FORT MYERS, Fla. — Everybody loves a comeback story. They tug at the strings of sentimentality and re-fill our reservoir of hope. In a sport in which failing seven out of 10 times is viewed as success, reclamation is even more alluring.
There is no bigger comeback story in Red Sox camp than Grady Sizemore, whose career has been put on pause the last two seasons because of microfracture surgery on his right knee. The Red Sox think the erstwhile All-Star, who was a hard-hitting heartthrob in Cleveland, can hit the rewind button and go back to being a productive major league center fielder.
Sizemore, who hasn’t played in a major league game since 2011 — the season after he had microfracture surgery on his other knee — is bucking the odds. He has become the odds-on favorite to be the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter in center field. Grady Watch has become a daily occurrence around Fenway South. Tuesday marked another milestone for Sizemore, as he played in back-to-back spring training games.
One day after playing five innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, Sizemore started in center, batted leadoff, and played four innings against the Miami Marlins, going 0 for 2 with a pair of groundouts.
You root for Sizemore, but that doesn’t mean the Red Sox should rely on him to succeed Jacoby Ellsbury in center and atop the batting order.
There is a line between sentimentality and reality. The idea of Sizemore returning to the form that made him a two-time Gold Glover and a member of the 30-30 club (33 home runs and 38 stolen bases) in 2008 is tantalizing. It’s also unlikely.
It’s bad business for the Sox to rely on Sizemore and a body that has betrayed him repeatedly, especially at the expense of Jackie Bradley Jr.’ s development.
Last year, Bradley was a Fenway South phenom, forcing his way onto the Opening Day roster. Now, he’s a role player in Sizemore’s comeback story.
“The fact that Grady is having encouraging signs in spring training is not a bad thing for Jackie Bradley or anybody,” said Sox manager John Farrell, who was the director of player development in Cleveland when Sizemore began his big league career in 2004. “It means that we’ve got another good player here. We feel strongly that one of the main reasons that we were successful last year was a talented and deep roster. Grady gives us the potential to build another talented and deep roster.”
Sure, but there is also the potential that this is all a tease. Not to be a purveyor of pessimism, but even in the last two seasons he played Sizemore was as fragile as fine china. He played in 33 games in 2010 and 71 in 2011. That’s what happens when you are in the midst of a stretch of seven surgeries since 2009.
There is a big difference between playing in a few spring training games and enduring the rigors of a 162-game regular season. Not even Sizemore knows if his body will respond to everything a return to baseball will throw at it.
“I hope so. So far every time we’ve pushed a little bit more I’ve responded well,” said Sizemore. “We’re obviously going to continue to try to add more and kind of find that threshold and kind of work towards it but not get past it.”
If the Sizemore can be 75 percent of the player he was from 2005-08, when he averaged 28 home runs and 83 runs batted in per 162 games and sported an .868 OPS (on base-plus-slugging percentage) then the Sox have a bargain on their hands at $750,000 for one year, even with the $1.25 million in roster bonuses and additional $4 million in performance bonuses based on plate appearances in his contract.
This is a guy who in his prime was a player that Ellsbury was compared to as a best-case scenario for the Sox.
Farrell said that the Sox’ medical exam revealed that the 31-year-old Sizemore was a “good bet.”
But even Sizemore can’t predict what he will or won’t be capable of now.
“You know I’m not putting expectations or limits on anything,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like when I get out there, and I get healthy. I’m just going to play the game I’ve always played and play the way I’ve always played and see what happens.”
Expecting Sizemore to be able to handle a physically demanding position on a semi-regular basis is just not realistic.
For all the Grady Good Will, motions as simple as slowing down from full speed and sliding are still considered noteworthy.
“It’s all those things that you take for granted normally that I have to think about, and kind of re-train myself to do it the right way,” said Sizemore.
Farrell has gone out of his way to offer the obligatory caveats with Sizemore. But the excitement keeps oozing out of the manager.
Sizemore, a bit of a ringer for aloof actor James Franco, also has worked to tamp down expectations.
But he sounded borderline sanguine after Tuesday’s game.
Even if Sizemore didn’t have a disabled list history that reads like a Tolstoy novel, a two-year hiatus from baseball raises red flags.
“When you have a two-year gap, if he came in with no restrictions, you would have to say, ‘OK, what is the likely number of games that a player with this path could give us?’ ” said Farrell. “We’ve got to keep all that in perspective.”
But perspective has a way of melting down like a wax candle in spring training, when hype and hope bloom eternal.
Hopefully, Sizemore’s story has a happy ending. He deserves it.
But the Sox are living in a baseball land of make believe if they’re banking on it.