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Sultan of SWAT
Gerry Callahan
April 08, 1996
When he's not tagging balls for the Atlanta Braves, leftfielder Ryan Klesko tags along on drug busts
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April 08, 1996

Sultan Of Swat

When he's not tagging balls for the Atlanta Braves, leftfielder Ryan Klesko tags along on drug busts

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The driver turns the corner, kills the headlights and closes in on the first crack house of the evening. There are 14 law-enforcement officers and one big league baseball player in the back of the van, and as it approaches the address on the search warrant, their idle chatter stops. The cops tighten their helmet straps and grip their weapons. The player adjusts his bulletproof vest. "Thirty seconds out," says the driver, a narcotics agent who is overseeing the operation. "Time to go to work."

As the van tears up the driveway, its doors swing open. The cops spring out of the vehicle as if their seats were on fire and dash toward the house. A team of snipers carrying AR-15 assault rifles surrounds the small, run-down house. One officer totes a boomer, a tool designed to break open doors. Others are armed with MP5 semiautomatic weapons and with handguns. Ryan Klesko, the 24-year-old left-fielder for the Atlanta Braves and an honorary deputy sheriff for Palm Beach County, Fla., waits for the last officer to exit the van and then follows closely behind, his cheek full of chewing tobacco and his eyes glowing with anticipation. Lots of people enjoy watching the TV show Cops. Klesko, who hit three home runs in the Braves' World Series triumph over the Cleveland Indians last fall, prefers the real thing.

The Palm Beach County sheriff's office is holding search warrants for four houses on this unseasonably cool Friday night in March, and this first house is the one from which the other three obtain their drugs. The raid begins with the report of a flash-bang, a small explosive device whose loud and frightening detonation announces the arrival of the Special Response Team, a SWAT-like elite unit of the sheriff's department.

The flash-bang is tossed through an open door of the tiny house, and when it explodes, the house fills with smoke. Some of the occupants hit the floor and wait facedown to be handcuffed. One suspect, in an attempt to dispose of drugs, pushes his hand through a windowpane in the back of the house, slicing open his arm. The cops search for drugs and weapons quickly and efficiently, as if the operation were as routine as stopping a speeder. The ballplayer watches in awe, like a wide-eyed kid who has been invited to sit in the dugout at a World Series game. There are lots of things to do on Friday night in South Florida, but as far as Klesko is concerned, nothing beats busting bad guys.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is what I would be doing if I weren't playing ball," he says. "I really have a lot of respect for these guys, because they risk their lives every day to keep scum off the streets and keep the cities safe." Klesko, meanwhile, risks his life to watch. Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

When he signed with the Braves in 1989, Klesko decided downhill skiing was too risky and gave it up. These days, his off-field activities include scuba diving, boar hunting, spearfishing, archery, target shooting and surfing. He cuts back on the adventures when baseball season begins, but he still sneaks away for an occasional held trip. On a recent day off, he drove from the Braves' spring training base in West Palm Beach to Orlando, where he and some friends spent $1,000 to rent Typhoon Lagoon, a water park at Disney World, for almost three hours of boogie-boarding and surfing.

"Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow?" says Klesko, who had a home run and four RBIs in Atlanta's 10-8 Opening Day victory over the San Francisco Giants on Monday. "So if I get a chance to do something today, I do it. That's the way I look at life."

Last year the Braves' World Series drive was only one of Klesko's adventures. On the field he hit .310 with 23 homers and 70 RBIs in just 329 at bats, and he emerged as a star in the National League. Off the field he watched a stock car race from Dale Earnhardt's private box, he went backstage after concerts by Van Halen and country singers Brooks & Dunn, and he hosted the members of the rock group Boston in the Atlanta clubhouse.

While many of his teammates have gained reputations for taking a businesslike approach to the game, Klesko prefers to attack each day as if he were serving a warrant. He doesn't watch MTV; he lives it. Most of the Braves share a passion for golf, but Klesko generally can find more exciting ways to fill a day.

Klesko grew up in Westminster, Calif., just outside Huntington Beach, but five years ago he settled in Boynton Beach, Fla., 20 minutes south of the Braves' spring home. He shares a waterfront house with his girlfriend, Michelle Penzenik, a dance instructor and a former Miss Palm Beach County. The surfing off Florida isn't nearly as challenging as it is off California, but Klesko has found plenty of other ways to get his kicks.

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