Sizemore's hard-charging style a conundrum
Images of what Erstad could have been are called to mind
Grady Sizemore was 24, and he was a star on the rise, a Sports Illustrated cover boy, a Cleveland matinee idol and the centerpiece of a team that would get to within a game of reaching the World Series.
His trademark was crashing into walls and diving for fly balls. He was the intrepid warrior and because -- at the time -- his wrist and knee and shoulder were sore, he was asked: "Do you ever wonder that if you keep playing as hard as you play that you will become Darin Erstad?"
Sizemore stared at the person who asked the question. "What do you mean?" he shrugged.
He actually knew that Erstad's self-sacrifice had dramatically shortened what looked to be a brilliant career. Yet he stood there, blank.
"There is only one way to play," he said. "I don't ever intend to change."
In 2007, when the Indians were that one win from the World Series, Sizemore had 63 extra-base hits and a .852 OPS and was the poster boy for the rise of baseball in Cleveland back to the way it was in the 90s. He played 157 games in 2008, but between a spring groin injury and a left elbow problem that eventually required surgery, he fell to 106 games in 2009. Then came the left knee injury last year, the complex microfracture surgery and the end of his season at 33 games. 139 games in two seasons in what should have been the prime of his career.
This spring, he realized he wouldn't be ready to open the season, and when he talked about his comeback he said: "The one area I have to be cautious as I prepare is sliding. But I'll get past that. The way I play will not be any different, I hope."
Sizemore opened the season on the DL, and soon was on rehab in Akron. In his hotel room one night, Toronto manager John Farrell was checking on the internet for his son Jeremy's game for the Pirates' Double-A club in Altoona. He checked the box score, then he got the call. Jeremy told his father that Sizemore had robbed him of a homer, crashing into the fence.
Farrell laughed. He was the Indians farm director when Mark Shapiro made the franchise-altering deal that brought Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips from Montreal for Bartolo Colon -- and watched Grady play his way up the ladder from the Carolina League to the American League Central. "Grady is back to normal," Farrell said. Then came Sizemore's return to Cleveland, a home run in his first game back and an 8-for-19 start.
Scouts watching the Indians didn't expect Sizemore to be running at 100 percent less than a year from the surgery, but he is already an above-average runner, hustling all the time, telling reporters he's thankful to be back.
Because he is such an unusual person and player, and because the Indians and Cleveland deserve good fortune, everyone in the game roots for Sizemore to make it back. The point here is not to judge whether Cleveland's starting pitching will hold up for six months. The good start -- and the appreciation that they have third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and second baseman Jason Kipnis to fill in the puzzle; that catcher Lou Marson shows flashes of the promise that he showed in the Phillies organization; and that the Tribe have two serious power arms on the horizon in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz -- restores hope to the economically-challenged Cleveland area.
But Sizemore raises a broader issue: As much as everyone -- fans, managers, teammates -- appreciates players like Grady who go everyday as if it's the last day of the postseason, is it not dangerous? Hitting is a precise, delicate art, one that cannot be performed at a concertmaster level with a jammed wrist or damaged elbow, mangled fingers, strained shoulder or crumpled foot. Can Sizemore from the ages of 28 through 33 play with the same special teams abandon that he did before he turned 26?
It makes one have an even greater appreciation for Pete Rose's durability, and when one talks to an 18-year-old Bryce Harper and understands that is the way he wants to play his career, there is an undeniable drive to "play the game the right way," as Harper puts it.
The question about Erstad to Sizemore, posed four years ago, echoes. Erstad played as hard as anyone in the business. He was one of Tom Osborne's all-time favorite special teams players at Nebraska, he may be the single most popular player of the last 20 years in the Cape Cod League for his two summers in Falmouth. In 2000-02, Erstad played 157, 157 and 150 games for the Angels. His crushing home run in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series was an emotional charge in the rally that eventually won it all. Yet sacrificing his body on the bases, against walls and crashing to the turf limited him to 67 games in 2003 and 40 games in 2006, and his career came to a premature end.
"I don't regret anything," Erstad said in 2009, by then a role player for the Astros. "If I had played any differently, then I'd have regrets."
Which is reminiscent of the chain of injuries that slowed Junior Griffey's glorious career. "At least what I left, I left on the field," he said after one serious hamstring injury. "At least I got hurt trying."
When one broadcaster suggested he shouldn't play as hard, Griffey responded: "How else can I play but the way I've always played?"
One wonders what Kirk Gibson would have been had he not played so hard. Gibson terrorized middle infielders, as well as outfield walls. Yes, he hit a pitch by Mike Brown over the transformer above the right-field roof of Tiger Stadium that Reggie Jackson hit in the 1971 All-Star Game -- and cleared that transformer by a good 20 feet. Yes, he hit the dramatic homers off Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley in the 1984 and '88 World Series. Yes, he was the '88 NL MVP.
But that 1988 season was one of the two seasons in his 17-year Major League career that Gibson played as many as 150 games. After winning the Dodgers' last World Series ring, Gibson played more than 116 games once and retired without ever being on an All-Star roster. All because he played so hard he bashed his body.
Thursday afternoon, the Red Sox got the same scare when one of their prized prospects, Ryan Kalish, dove for a ball in Pawtucket and injured his left (throwing) shoulder. A day later, the Sox knew that there was no tear or fracture, but they did not know what it would take in terms of rehab for Kalish to return to playing. And they worry that his kamikaze style could sometime catch up to him, a style that he will not change.
It's too bad we even think about injuries shortening the careers of the Sizemores and Gibsons and Kalishes who play the way we wish everyone would, or could. But injuries and their ramifications in baseball are very different than football or hockey; Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders got hurt far more often in baseball than football.
We think about this. Sizemore clearly does not. Kalish will not. Gibson never did. All the more reason to admire them.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.