Grady Sizemore takes one final, healthy cut in the batting cage and scoops up a few stray baseballs scattered on the infield grass. After pausing to sign autographs for a few fans, he heads off to the next phase of his daily workout.
By himself. A consummate team player, Sizemore's on his own.
He jogs past teammates, who shuffle by in groups of two and three heading toward the Indians' clubhouse. They stop and stomp their metal cleats on the sidewalk to remove dirt before heading inside for lunch. Sizemore's on a different schedule.
Arriving at a back field behind Cleveland's training complex, Sizemore takes another step in recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee. With two trainers watching, the three-time All-Star center fielder runs half-speed around three orange cones.
He repeats the drill several times. It's a strange sight: Sizemore, blessed with such great speed, moving so deliberately.
On another sunswept March morning in Arizona, the nearby Estrella Mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop as Sizemore continues his own uphill climb.
It's a tedious ascent.
"I'm not looking to push things," Sizemore said. "I don't want to make things worse. We're taking slow steps. We're going to get there. I'm just being patient."
Earlier this week, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti acknowledged for the first time that it's unlikely that Sizemore will be ready by opening day on April 1. That's been the 28-year-old's stated goal all along, but it now appears that Sizemore's 2011 debut with Cleveland will be delayed.
And, at this point, no one knows with any certainty when he'll be back in manager Manny Acta's lineup.
Barring any problems, the team anticipates that Sizemore, cleared this week to begin agility drills, will play Cactus League games in two weeks. However, nothing is set in stone. There's no need to rush. The Indians aren't nearly as concerned with Sizemore being with them at the start of this season. They want him for the finish.
After all, they need him for this year — and beyond.
He's the face of the Indians. Sizemore's been the team's most popular player almost since the moment he was called up from the minors in 2004. His chiseled looks made him an instant hit with Cleveland's female fan base. And his rare combination of speed, power and all-out hustle won over the guys.
Former GM and current team president Mark Shapiro once dubbed Sizemore "one of the greatest players of our generation." He seemed indestructible, playing in all 162 games in 2006 and 2007, and 157 in 2008. Sizemore wouldn't take a day off, further endearing him to Cleveland's blue-collar constituency.
But his 2009 season was sabotaged and cut short by injuries. He made it through just 33 games last year before undergoing surgery in Vail, Colo., on June 4, when Dr. Richard Steadman drilled holes into Sizemore's knee cap, causing bleeding to hopefully stimulate cartilage growth.
Once a radical procedure, it's more common.
Not long after his operation, Sizemore acquired an early sense that this was way beyond a routine knee "scope." For several weeks after surgery, he spent eight hours every day with his leg in a "continuous passive motion" machine that kept his knee joint moving.
For Sizemore, it was almost unbearable.
"Torture," he said.
Indians first base coach, and former All-Star catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr., knows what Sizemore is enduring. Alomar underwent two microfracture procedures, rushing back from the first one in 1995 in just three months because the Indians were in pennant contention and needed him. He would do things differently now.
"This is a tough injury," he said. "It's a misunderstood injury. People don't have any clue what it's all about. It's a tough injury mentally and physically. You have to trust your leg and that's tough because you don't have that cushion that you used to have. Everything is different, people are different and situations are different. Grady should be OK. When he gets his confidence back in that leg, he will be fine."
Until Sizemore's ready, Michael Brantley will hold down the centerfield job with Austin Kearns in left and Shin-Soo Choo. Acta said it's possible he could start the season carrying five outfielders.
Sizemore has hit every benchmark in his rehabilitation so far, and the Indians have been encouraged by seeing him hit line drives to all fields — a sign that he's not afraid to push on the knee.
"It's where we hoped he'd be," trainer Lonnie Soloff said. "His soreness has all been expected soreness, so we're very pleased and I think he's very pleased with his progress to date."
Soloff has dealt with "a handful" of microfracture cases. Each one has been different and been influenced by a player's fitness, their position and mental makeup. Things have gone as good or better than expected for Sizemore, but Soloff warned he could be in for some setbacks.
Sizemore has been an exemplary patient, Soloff said. He's handled his recovery like a pro.
"His approach to rehab is dissimilar to his approach to playing the game," he said. "He's been very talkative with thoughtful feedback and responses. He understands the magnitude of the procedure and what it means to not only this organization, but to his career."
Sizemore seems resigned to a slow recovery. This is the first time in his life that his body has failed him, and he's determined to let it heal properly. And Alomar says that's a huge step.
"Only Grady knows what he's experiencing right now," said Alomar, who has offered advice to Sizemore. "It's not as easy as people think. I want the guy to be on the field. We all do. We all love Grady. He's a hard-nosed guy. I think he's going to get over it. He'll come back."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects year to 2011 in ninth paragraph.)