BALTIMORE -- Miraculous? The term seems a bit too strong -- but only a bit.
Grady Sizemore, a player who arrived in Red Sox camp with absolutely no expectations this spring, is assuming the central standing of a star. It is as if he wandered into the clubhouse wielding a bat named Wonderboy and is now achieving the impossible, a development that gained further near-fictional traction with his Opening Day, broken-bat (sorry, Wonderboy) homer to right field at Camden Yards.
But the narrative of the miracle obscures a far more purposeful reality, and results in a significant misconception about Grady Sizemore: He didn't necessarily *have* to miss two full seasons -- a duration that has made him a nearly unprecedented case study. There is at least a decent possibility that he *could* have returned last year.
But after spending three years facing the limitations of a player who had been reduced to a shell of his former abilities and another season in which he was unable to play at all, the three-time All-Star and former possessor of the title of "best all-around player in the game" recalibrated his sites.
His goal was not simply to return to the field as a contributing baseball player, perhaps a part-timer who would settle into life in new, less taxing roles. His goal was to return to the field as Grady Sizemore.
"I think that was always the plan," Sizemore said. "I don't think I ever looked at it from any other perspective."
A broader view of his career helps to explain why.
WHAT GRADY SIZEMORE WAS: A SUPERSTAR ASCENDANT (2002-08)
When the Expos drafted Sizemore and when the Indians acquired him as part of the trade for Bartolo Colon, he was an athlete first whose skills were like unformed clay. He had figured out how to hit for average and had a good enough idea of the strike zone to take his walks and get on base, but while wiry strong, he had not yet figured out how to hit for power, and though he possessed tremendous speed that made him a natural in center field, he had yet to become a proficient base stealer.
But Cleveland understood that there was the potential for much more than what the 19-year-old had shown at the time of the deal, based in part of the judgment of front office member Tony La Cava, who had been the Expos farm director before joining the Indians front office in 2002.
"Part of what we were betting on with Grady was his makeup, the character of the person and his work ethic," said Indians GM Chris Antonetti, "and knowing that Grady would do everything he could to get the most out of his ability."
It was a good gamble. Sizemore immediately dazzled in High-A Kinston, where he hit .343/.451/.483 in 47 games following the trade, his performance unnoticeably diminished during the two weeks after he suffered an undiagnosed hairline fracture of his wrist while running into a brick wall to make a catch.
From that point, he started to emerge from relative obscurity to become one of the game's better prospects, a five-tool talent with a seemingly unlimited ceiling if he could continue to learn.
"He really moved into his power in his Double-A, Triple-A seasons, and that was when we really started to see the full measure of the kind of player he was going to be offensively and defensively," said Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen, who worked in the Indians farm system when Sizemore was coming up.
The ascent continued into the majors, where he harnessed all of the remarkable athleticism to become a player of peerlessly diverse talents. By the time he was an everyday player in the big leagues in 2005, he was a force unlike any other in the game at that time.
When Sizemore was 22 to 25 years old, he hit .281 with a .372 OBP and .496 slugging mark while averaging 27 homers, 29 steals and 160 games a season. Baseball-reference.com pegged him with an overall value of 24.6 wins above a replacement-level player (WAR) during that time, behind only Albert Pujols (34.7), Chase Utley (31.3) and Alex Rodriguez (30.1) in WAR over that period.
He fit the profile of a superstar, someone whose early career performance pointed towards a Hall of Fame track. Of the 26 Hall of Fame-eligible players with four seasons of at least 5 WAR by the time they turned 25 (of which Sizemore is one), 19 are in Cooperstown.
"He was one of the best players in the game for those first few years he was in the big leagues," said Hazen. "Somebody has said he was somewhat of an equivalent to [Mike] Trout. I don't know that he was Trout. There may be only one of Trout in the next 20-30 years, or in the past, or present. But it was that type of dominance in the game for one player: defense, baserunning, offense -- he did everything. He hit for power, he hit for average, he got on base. He played very good defensive center field. And he could really run. He was a physical freak with regards to his speed, his explosiveness and all those other things. He played in the middle of the diamond and he hit in the middle of the order."
