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.
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
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."
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
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.