FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the middle innings of a what would normally be a meaningless spring training game on Friday, Boston Red Sox outfielder Grady Sizemore, who had reached base on a single, took second base on a wild pitch that had bounced in front the catcher. Sizemore had read the play so well that he had gotten to second base easily.
It was a play that required distinct baseball instincts, and yet as impressive as Sizemore's quick recognition and swift baserunning were, only in the midst of what would be an incredible comeback story would such a seemingly insignificant moment be considered so monumental.
There are no insignificant moments or meaningless games for the former three-time All-Star anymore. Each day, each game brings another step toward recovery for the 31-year-old Sizemore, who has not played a major league game since Sept. 22, 2011 because of multiple injuries, including microfracture surgeries on both knees and lower back surgery.
While there are players all around spring training camps trying to earn jobs, Sizemore, who signed a one-year incentive-laden contract with the Red Sox that could earn him as much as $6 million, is trying to resurrect not only his career, but also his life. In the midst of a three-year rehab, Sizemore had nothing else to lean on other than the thought that one day he would once again play baseball. He had geared his entire life toward a comeback. If that comeback failed, Sizemore didn't know what else he would do because he planned for nothing else.
So when he runs toward second base on a wild pitch and he feels no pain, it means something more than just a blip on a box score. It means that Sizemore is one tiny step closer to returning to being the person he once was.
"I just look at every day as a chance to get back to playing baseball and getting back to making everything normal," Sizemore said. "Those are all things you can't really simulate on the practice field, so it's good to get those reps in a game and see how the body feels and how the body responds the next day. I'm just trying to get work in as much as I can and whatever situation comes out there is always going to be good for me just because I haven't been out there playing in the last couple of years.
"Nothing is normal anymore. It's hard to describe after so many surgeries how everything feels. Not being able to play the last couple of years, it's all kind of new to me, going through this, and how the body responds. It's been a long time. It's a lot of bumps and bruises and a lot of injuries to recover from. Spring training is normally a time when your body is adjusting, so it's even more so for me right now."
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The most encouraging part of Sizemore's comeback is that for the first time in a long time he hasn't felt much pain. His surgically repaired knees haven't buckled at any point, and his back hasn't stiffened. Sizemore has had normal spring training soreness, and really, that's been the only normal aspect of his time with the Red Sox so far.
While all his accomplishments in spring training have been encouraging, for the moment, Sizemore doesn't feel like he usually did in spring training in his eight seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Something is off and just doesn't seem right.
"Nothing is natural, nothing is smooth," Sizemore said. "I think right now I feel like I'm having to work really hard to do the basic things. It's not coming natural to me. I don't feel like I have that quick first step. Everything is taking a little extra time to get going. I think the more reps, the more everything will become comfortable and natural and I'll have that normal feel. But right now you feel a little tight, you feel a little restricted. Restricted is the best word I could use to describe it right now. It's not painful. I'm not coming in worse the next day. Everything just needs to loosen up and work well together."
Yet the spring has been better than any point during his rehab. For two years, Sizemore, because of his injured knees, could not run. His knees would ache so bad that he'd have to stop training that day. He could never predict which knee would hurt on what particular day or what else might pop up. If it wasn't his knees, then it was another part of his body that had gotten hurt because he had been compensating for the weakened knees.
If he couldn't run then he obviously couldn't get into shape to play. Sizemore hired several trainers and most had no answers for him. They wished him well and said they admired his work ethic and determination, but nobody could fix him.
Yet Sizemore, although discouraged, never thought about quitting. Part of it was that he really didn't know what else he would do. He was once considered one of the most promising young stars in the game, he had experienced tremendous success on the field, and he had gotten much adulation from his peers and the media, and once you have that, everything else seems like a letdown. So Sizemore HAD to play again.
"My focus was always on the rehab and getting healthy," Sizemore said. "I really didn't think about anything else, and that can be frustrating and that can be a bit of a drain mentally, but it's all I wanted. I just wanted to get back on the field. That's where I put 100 percent of my focus... I never thought I couldn't do it. I was more worried that my body wouldn't let me. I just got to the point where no matter what I did, whether I pushed really hard, or took a lot of time off and rested, it didn't seem to change the outcome. I told myself that I was going to keep pushing until I got out there. It seemed like that day was never coming."
Prior to the 2013 season, Sizemore's name was floated as a possible low-risk option for several teams. But even Sizemore knew that was wishful thinking. His body was not cooperating. At best, Sizemore thought he might be able to help a team midseason. But the rehab program was going very slowly, even slower than Sizemore had conservatively projected.
He couldn't even say anymore that he was working toward a return in six months. Sizemore had to live a week-to-week existence. If his knees cooperated for a week, then he could advance the rehab program. If he suffered a setback, then his rehab would fall back a week.
But eventually his rehab broke down completely, his knees ached so badly, and Sizemore had to relent and admit that 2013 would be yet another lost year. The sobering reality was that he had lost two seasons in the middle of his prime.
"It's frustrating to be hurt and to lose that time and to not be able to get that back, you feel frustrated," Sizemore said. "But you don't feel cheated. You just feel that things just aren't going your way. You just have to grind through it and look forward to the positive. It's all I could do. I knew that if I could get healthy, I would be able to come back and contribute and play again. It was just a matter of finding that right program to get back."
Once 2013 was lost, Sizemore reevaluated his entire routine. He began to think that perhaps a more effective method would be to combine different aspects of all the programs the different trainers had set up for him. He began a trial and error process that would eventually give him a combination that worked.
Sizemore was so encouraged with his work that he told his agent to contact teams. Several were interested. After all, if Sizemore could get back even a portion of the talent that allowed him to compile an .868 OPS from 2005-08, then he could be an important role player for somebody. It would unrealistic to think that Sizemore could be a full time player, but he could be valuable even in a part time situation.
Boston, which had lost starting center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, seemed like an ideal situation for Sizemore, so he signed. He'll compete for playing time with rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. Almost immediately after signing, Sizemore worked with Boston trainers and doctors to ensure he would enter spring training in the best shape possible.
Once he arrived in Fort Myers, the Red Sox carefully monitored his progress. At times that meant taking things very slowly.
"I'm not a patient person," Sizemore said. "But when you've gone through what I've gone through, you don't really have much of a choice."
For that reason, each one of Sizemore's accomplishments so far have been significant: His first at-bat, his first hit, and, yes, even his first advancement on a wild pitch.