It wasn't just that he was talented. He was an inspiration to watch, Dustin Pedroia's competitive engine dropped into the hood of a Ferrari rather than a VW.
"He impacted the organization in so many ways, not only with his incredible ability but the way he went about it," recalled Indians GM Chris Antonetti. "He played the game the way you would want every player to play, with intensity and a sense of purpose. He was a great teammate. He really was everything you look for in a player."
Yet all who observed his all-out style of play agreed that eventually it would have consequences. His game was a constant exploration of red-lining, and even though he almost never was out of the lineup -- he played back-to-back 162-game seasons in 2006 and 2007 -- the Indians worried that eventually his effort would catch up to him.
There were conversations in the Indians organization about finding a way to hold Sizemore back, to prevent him from self-destructing. How'd that go?
"We really couldn't," said Eric Wedge, Sizemore's manager in Cleveland from 2005-09. "He played 160 games a year. He wouldn't have it any other way. You've got to respect guys like that. It wasn't so much the games he played but how he played, how hard he played. … You wouldn't even know how hurt he was because he wouldn't let on."
"We would always talk about it. It was discussed as a group: How do we have him pull back?" recalled Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, a minor league manager in Cleveland's system when Sizemore was coming up. "First of all, let's take days away from him, have him sit on the bench, give him designed off days. Let's talk to him about not diving and banging into walls and risking injury. As much as we talked about it, it never happened. He never backed away from it. I still see him diving head first with his back to home plate, diving and crashing into the center field fence with his head. We'd all collectively take a sigh as he got up, shook it off and ran off the field. You can't make him do it. We asked him. We told him. But he never could."
Indeed, Sizemore found the mere idea -- and indeed continues to find the idea -- of playing at anything other than maximum effort level to be absurd.
"Someone at one point I think asked him, 'Grady, are you concerned about your health with the way you play?' " recalled Antonetti. "And Grady looked at him quizzically and was like, 'What are you talking about? There's only one way to play.' "
THE INJURY YEARS (2009-11)
But the all-out manner of play did indeed catch up to him at a certain point. Sizemore's proclivity to play through injuries rather than rest and heal lent itself to more and more significant issues.
In spring training of 2009, he suffered an abdominal injury. He played through it all season, until -- shortly after September elbow surgery that had already spelled the end of his year -- it was determined that he required surgery to repair a sports hernia that had plagued him virtually all season.
Those two surgeries represented the beginning. Others followed with dizzying frequency: microfracture surgery on his left knee (May 2010), a second sports hernia surgery in July 2011, arthroscopic knee surgery after the 2011 campaign had wrapped up.
Through it all, he would try to come back as quickly as possible, and there would be glimpses of talent sufficient to impact the game. Game-changing stretches would come in bursts, but unlike 2005-08, they were not sustainable because of the succession of injuries.
"Grady was coming from such a high place that there was still opportunity for him to make a positive impact even though it may not have been to the level before," said Antonetti. "It was a combination of his ability along with his sheer desire to try to find a way to contribute. But it was evident as you were watching him at that point that there were things physically that were limiting him and wouldn't allow him to do things as he had done in the past when he was such an elite player."
But Sizemore remained so conscientious about putting himself in a position to play and contribute that the Indians thought that he might be the rare player who could come back from such a mind-blowing succession of injuries. Even when in pain, Sizemore spent hours in the trainer's room before and after every game in order to give himself a chance to play.
And so as much as the 2009-11 seasons represented a brutal time -- an average of just 70 games a year, a line of .234/.314/.413, the end of Sizemore as a base stealer -- in a way, he may get less credit than he deserves for performing at even that level while dealing with such an extensive host of issues. Even so, as much as he wanted to compete, Sizemore was no longer at the level where he'd previously resided.
"The base wasn't there. The legs were a little banged up and injured. The bat path was the same but maybe the bat speed wasn't there. His ability to get that extra gear on the base paths wasn't really there," said Lovullo, who saw Sizemore from afar as a Blue Jays coach in the 2011 season. "We knew he was working through an assortment of injuries. We just didn't know the extent of it. But the desire was there. The idea of helping his team win and being a professional was there. Everything was the same, but we knew at the same time that he was struggling with his lower half."
