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. 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 '01 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 was second to the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis in Rookie of the Year voting. Under Milwaukee first base coach Davey Nelson, who mentored Vince Coleman among others, Podsednik became a basestealing pupil. "He never stopped training," 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."
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 basestealing 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 toward first, while squaring his hips to second.
" Raines says you lose six inches my way," Podsednik says. "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. Nearly 79% of the time over his career he has beaten the tag, the 10th-best percentage among active major leaguers with at least 150 stolen bases.
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.