GOODYEAR, Ariz. – As spring training began last year, Grady Sizemore was still viewed as a baseball icon in the making.
He was coming off his first 30/30 season. He had made three All-Star teams in a row. He was going to play center field for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. His Cleveland Indians were expected to contend in the American League Central.
Then Sizemore had to miss the WBC because of a groin pull, which should have been our first clue. He never asks out of the lineup. Sizemore wasn't completely healthy for the rest of the season, and, consequently, neither were the Indians.
Sizemore tried to play through injuries to his groin and left elbow, arriving at the ballpark several hours early to work with the athletic training staff. ("Didn't say a word about it," general manager Mark Shapiro said.) But as Sizemore's body wore down, the team disintegrated. Mark DeRosa was traded. Cliff Lee was traded. Victor Martinez was traded. Eric Wedge was fired. The Indians finished 65-97.
Sizemore had sports hernia surgery. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow, too. He has recovered well, by all accounts. But while he's back, many of his good friends aren't. It's as if he went back to his high school to find that his friends had graduated and his locker combination had changed.
"It's tough to see those guys go," Sizemore said.
This is what the start of a rebuild looks like.
So why is Sizemore still here?
And what happens next?
The short answer: The Indians will work their way back toward contention; that could take years. Sizemore will try to reestablish his star in the sport's firmament; that could take half a season, maybe less.
Sizemore is under contract through 2011, with a team option for 2012.
For better or worse, they are in this together.
"He's going to be here," Shapiro said Tuesday. "We've obviously traded a lot of star players. When you do that, it creates that focus on the next star. But it's really not the same situation."
Sizemore said he hopes his long-term future is in Cleveland, adding, "I love being part of this organization. I love playing for this team and this city. I started my career here. I'd love to finish it here. I hope it works out. I can't picture myself in any other uniform."
Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, the assistant general manager who will become GM at season's end, are adamant that Sizemore isn't going anywhere.
I believe them, for one reason as much as any other: If the Indians were to trade Sizemore, 27, what relevance would they have?
We've been told that Cleveland has young talent. That's good. After one postseason berth in eight seasons, you are supposed to have young talent.
But with LeBron James playing in the arena next door -- at least for now -- the Indians need to give people a reason to watch them play. What is true when the economy is good also applies when the economy is bad: The people of northeast Ohio won't empty into downtown Cleveland to see David Huff and Luis Valbuena.
So, it's up to Sizemore.
"I try not to focus on outside pressures," Sizemore said. "Whatever expectations people put on me, it's nothing compared to what I put on myself."
In the near term, he needs to stay healthy. He needs to produce. He needs to entertain. He needs to be the guy who graced the Sports Illustrated cover in May of 2007.
That was the issue in which Shapiro said Sizemore was "without a doubt one of the greatest players of our generation."
I reminded Shapiro of those words when I spoke with him on Tuesday.
"The context of that comment is still the same," Shapiro said. "A lot of that depends on his health. If he stays healthy, when his career's over, he's got a chance to be one of the better players of that generation."
Important fact: The Indians were in first place when Sizemore appeared on that SI cover. It's harder to be an era's standard-bearing player when holding off the Royals for fourth is the September objective.
Sizemore, slated to bat second in the lineup this year, is the ultimate caretaker of his own legacy, but the Indians can help by staying relevant. Sizemore has played in 11 postseason games, with a .279 batting average. It might be three or four years before those numbers budge.
Unwelcome publicity visited Sizemore's wholesome-looking orbit during the off-season, when near-naked photos of him surfaced on the Internet. Sizemore had taken the pictures of himself and emailed them to his girlfriend, former Playboy model Brittany Binger. It's believed that someone obtained them by hacking into Binger's computer.
Sizemore was angered and embarrassed by the episode -- he didn't want to talk about it during an interview -- but the damage to his image was negligible. On the spectrum of off-the-field athlete missteps, Sizemore jaywalked.
Teammates say the photos haven't been a topic of conversation in the clubhouse this spring. Sizemore, a focused and super-serious type, probably wouldn't welcome teasing on the subject.
"Everyone's been real supportive," Sizemore said.
With the uniform on, there is no mistaking Sizemore's brilliance. He finished among the top 12 vote-getters in AL MVP balloting for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons.
Care to guess how many other players did that?
Derek Jeter didn't. Alex Rodriguez didn't. Joe Mauer didn't. Dustin Pedroia didn't.
Grady Sizemore is that good.
From 2005 through 2008, he hit .281 and averaged 27 home runs per season -- mostly as a leadoff man. Because of the injuries, he gets a mulligan for last year: .248, 18 homers, 64 RBIs.
The Baseball-Reference.com statistical archives tell you that Barry Bonds is the player most similar to Sizemore through age 26 . . . but that Milton Bradley most closely approximates Sizemore's overall body of work.
I believe that qualifies as a career crossroads.
So, he must face new questions now: How good will the post-op Sizemore be? Can he stay healthy despite his all-out style? Will he resonate with the baseball public if his team takes a two-year sabbatical from meaningful late-season games?
Sizemore won't care much about his popularity. He can do without the attention. A lack of victories would be another matter entirely.
He has a powerful will and legendary work ethic, but Sizemore can't win games by himself. He may have to settle for making a lot of people care about the 2010 Indians. At Brick One of the rebuild, that's a bold objective indeed.