Sizemore enduring agony, mystery of recovery
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A lone figure stood on the agility field behind the Indians' Player Development Complex, bat in hand, the Estrella Mountains in the distance and a season full of question marks on the horizon.Grady Sizemore's Indians teammates were half a mile up the road, playing an intrasquad game. So Sizemore was here alone on Thursday morning, swinging a bat and waiting to play a game of catch with the Tribe's athletic trainer. "I'd like to be out there with the guys instead of doing my own program," Sizemore said. "But we're taking slow steps." Agonizingly slow steps that, Sizemore hopes, will get him back in the good graces of the baseball gods. Back to a place where he is physically capable of letting his natural talent show.
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Sizemore's talent is what made him a three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove Award winner and one-time Silver Slugger. It's what inspired former Tribe general manager and now-president Mark Shapiro to dub Sizemore "one of the greatest players of our generation," not all that long after signing him to a six-year contract that was, at the time, the largest ever given to a player with fewer than two years of big league service time.Alas, two of those years were essentially wasted by injury. Now two years remain, and the vultures expecting this rebuilding Indians team to ship off another superstar are circling, waiting to see how Sizemore recovers from a complicated microfracture procedure on his left knee. Much will be said or written in the coming months about the $9 million option the Indians hold on Sizemore for 2012. Some might speculate that the Indians may consider declining that option if Sizemore, whose performance began to dip as he battled an elbow injury and a sports hernia in '09, doesn't find his old form. But the fact is, it would take a catastrophic development -- namely, another injury to the left knee, requiring another major surgical procedure -- to get the Indians to even consider cutting ties with their franchise face. Trading Sizemore this year doesn't look all that likely, either, given that the Indians are already operating on a bare-bones payroll and aren't looking to shed salary (unless, of course, somebody comes calling for Travis Hafner). Sizemore, whose club option becomes a player option if he's traded, is staying put, best anyone can tell. No, the intrigue of the Sizemore situation is not in his potential to serve as trade bait but rather in his quest to simply become the player he once was. And the truth is, nobody knows if that's going to happen. Microfracture procedures -- in which tiny fractures are made in the bone, causing bleeding to stimulate cartilage growth -- are becoming more prevalent in the sporting world, but they remain rare enough to present little in the way of reliable precedent. "It's a big procedure," Indians head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff said. "The rehab is extremely conservative, and the joint is protected for a very long period of time. There really aren't any great answers to cartilage issues, so you definitely want to put as much time behind it as possible before you add any distresses of baseball-functional activity." For weeks after the surgery was performed last June, Sizemore spent eight hours a day lying on his back with his leg affixed to a "continuous passive motion" machine that constantly kept the knee joint moving, ensuring that it would remain lubricated without bearing any weight. Yes, the same guy who used to play 162 regular-season baseball games a year had to sit there and watch his knee make minor movements. Eight. Hours. A. Day. "Torture," Sizemore said. First-base coach and former All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. knows what that torture is like. Alomar had two microfracture procedures performed on his left knee in his career. Yet he returned from the first, in 1995, in just three months, because an Indians team in the thick of contention needed him. He might have paid the price for speeding up the recovery time. "Not to scare anybody," Alomar said, "but it's a career-threatening injury if you don't deal with it the right way. To be honest, I felt my offense suffered a lot, my throwing suffered a lot because I couldn't plant. I couldn't put torque in my front leg that I throw against. It was difficult for me to adjust to that. It's a weird, very complicated injury. It's basically like an arthritic condition, so you don't feel the same every day." Obviously, one can't draw too firm a parallel between a surgery performed 15 years ago on a catcher and another performed in the present day on a center fielder, but the point about not rushing the return remains. To that end, the Indians have been taking a very conservative approach with Sizemore. And to his credit, he's handled it well. "As aggressive and as haphazard as he plays the game on the field, his approach to rehab has been quite the contrary," Soloff said. "He's been very patient, constantly engaging. There's no question that, at times, it tears him up inside. But you rarely see it. He's exhibited a patience that impresses me daily." Every even-numbered day on the calendar, Sizemore puts in a full workout of running, throwing and hitting. He's unrestricted at the plate in batting practice, and the Indians are pleased to note that, for the first time in two years, he's actually able to put weight on his back leg, thereby generating a power stroke that had gone AWOL. Sizemore hasn't homered since Aug. 27, 2009, so he's definitely due. In the meantime, merely taking BP has been a joy for Sizemore. "He's a guy who had a great deal of respect for the game beforehand," GM Chris Antonetti said. "He played with all-out effort and enthusiasm and never took a play off. That's who he was. But now things that had been so routine for him for the better part of his life, he was elated to do, like a kid doing it for the first time." But the running and agility work? That's where the agony and mystery of rehab remains. Sizemore is doing sprints, laterals and backward jogs at about 60 percent intensity, with the hope of raising that level in the next week to 10 days. The Indians have mid-March in mind for his Cactus League debut, and, even if all goes as planned, it's quite clear that they have no realistic intentions of him rejoining the lineup in time for Opening Day. Mid- or late-April seem more likely for now. Setbacks, though, remain entirely possible, particularly as Sizemore increases the intensity and volume of his leg work. So as his teammates prepare for a season that is all but certain to begin without him, he'll have to continue to endure the loneliness of the rehab calendar, one step at a time. "We're all curious to see how it turns out," Soloff said. "But certainly, if anyone can come back from this, it's Grady."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.