This was the insular environment Podsednik left at age 18, for Port Charlotte, Fla., the Rangers' Gulf Coast League affiliate. It was the first time he had left Texas. "I couldn't wait for the season to end," he says. "I was homesick, went through a lot of phone cards, played games in 100 degrees and humidity every day. When I look back now on those early years, it's a tough life as far as the travel and not having all the amenities to keep yourself healthy." The postgame spread at Port Charlotte, he recalls, was "a loaf of bread on a table, some peanut butter, some jelly, some bananas, a free-for-all."
Throughout those early seasons in the minors, Podsednik did not distinguish himself except with his speed, and he shuttled among three organizations ( Texas, Florida and Seattle). He underwent surgeries--hernia, wrist and knee--in each year from 1999 through 2001 that nearly derailed his career. "I started to question whether I was cut out to play," he says. "What kept me going was, I really didn't want to do anything else. If you asked me right now, what would you be doing if you weren't playing baseball, I wouldn't know how to answer."
He surfaced with the Brewers, who claimed him off waivers from the Mariners before the '03 season. Podsednik won the centerfield job six weeks in and picked up 43 stolen bases, batted .314 and finished second to the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis in the Rookie of the Year voting. Under Milwaukee first base coach Davey Nelson, who mentored Vince Coleman among others, Podsednik became a pupil of base stealing. "He never stopped training, never stopped working," says Choice Lynch, a close childhood friend from West. "If we were out drinking, when he got home at 12 or one in the morning, he'd never even stop inside his house. Just went straight into the garage, put on his running shoes and ran himself out [on a road near his house]."
Always quick--an accomplished 300-meter hurdler in high school, he declined track and baseball scholarships to turn pro--Podsednik has grown into an artisan of base stealing who discusses technique in minute detail. An esoteric running dialogue has developed between him and Raines, involving the most efficient way to break: Raines believes a runner should keep his front foot on the ground and take a crossover step toward second with his back foot; Podsednik prefers to lift his front foot slightly, even drawing it back slightly toward first, while squaring his hips to second.
" Raines says you lose six inches my way," Podsednik says, "but my argument is, yes, I lose those six, but I clear my hips quicker, and I'm on my way running quicker, so they cancel out." With White Sox strength coach Allen Thomas, he has timed both methods and found them equivalent. Eighty-one percent of the time over his major league career, he has beaten the tag, the third-best percentage, behind Carlos Beltran and Tony Womack, among active players.
For all the science in his approach, Podsednik is a thief, stung with the impulse to take off running. Says Nelson, by way of explaining Podsednik's uncommon gift, "He has larceny in his heart."
The Top 10 Leadoff Men
Unlike in 2004, when he too often pulled the ball and was the majors' least effective leadoff hitter (his .244 batting average and .315 on-base percentage both ranked last), Podsednik has rejoined the game's elite one-hole hitters. Here are SI's top 10 this season, with the numbers that matter most at the top of the order: on-base percentage, stolen bases and a high total of pitches per plate appearance (P/PA). All statistics are as leadoff hitter, through Aug. 7.
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