In 1990, when Klesko was still a minor leaguer, Penzenik introduced him to scuba diving and to Jeff Garten, a local diving instructor and five-year veteran of the Palm Beach County sheriff's office. Klesko and Garten hit it off instantly. In the off-season three years ago Garten invited Klesko to spend an evening with the Special Response Team, and Klesko has been an unofficial member ever since. For a man who never stops searching for his next adrenaline rush, finding the team was like catching the perfect wave.
Throughout the off-season and into spring training, Klesko goes along on drug raids whenever his schedule allows. Many times the officers find weapons during these raids. Occasionally they are greeted by attack dogs. "Young guys do exciting and interesting things," says Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "If Ryan puts himself at risk, it's entirely his risk."
Klesko, who doesn't bother to wear a mask to hide his identity on the raids, doesn't feel he's taking a great risk, although he probably wouldn't mind if he were. "I just enjoy watching these guys do their jobs," he says. "They know exactly what they're doing at all times. They study the house, and they take all kinds of precautions. They've never had to shoot a suspect when I've been along. A couple of dogs, maybe, but no people."
The relationship has proved to be beneficial to both sides: Klesko has outfitted the Special Response Team in black Reebok shoes and Ray-Ban glasses. Charles McCutcheon, the sheriff of Palm Beach County, in turn presented Klesko with an honorary deputy's badge earlier this year. Klesko is proud of the badge and is determined to replace it with the real thing. He plans to take the necessary exams to become a reserve officer in the sheriff's department. "Then I'll actually get paid for my work," he says.
This baseball season, for the first time, Klesko's name appears to be tattooed on the Braves' lineup. He signed a one-year, $315,000 contract on March 1; he will most likely bat sixth and play leftfield. In the past, when he arrived at Atlanta's camp in February, six weeks of uncertainty lay ahead. Klesko had been considered a power-hitting phenom since high school, but these were still the Braves. Openings come more easily on the Supreme Court than in the Atlanta lineup.
"That's the toughest thing about this organization: There are so many great players," Klesko says. "Nothing is given to you. Bobby [Cox] has always been the kind of manager to break in the young guys slowly. I had a hard time dealing with it for a while; I'd be down in the minors complaining and griping. I'd be hitting .290 with 16 home runs and wondering, When do I get to play in the big leagues? After a while, I was waiting for a trade."
Klesko caught a break a couple of years ago when another thrill-seeking Atlanta outfielder took his off-season adventures too far. Ron Gant, an All-Star leftfielder for the Braves in 1992, broke his leg in a dirt-bike accident in February '94, creating an opportunity for Klesko at least to platoon in leftfield. He batted .278 with 17 homers in 245 at bats and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. "If Gant didn't get hurt," he says, "there probably still wouldn't be a spot for me."
Last season Klesko proved that he was more than just a part-time player. He hit .331 from June 6 until the end of the regular season and wound up with a .608 slugging percentage, which would have placed him second in the National League if he had gotten enough plate appearances. Then he took his place on the World Series stage. At Cleveland's Jacobs Field, after the Braves won the first two games at home against the Indians, Klesko became the first player ever to hit home runs in three straight Series road games.
His performance fueled rumors that Atlanta would not re-sign veteran first baseman Fred McGriff, who became a free agent at the end of the season. Considering that first base is the position Klesko played most often in the minors, and considering that he's still awkward in the outfield, it seemed a natural move. But in December the Braves signed McGriff to a four-year, $20.5 million contract and dispatched Klesko to leftfield, where he will have to get comfortable for the prime of his career. Deputy Klesko insists he is glad that Crime Dog McGriff is staying in Atlanta, even though it means Klesko must put away his first baseman's mitt. "I honestly felt like we needed [McGriff] back," says Klesko. "He's a good friend and a good presence in our clubhouse." As for his own presence in the outfield, Klesko says, "I think I played well in left last year, especially in the second half. I don't care if they tell me to catch; I'm glad to be in the majors and playing for the world champions."
Of the three home runs Klesko hit in Cleveland, he has no trouble selecting the most memorable: It was the one that almost struck his mother. Lorene Klesko doesn't get to see her son play in person much anymore. She has had a number of health problems since she accidentally inhaled hazardous chemicals while on her job packing aerospace parts four years ago. She has trouble breathing and is often forced to stay in her house, close to the air conditioner or humidifier.