To Sizemore's credit, he still looked like a baseball player. This wasn't Kirk Gibson limping around the bases after somehow homering against Dennis Eckersley in the World Series. But even with all of the hours in the training room, he was a reduced player.
"It wasn't a wounded warrior out there trying to get to safe grounds. It wasn't like that at all, because Grady at 60 percent is just as good as a lot of people in this game," said Lovullo. "But for all of us who knew Grady's ability to play and perform at such a high level, we knew he wasn't where he was, but it was still enough to play at a major league level, which speaks volumes to his ability."
Still, between the time he was missing and the extraordinary gifts that were no longer on display, there was a palpable difference. And it would take something extraordinary to address that difference.
"He just couldn't play much. He wasn't anywhere near 100 percent. But you know what, he's a tough kid. He went out there, worked hard to try to get it done," said Wedge, who remained Sizemore's manager with the Indians in 2009 and then saw him from the other dugout while a Mariners manager in 2010 and 2011. "I wasn't sure if he was going to be able to make it back. He played so hard and banged up his body so much, I was hopeful that he would be able to do it. But you knew if he was going to do it that he'd have to take a year or two off, just to give himself a chance to get healthy."
OPERATION: SHUTDOWN (2012-13)
The breaking point occurred in March 2012. Sizemore had signed a one-year deal to return to the Indians at a time when he was still going to need to rehab (he was working his way back from an arthroscopic knee procedure) to be ready.
He hadn't yet progressed to the point of playing in games, but had commenced rudimentary baseball activities, most notably fielding drills. He was taking grounders in the outfield in the Indians' spring training facility in Surprise, Ariz., when he reached down and felt a twinge.
The twinge was a damaged disc in his lower back that was pressing down on the nerve root, something that was both painful and rendered him virtually unable to run. It was a line of demarcation. Uncle.
He'd been rendered brittle, immobile. This wasn't supposed to happen to a player who, just a few years earlier, had been considered perhaps the best athlete in the game. Such an elite athlete was not supposed to bend over and break.
That set in motion a search for a grand unifying theory of Sizemore's injuries. The succession of injuries had been so steady that, even though the surgeries were occurring to different parts of the body, the idea that the host of maladies was anything but interrelated became more difficult to fathom.
"It was really challenging. We were trying to figure out what the common link was because there were a number of issues -- one knee, then another knee, then his back, then his shin. There was one thing after another," said Antonetti. "We were examining all aspects of the kinetic chain to figure out, 'What is breaking down? What is going on? Is there something more systemic that we're missing?' So it was very frustrating personally for Grady and for us because of how much we all care about the person and player and we wanted to do everything in our power to help him work through it and get back to being the player I know he was driven to be."
But they didn't find an answer.
"I think during those years we didn't really identify the cause of the problem," said Sizemore. "We knew what the problem was, but we didn't know how it got there and how to fix it."
Extraordinary possibilities were contemplated for an extraordinary injury history. Sizemore circumnavigated the country searching for a host of specialists in different areas of expertise, whether those related to specific injuries or broader analyses such as blood work and bone scans to try to identify the issue.
"It's worth it when you're talking about your career and playing. I didn't mind it. It's frustrating when you don't get answers," said Sizemore. "I was willing to do the work as long as I could figure out what was going on."
Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that the protocols for baseball players returning from microfracture knee surgeries -- a relatively rare procedure, but one that Sizemore and the Indians felt was the only real option given that the cartilage in his knees was dying and would not regenerate -- were ill-defined, and that while he reached a point where he was ready to compete against big league competition, perhaps his knee hadn't truly healed. Perhaps it was the effort to play through a sports hernia.
At the least, with the benefit of hindsight, the medical personnel that have worked with Sizemore in the past year have concluded that *something* was out of alignment, and that Sizemore ended up compensating for one bodily deficiency by creating others.
