FORT MYERS, Fla. — There were no fewer than 24 reporters surrounding Grady Sizemore in the Red Sox clubhouse Thursday afternoon.
Sizemore never got this kind of attention when he was a 30-30 player and perennial All-Star with the Cleveland Indians.
His world is very different now. Seven surgeries (knees, back, hernia, elbow) put him on the shelf, and on Thursday he played his first baseball game in 888 days. Facing Northeastern freshman Dustin Hunt, Sizemore went 0 for 2, flying out to center and left. He worked three innings in left field without making a play.
“It was fun, exciting,’’ said the 31-year-old outfielder. “I’ve been looking forward to it for a couple of days.’’
There’s an understatement. The last time Grady Sizemore played in a baseball game — any baseball game — was Sept. 22, 2011, at Progressive Field in Cleveland. The Indians beat the White Sox, 11-2, and Sizemore went 1 for 4, playing eight uneventful innings in center field. His last at-bat resulted in an RBI single off Addison Reed (A.J. Pierzynski called the pitch from behind home plate) in the bottom of the seventh.
Sizemore’s knees and back took him off the field for the rest of the season. He staggered into spring training in 2012, but was gone by Feb. 24. He went home, had back surgery, and never returned. He was 29 years old.
The Sizemore Project is emerging as the big story in this “Everything is Awesome” Sox spring camp. The Sox are reigning world champions, and set at just about every position. Jackie Bradley Jr. is considered the heir to the Jacoby Ellsbury throne in center, but a healthy Sizemore would dramatically change the landscape in the Fenway outfield.
Bradley hit only .189 in four brief stints with the Sox in 2013 and Sizemore represents an interesting alternative if JBJ fails to hit this spring.
The Sox plan to go with a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in left. Sizemore hasn’t played much left, but Fenway’s cozy dimensions would make life easier for a player who’s had multiple knee surgeries.
There were no baseball games for Sizemore in 2012 or 2013. No exhibitions. No minor league games. No rehab simulated games. That’s why it was a pretty big deal when Sizemore ran out of the third base dugout to take his place in left field in the top of the first inning Thursday.
“Honestly, it didn’t feel like a big deal,’’ said the understated veteran. “But I know it was a big moment for me.’’
In the bottom of the first, Sizemore (wearing Curt Schilling’s old No. 38) went to the plate to face Hunt, a righthander who pitched for St. John’s Prep last spring.
Sizemore took the first two pitches (one ball, one strike), fouled back the 1-and-1 pitch, then hit a lazy fly to center on a breaking ball. With two outs in the bottom of the second, Sizemore lined to left on an 0-and-1 pitch from Hunt.
“I approached it like any other game,’’ said Sizemore, a flat-line fellow who should be voted Least Likely To Say Anything Inflammatory. “I approached it like any other game.’’
Mission accomplished. Two at-bats. No swings-and-misses. No action in the outfield.
Now it’s a matter of seeing how his body responds.
“Each day, I build off the previous day,’’ he said. “I don’t want to push it. I need to be cautious and aware of what I’m going through.’’
Red Sox manager John Farrell was pleased with Sizemore’s swings and plans to start him again Saturday when the Sox play the Twins across town at Hammond Stadium. Farrell knows Sizemore from their Cleveland days when Farrell was farm director. Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro acquired Sizemore from the Expos in 2002, trading Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew (the other Drew brother, yet another laconic character) to acquire Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Lee Stevens, and Sizemore.
“Grady wasn’t the big name in that trade at the time, but he turned out to be one of the five best players in our league,’’ said Farrell.
Legendary Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy will be watching Sizemore carefully. Seven surgeries on his left knee ended Remy’s career prematurely and the former infielder, who appeared at spring training for the first time Thursday, knows what it’s like to try to come back after missing at least one full season.
“I tried it in 1986,’’ said Remy. “I did not play at all in 1985 and came to spring training in ’86. I had no chance. I pretty much knew it coming into spring training.
“I remember playing Harvard and I tried a drag bunt and the Harvard kid threw me out by about 5 feet. I could hear the center fielder celebrating. That ticked me off. The kid probably owns his own company now.
“That was pretty much it for me. It was frustrating. I couldn’t do anything.’’
Sizemore didn’t try any drag bunts Thursday, but the first day was a good day.
“I’m enjoying just being here,’’ he said. “When I go home every day, I can’t wait to get back to the ballpark.’’