Gammons: Sizemore's heart cause of his hurts
Oft-injured Indians outfielder paying the price for playing hard
Grady Sizemore had just turned 25. It was August 2007 and he was one of the premier players in the game, the face of an Indians team that had been turned over and rebuilt from its powerful '90s teams and was on a run that would carry it to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.
Sizemore was in the midst of playing in 382 consecutive games. Part of his charm was that he was such an unassuming and humble person, and as talented a player as he was -- averaging 77 extra-base hits per year from ages 23-25 -- it was his intrepid style that made him so appealing.
Sizemore ran out every ball as if it were his last at-bat. He dove in the outfield and crashed into walls. "Do you ever worry about being the next Darin Erstad?" I asked him. "Someone who plays so hard he beats himself up and shortens his career?"
Sizemore stared back as if the question had been delivered in Sanskrit. Clearly, he'd never given the idea any thought whatsoever.
"I play the way I play," Sizemore answered, and looked down. For the record, I asked Erstad, when he was in his twilight as a backup outfielder with the Astros, if he regretted playing so fearlessly that his career was altered and shortened because of injuries, a career that included a season in which he had 240 hits.
"Not at all," Erstad replied. "The only thing that I'd regret is if I didn't play as hard as I could every day. I couldn't do anything about the injuries."
Since Sizemore's birthday is in August, he essentially played from ages 22-25 in the 2005-08 seasons. He averaged 160 games and 76 extra-base hits a year. Sizemore was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. On Thursday, it was learned that he had back surgery, the result of an injury sustained while he was working out in Arizona trying to come back from knee surgery. It was Sizemore's fifth operation in two years, and sixth in four years, and while his recovery is expected to take two to three months, there is no idea on what he will be when he turns 30 in August, a birthday by which five years ago one assumed he would be among the elite players in baseball, a person driven to try to bring the Indians their first World Series championship since 1948.
Grady Sizemore and Darin Erstad played the way they played. No downshift capabilities. But one sometimes wonders if there isn't a better way than playing the crash-test dummy, or the special-teams Kamikaze in football.
One looks back at Pete Reiser, who at age 22 in 1941 hit .343 with a .964 OPS for the Brooklyn Dodgers and finished second in MVP Award balloting. Reiser was infamous for crashing into fences, and after returning from World War II, from the age of 27 on, his games-played totals went from 122 to 110 to double digits in his last five seasons.
One looks back at Bobby Valentine, who at 23 tore apart an ankle on a chain-link fence making a daredevil try at a fly ball and thus was robbed of what the late Harry Dalton said "would have been a great career."
One worries about 23-year-old Red Sox outfielder Ryan Kalish, whose promising career has been slowed by injuries. Last spring, he injured his left (throwing) shoulder crashing into a fence, had surgery at the end of the season and is just now beginning to throw. "This is the way I've played every sport, I'm not going to change," he said.
Pete Rose played that way and played more games and had more hits than anyone in history. George Brett went out of the box "thinking double" every time he hit a ball and is in the Hall of Fame. But baseball can be more complicated than football or hockey; Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders never got hurt in their great NFL careers, but they each had to fight through several baseball injuries.
When Buster Posey was ordered to stop blocking the plate by Bruce Bochy, there was criticism from afar by some former catchers. Bochy was himself a tough, hard-nosed catcher, but he appreciates what Posey means to the Giants and sees the way Posey plays the game. In May 1974, Carlton Fisk was on his way to making the All-Star team for the third time in three big league seasons, but in the ninth inning of a one-run game, when George Hendrick hit a two-out shot into the alley and Leron Lee was trying to score from first, Fisk tried to block home late with his left leg while reaching for the relay throw from shortstop Mario Guerrero. As Fisk reached for the ball, Lee slid for the plate and crashed into Fisk. Fisk's knee was blown out.
Fisk did not play again until June 1975. In the meanwhile, he decided to abandon his style of blocking the plate and learned a sweep tag that he used for the rest of his career despite some catcalls at his style. When he retired, Fisk was 45, he'd caught more games than anyone in history and six years later was inducted into the Hall of Fame. So much for any cheap shots at Posey.
Hopefully, Sizemore recovers from his back and knee surgeries and in his 30s enjoys a healthy, productive career. He doesn't have to take it easy on ground balls to the shortstop hole, he doesn't have to avoid diving for fly balls. Sizemore deserves everything good to happen to him.
But because Sizemore plays baseball the way we want all our players to play, he is rehabbing from yet another surgery, and none of us have any idea what one of the most promising and intrepid players at the age of 25 will be like after he turns 30. But like Erstad, he will lower his head and remind us that he plays the way he plays.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.