"The body is all one huge system," said Eric Dannenberg, a performance trainer at Athletes' Performance who worked with Sizemore from last July until the outfielder joined the Red Sox for spring training this year. "As soon as one thing gets out of whack, like your car, it gets further and further out of alignment. One wheel starts to cause more stress in certain areas of the chassis. The body is the same way. That's what can happen.
"With one injury, if some compensation starts somewhere, there's an overload. That overload becomes an injury, and then there becomes compensation around that injury which starts to stress other areas of the body. That's always our plan with our system, is to try to get that body back as optimal as possible. I think that's a big benefit of Grady taking time off to do the rehab process the right way."
Indeed, when Sizemore needed a second microfracture surgery, this time on the right knee, Sizemore made the decision that he was going to handle the recovery differently and more deliberately this time, using the opportunity not merely to rehab from the surgery but to get his entire body tuned up and running to its peak capacity.
He followed the rehab protocols of the office of Dr. Richard Steadman, but those weren't going to be sufficient to achieve the comprehensive fix that Sizemore needed. And so, he connected with Dannenberg at Athletes' Performance, where the training facility would monitor him constantly to achieve a balanced body, adjusting workouts and exercises in real-time depending on the physical response by Sizemore.
The results were telling. For the first time in years, Sizemore felt healthy, strong, athletic. Mindful of his immense talents and aware that he was at a fairly advanced stage of his rehab, teams started contacting Sizemore with offers to play last summer.
Physically, he might have been in strong enough shape to represent a roster upgrade to teams in a pennant race that wanted to use the end of last year to create a foundation with their medical staffs to move forward into the offseason and the 2014 campaign.
But Sizemore was adamant: No. No deals in 2013.
He did not want to feel tension between a team's needs and his body's rehab and strengthening needs. Until he'd put himself in position to feel 100 percent, he had no interest in signing a deal. He did not want to jeopardize the health gains he was making by cutting corners as he so often had out of his desperate desire to contribute and earn his salary.
"If we wanted to, we could have pushed," said Dannenberg. "It was always a matter of, we don't need to go out and try to get ready for playoff baseball."
Antonetti met with Sizemore casually on multiple occasions during his year away.
"I think he was focused on, 'I want to come back and be healthy. I don't want to be the pressure of being with an organization, trying to come back and perform. I need to get my body in a place where I'm healthy first and unrestricted and then can layer baseball on top of it,' " Antonetti relayed. "I think that made a lot of sense. It was the right approach for him. He didn't feel like there was some deadline for which he had to rush back. His sole focus was on getting his body conditioned and strong."
A PERFECT STORM OF OPPORTUNITY WITH THE RED SOX
By the time Sizemore started holding workouts for interested teams -- scouts and medical personnel -- at Athletes' Performance last winter, he once again was demonstrating some of the athleticism and explosiveness that had made him such a rarity in the game before his injuries. He looked powerful and, for the first time in years, healthy.
There were offers. Plenty of offers. Given his long time away from the game, however, just two or three of those were of the major league variety, most notably one from the Reds, who featured a nearly ideal opportunity for Sizemore's recovery: With prospect Billy Hamilton perhaps ready in center but still able to benefit from minor league development to refine his approach, a healthy Sizemore wouldn't be blocked from emerging as the starting center fielder, but he likewise needn't be rushed if he wasn't ready.
Sizemore was ready to sign with Cincinnati, a team that would offer the added benefit of keeping him in his adopted professional baseball home of Ohio. But that's when Red Sox director of sports medicine service Dan Dyrek showed up at Athletes' Performance.
The rapport was immediate. Over the course of a couple of hours, Dyrek expressed a far more precise understanding of what had happened to leave Sizemore sidelined and what he needed to do to stay healthy than anything the outfielder had heard from any other team. Dyrek noticed, for instance, some issues with Sizemore's athletic alignment and suggested some exercises to improve it. Within days, Sizemore experienced physical improvement that he traced directly to Dyrek's suggestions.
"There were some techniques he showed me that definitely had some good results," said Sizemore. "Right away it was very beneficial."
Sizemore needed no further convincing. The Sox were the team that would give him the best chance to resume baseball life as Grady Sizemore.
