, who signed a $750,000 base contract with the Red Sox, taking over for Ellsbury, who signed a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees.
"Whoa," Gomes said. "You're not supposed to do that. You're not supposed to lose your leadoff center fielder and get one back just as good. Nothing on Ells, but ..."
And Sizemore has hit with more power.
"That's a no-brainer," Gomes said. "Ells has like 65 career home runs (Gomes got it right on the nose). Grady has 130 (actually 139) and 120 bags (134 stolen bases). He's 1-for-1 in home runs and stolen bases, a guy who averages 25 a season.
"He's the ambassador. It's kind of unfair, but where the talent level is, if you want to play center field in the big leagues, you've got to be 30-30. You've got to be [Mike] Trout, [Andrew] McCutchen, Curtis Granderson. It goes on and on and on. Not just a burner, leadoff guy.
"Grady's the ambassador right there. Barry Larkin was a 30-30 shortstop. A-Rod, a 30-30 shortstop. [Alfonso] Soriano 30-30 at second. Ambassadors. And your ambassador center fielder is right there."
Ambassador, prototype, you get the idea.
A spring-training mirage? Sure, it's possible. A year ago at this time, Jackie Bradley Jr. was all the rage, only to run headfirst into reality once the season began. But Bradley was still untested at the time; Sizemore has the portfolio of three-time All-Star by age 25, a franchise player for a team on the come, a man who at age 31 believes there are other options besides leaving the story unfinished. Will Sizemore hold up to the daily pounding of a six-month endurance test? Gomes said he has no doubts.
"I worked out with him," he said. "There is rehab, and there is working out, and once he was out of rehab and only working out, everything pointed north."
Gomes' confidence comes in part from firsthand experience.
"At his age," Gomes said, "talent doesn't diminish. It's all about health, and now he's healthy. He's physically able to do what he's doing. It's possible, 100 percent.
"I played with Josh Hamilton too. He missed three years [due to alcohol and drug addiction] and wasn't even in the big leagues. His first game back was in the big leagues, with the Reds. Wham. I had a front-row seat. I was his roommate with Tampa."
Sizemore hit a home run Tuesday in Port Charlotte against the Rays, his first in nearly 1,000 days. Wednesday against the Orioles, he ran unencumbered past stop signs, sliding headfirst into second base while attempting to stretch a single into a double, scoring from second on a base hit and sliding into home plate. He has bounced off an outfield wall, laid out fully to make a diving catch, and now is about to clear his final hurdle, demonstrating his ability to play three straight games without being the worse for wear.
"It was not on my ticker tape where he was going," Gomes said, reiterating that he offered no more than a nudge to Sizemore when he was deciding where he wanted to play. "Once I found out it was here, I was happy."
And a happy Gomes is liable to do what he did Wednesday, which was to arrange for red, white and blue blazers --the obvious accessory to the patriotic boxer shorts Gomes supplied to the team last year -- to be distributed to every player on the team. He even had one made for President Obama, the plan being that the Red Sox will present the blazer to the President on their scheduled visit to the White House next Tuesday.
No, Gomes said, he never gave any thought to having the team wear the jackets en masse to the Rose Garden next week. "That's not the plan," he said.
It was, however, another exercise in team-building that became a house specialty last year, forging what manager John Farrell called the closest-knit team he has ever been around in three decades in the game, as a player, coach or manager. The beards, the boxers, the blazers, they're just an outward manifestation of the kind of commitment players made to one another seemingly from the first day of camp in 2013.
The Sox opened the season with the best record in the majors in April last season. They did the same in 2007 and 2004. They won the World Series all three years.
"Weird, huh?" Gomes said, his expression denoting he meant it was anything but weird. "The first month of the season is so valuable because it creates your identity, something that you don't practice in spring. S--- just happens. Every year, every team, something happens.
"Whether it's good or bad, it becomes contagious. You didn't see us work on walk-off home runs in camp last year. You didn't see us work on getting starting pitchers out of the game to get to the bullpen. I remember it was a big deal when Ellsbury didn't steal a bag all spring, and all of a sudden we run off 50 straight without getting caught -- as a team.
"It's not impossible to win after a bad start, but you want to avoid playing catchup. You want to try to add on. You want to bottle that up and run. We were able to do that without Big Papi. Look at what transpired. We covered Big Papi and [Stephen] Drew. We covered losing a closer, our setup guy. We covered [Shane] Victorino. We covered David Ross. We covered Ells. We covered [John] Lackey and [Clay Buchholz]. You can't practice that."
And Gomes, as part of a highly successful platoon in left field with Daniel Nava, did his part, along with punting the occasional helmet.
"I think I covered every single role you could possibly cover in 162 games," he said. "I didn't have a role. What was my role? I pinch hit. I got pinch hit for more than any other year in my career. I played left. I was replaced for defense. I was a defensive replacement. I wouldn't face a righty unless a small plane crashed, then went to facing nothing but righties.
"I'm not bitter about it, but I don't think there will be a day in my career when I don't look at the lineup card to know if I'm in there. But I think you need those guys on a team who have that role and accept that role."
The other day Gomes took the bus ride to Port Charlotte even though he wasn't starting. That's something you rarely, if ever, see a veteran do. Gomes pinch hit and struck out in his only at-bat. Wasted trip? Hardly.
"I came up to see Tampa. What was going on with their pitching staff, see their defense, see who was playing where. I don't know if that's my job, but I did it."
Just like he sat in the video room with another veteran player the other day, making a suggestion or two about his swing. "He went out and waffled the ball," Gomes said. "Did I do that? No, he did."
Or when a coach in a pregame meeting says watch out for an outfielder's arm and Gomes speaks up and says that guy doesn't throw like he used to, and the team runs on that outfielder and scores a couple of runs.
Those are the kinds of things that will never show up on the back of Gomes's baseball card. And the red, white and blue boxers aren't liable to wind up in Cooperstown. But there's a red, white and blue blazer headed to the White House, and that didn't happen by accident.
A visitor had a final question for Jonny Gomes: If he could be anyone else in the Red Sox clubhouse, who would he be?
"In this clubhouse? Me," he said. "I'm as happy as s--- being Jonny Gomes. I look at myself in the mirror every day and say, 'Hell, yeah."'
As he did last season, Jonny Gomes is bringing the Red Sox together.