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Great Catch

4/15/2009

To know the man, you must first get past the porn-star name. You must forget, if you can, that he looks like Clark Kent, or a young Jimmy Smits, or, when he lifts his eyebrows, like Elvis before Elvis moved to Graceland and figured out how beautiful he was. You must look beyond these superficial distractions into his heart, into his soul. It is there you'll discover the elemental bits that combust to form what very well may be the perfect man.

Not perfect so much in the "good catch" sort of way—although there is that, as the fan sites and the blogs and the breathless members of Grady's Ladies will attest. It isn't every baseball player who triggers a sea of "Will You Marry Me?" signs when he comes to the plate. Not every player inspires a 200% increase in female viewership, a $275 36-inch bobblehead that looks nothing like him but sells out nonetheless and a line of fast-selling baby doll T's printed with the words "Mrs. Sizemore" across the bosom.

Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore transcends such adulation. He is nearly 24, but he is both childlike and wise, and he floats through life buoyed by his faith in, of all things, people. He believes that what you expect will come to pass, so you may as well expect the best. You could say this philosophy has been paying off for Sizemore since he was a child growing up near Seattle and discovered that not only was he really, really good-looking, but he was also able to hit or run with any given ball at any given time. He has made the most of all these gifts, becoming a third-round draft pick out of high school, a minor league sensation and, just now, a major league All-Star.

Grady loves Cleveland. And Cleveland loves him back. Even diehard Indians fans—the ones who bang the drum in unfulfilled hope of the team's first World Series title since 1948—are smitten. Not just because Sizemore has skills, but because he is a throwback, which is to say he understands that to be a professional baseball player is, as he puts it, "the best job in the whole world."

When he says this, he's not talking about the $23.5 million, six-year contract he signed this year, or his squeal-inducing effect on women. "I don't invite attention," he says, a sentiment that his agent, Joe Urbon, seconds with great frustration. "He turns down endorsements because he prefers to relax," Urbon says with mock horror.

Adds Grady's younger brother, Corey: "Three words to describe my brother? Laid. Back. Dude. He is not a head case."

That alone sets Sizemore apart from a lot of pro athletes, men who act up and lash out and date women of questionable refinement. Playas, slackers, gamblers, drinkers, dopers, chokers. Men who read their own press and believe it grants them the unassailable right to behave like jerks. But Sizemore stays bleach clean. He trains hard. He doesn't complain or swagger or simmer. He remains fresh-scrubbed, free of venom or rage or jarring complexities. He sidesteps the Baseball Annies. He doesn't do drugs. He doesn't even do irony.

"I'm not big on self-reflection," he says unapologetically. "I'm always happy."

"Grady is what every boy in America should grow up to be," says Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton, who has known Sizemore since he was starring in the minors and has yet to see him sloppy—even this season, when high expectations for the Indians have devolved into disappointment. "I wish you could bottle what he has and give it to every guy you draft," Shelton continues. "Full effort, every time. Old-school. The real deal."

There's more, of course. Grady Sizemore III is close to his parents (mom Donna is an accountant; dad Grady II is a State Farm claims rep). Corey, his only brother, is also his best friend. Grady, who stands 6'2" and weighs 200 pounds, is smart and funny and well-dressed. He was born on Aug. 2, 1982, into a mixed-race household—mom is white, dad is black—and even this gave him no baggage, no identity crisis, no issues to overcome. "People just weren't like that around me," he says.

"Some people are small-minded and arrogant," he finally admits, reluctantly, as if even acknowledging the world contains such elements may give them permission to enter his. "But those people don't bother me. I'm not ever going to waste my time worrying about stuff. I am going to enjoy my time on the planet, and that's it."

And: "I don't judge people. I just accept them for who they are."

And: He means it.

All of which could be a bit much. But no one ever says, Enough already with your good karma and your unflappable inner peace. Because no one hates Grady Sizemore. It would be like hating summertime.

Besides, Sizemore is not a Goody Two-shoes. He's just good.

MOST OF the Indians live in the suburbs. Sizemore prefers downtown. On a late-spring weekend with the Pirates in town, his loft is largely empty. He has plans to decorate it in a masculine modern style, with lots of leather and chrome and expensive rugs, but for now it holds only the odd chair and a half-empty closet. There is a bed unmade and, in front of it, a television stacked with DVDs: Munich, King Kong, Carlito's Way, the Deadwood box set. Shoved in the corner is a rolling suitcase, its handle extended.

"My brain moves a mile a minute," Sizemore says, gesturing to the tower of films. "I own every movie ever made. I have a habit."

And, apparently, an indiscriminate eye.

"I know if Grady liked a movie, it probably sucked," says Pirates leftfielder Jason Bay, one of Sizemore's closest friends, who has dropped by for a pregame visit. "He thinks everything is good, because he sees the good in everything."

"Closer, with Clive Owen?" says Sizemore. "F—ing hilarious."

When it is mentioned that Closer isn't really a comedy so much as a meditation on the essential loneliness of being, Sizemore chuckles.

"Sure. But Clive was still hilarious."

Before trades separated them, Bay and Sizemore were minor league teammates in the Expos organization. They spent much of the summer of 2001 at Class-A Clinton, a dusty Iowa town of 28,000 that, owing to its Ralston Purina plant, smells like a kennel. "The first few years in the minors, you get hit with a lot," says Sizemore, who joined the Tribe in a 2002 deal that sent Bartolo Colón briefly to Montreal. "You have to find a way to take it all in. I was only 17 when I was drafted, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to learn from everyone around me."