Moreover, in Jackie Bradley Jr., the team had a player who was in some ways comparable to Hamilton of the Reds: A center fielder who could credibly play in the majors, but whose player development wasn't so advanced that he wouldn't benefit from a return to the minors. If Sizemore was healthy and his timing was intact, he'd be the Sox' center fielder. If it was not, then Bradley would be able to man the position while Sizemore continued to work his way back without feeling the sort of urgency that might result in short cuts. So long as the Sox would offer him a major league deal -- something they were comfortable doing based on Dyrek's look -- the outfielder would go to Boston.
For the Sox, the benefits of adding Sizemore were obvious. Obviously, there's a significant degree of upside to a player who was once among the best in the game -- even if he's not the player he once was, his ability still could permit him to be very good. Moreover, the Sox consider Bradley an important part of their future, but even if they liked him as a big league option, they were thin in center field beyond him.
A position of potential weakness quickly could be made one of strength if Sizemore proved healthy.
"What we thought was, we're trying to build depth, we're trying to add depth at a reasonable cost," said Hazen. "We know there's going to be some uncertainty given his track from an injury standpoint, but we felt like when he left the game, from an injury standpoint, the talent was so extreme, the bar was so high."
Even if he was 80 percent or 70 percent of what he was in his prime, Sizemore could still be an extremely valuable contributor. To date, that view has been borne out.
BEING GRADY SIZEMORE
Sizemore still spends hours every day in the trainer's room, part of a carefully sculpted regiment. But whereas before, from 2009-11, it would have been impossible for him to play without doing so, now, he is merely trying to sustain what he is experiencing.
"His body, he kept saying, feels the best it's ever felt," said Dannenberg.
He's not just feeling good enough to play. For the first time in ages, he feels no physical limitations, to the point where, according to industry sources, the Red Sox medical staff deemed him a safe bet when assessing his potential durability while deciding whether he was in a position to open the year as the everyday center fielder.
There was a time when the interconnected nature of all of his injuries made it seem that another surgery loomed around every corner. But right now, the tune-up that he achieved over the course of his time away was sufficiently comprehensive that Sizemore and the Sox seem to think that such pessimism is no longer warranted.
It certainly is not for the time being. There is no visual evidence of a player who spent years managing injuries, nor of a player who was separated from the game for years while simply trying to get healthy.
On the field, the same people who understood how limited he was from 2009-11 have been stunned to see that he is now a different player, one who more closely resembles the dynamo of 2005-08 than the impaired one whose skills had been so drastically compromised during the injury phase of his career.
His bat speed and the flight of the ball off the bat have become familiar. He was a well above-average runner; he's now average to slightly above. The team feels his outfield range has returned to permit him to be an above-average defender in center. His throwing arm is strong.
"I've had a chance to see Grady a few times. I've been very pleased and excited for him. He looks like his old self," said Wedge. "His actions, his swing and the way he's moving around, the smile on his face . . . "
"It's all there," added Lovullo. "We weren't sure what could happen but we're very, very pleased with where he's at."
It would be hard to imagine that he will ever again become the perennial 30/30 threat that he was. Even if he'd remained healthy, by this point, there would be some erosion of his speed and perhaps power that would have started to manifest themselves.
Still, had he not been injured, he would remain a very good all-around player because of his comprehensive talents. And that is what the Red Sox have become increasingly convinced that they have.
"The injuries certainly took a toll. This was a really good player," said Hazen. "If we get him back to even some percentage of what he was, we're going to have a pretty good player on our hands."
It is a development that has the baseball world abuzz, for there is something tragic about potential greatness that gets derailed by injury. The idea that such a woeful script is now being rewritten is an easy development to embrace, particularly for those who have seen the extreme polarities of Sizemore's career.
"I'm really excited to see what he's done this spring," said Antonetti. "I'm hopeful he can get back to being the player he was before, and if not, very close to it. Baseball is a much better game with Grady Sizemore playing."
And now, for the first time in years, Sizemore's career is once again characterized by promise rather than limitations. With the season in its infancy, Grady Sizemore is once again experiencing a world of possibility.