One winter, Bay and his wife, Kristen, invited Sizemore on a couples cruise. For that, Sizemore needed a girlfriend. "He was like, 'I can get somebody tomorrow,' and he snaps his fingers," Bay says, laughing. "We tried to explain we wanted him to bring someone he was in a relationship with. Someone he, you know, talked to."

Sizemore skipped the cruise.

At Bay's wedding in November 2004, Sizemore was a groomsman. "He danced with every woman at the reception, from flower girls to little old ladies," Bay remembers. "He was in every photo. No question he was the most popular guy there."

"Because I bought the beer," Sizemore jokes.

"We need to find you a girlfriend," Bay says. "Paris Hilton, maybe?" Sizemore grins. "I saw her sex tape," he says shyly. "She's hot, what can I say?" "If you dated her, you'd end up in Us Weekly," Bay warns. "So would you," Sizemore says with a shrug. "Errr … right." It's time to leave for The Jake. Sizemore drives his SUV, a loaner from a local dealer. The vehicle is pristine, with plastic still wrapped around the door handles. Although first pitch is four hours away, Sizemore feels as if he's running late. "I live at the field 12 hours a day," he says. "I get there early and I leave late. I'm very set in my ways. I'm obsessive about it."

His pregame routine: For breakfast, Sizemore orders eggs the same way he had them the last time the Indians won. If possible, he consumes said eggs in the same place at roughly the same time. When he arrives at the clubhouse, he swallows an Advil and a multivitamin. Then he drinks a cup of coffee and eats a bowl of cereal, "Raisin Bran, if they have it." When he dons his uniform, he takes care that his socks are "game socks and not practice socks," something he can tell because he numbers them with a Sharpie.

"I know I sound crazy," he says sheepishly. "No one else in my family is like this."

DOWN IN the batting cages, under the stands, Sizemore warms up as Anthrax blares from the world's oldest boom box. Shelton tosses him a few pitches and suggests that the lefthanded Sizemore attack the ball. A pleaser, Sizemore listens, then attacks. His game socks are pulled up all the way to the knee. His hair is curly in the humidity.

Shelton calls two more, but Sizemore isn't satisfied, so they keep going until he finds a groove. Finally, after a particularly fluid stroke, Sizemore smiles. Then, per baseball tradition, he helps the coaches pick up batting-practice balls, loading them into an empty bucket.

An hour later, he hits a leadoff home run off Pirates lefty Zach Duke. The screams of "WE LOVE YOU, GRADY!" come fast and loud, continuing as he circles the bases.

In his next at-bat, Sizemore taps a grounder to Craig Wilson wide of first, an easy third out. And yet, because he doesn't quit, because he doesn't care if it's the third out of a relatively meaningless inning, he bolts from the plate, legs pumping, and beats Duke to the bag.

"That is what makes Grady different," Shelton says after the game. "A lot of other players would have jogged it out. He busted his ass."

After the Indians' 4-1 win over Bay and the Bucs, Sizemore lifts weights, showers, then heads into the rainy Cleveland night to have a few drinks. At a pub by his apartment, he stares at a clip of Barry Bonds just missing a home run. "I love what he does for the game," Sizemore says, still finding the good.

It is 1 a.m., last call. Sizemore is trying to decide if he wants to hit another club, one with dancing and, presumably, girls. He wants to go out, but … "There would be traffic and fans. Lots of fans." He decides to walk home instead and watch the finale of The O.C.

"To see who dies," he says with a wink.

As he drains his beer, he talks about women. "If I got married, settled down, I'd approach my relationship the same way I do baseball," he says. "I'd think, What do I have to give? If I find a woman I want to marry, I'll give her everything, everything I have. I'd do whatever it took to keep her happy every day."

Right now Sizemore's best girl is his pit bull, Carmela. "She's a gamer," he says, eyes wide. "I love that! She walks around with a chunk of flagstone in her mouth, wanting to play catch.

"She's kind of like me. Only cooler."

IT'S AN unseasonably crisp spring morning in Cleveland, and Sizemore is eating a cheese omelet at his favorite diner. As he digs in, an older woman eyes him from an adjacent table.

After a few minutes, she says, "You're him, aren't you?"

"I could be," he says sweetly.

"Good luck tonight," she tells him, blushing.

"Thanks. Thanks a lot."

Sizemore feels no pressure. Never has. He swirls a spoon in his coffee. Asked if he ever gets nervous, he shakes his head. "Maybe … maybe you feel a little jittery right before your first at-bat," he says, unconvincingly. "But once it starts, it's just a game. I don't recall ever being scared of anything. Nothing really frightens me."

Certainly not baseball. Sizemore has no pretensions of mastery, and he shrugs off intimations of fate. "I think you make your own destiny," he says firmly. "I'll never be perfect, but I am a perfectionist. I don't think my expectations are unrealistic. I just try to be me. Hopefully people are happy with that." And if they aren't? "That's okay too." With that, Sizemore rises from the table and heads out into the bustle of the street. He turns to walk toward home, then stops. "Don't underestimate me," he shouts good-naturedly over his shoulder. He flashes a broad grin and disappears, for the moment, into the crowd.