Scott Podsednik, the most brazen base stealer in the majors, does not fear getting caught; nor does he relish making a habit of it. So on a sultry Friday afternoon in August he sits, displeased, behind a steel door in a windowless room off the concrete hallway between the Chicago White Sox clubhouse and the third base dugout at U.S. Cellular Field. Podsednik shuffles through video of the previous day's game against Toronto until he reaches the bottom of the seventh inning, which ended when Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun threw him out, by an embarrassing space of daylight, attempting to steal second.
"Basically," Podsednik laments, "I did everything wrong here. Watch my front foot." He gestures to the flat-screen monitor and slows the video to 1/20 speed. Three and a half steps from the first base bag Podsednik is crouched, legs spread wide, hands resting on bent knees. When Toronto righthander Jason Frasor begins his motion to home plate, Podsednik lifts his right foot high--his arms, like a strung marionette's, rise with it--curls his body toward second base and plants his right foot back in the exact same spot on the infield dirt. He rewinds, repeats the sequence. Right foot up, and back down. Rewind, repeat. Right foot up, and back down. Mike Gellinger, the club's computer scouting analyst, watches alongside. "You took a step and didn't go anywhere," he observes. Podsednik agrees. He lifted his foot too high, didn't properly coordinate the movements of his arms with those of his legs and never squared his hips cleanly toward second. "I took a false step. I didn't gain any ground." Rewind, repeat. Podsednik runs through this Zapruder film of an unsound jump a half-dozen times.
Cockiness bubbles in the blood of every base stealer--every good one, anyway. "The thing I like about Scott most," says Chicago first base coach Tim Raines, whose 808 stolen bases rank fifth alltime, "is that everybody in the ballpark knows he's going, and he's still successful. That's rubbing it in their faces, like, You can't get me. You know I'm going, and you still can't get me." Podsednik is a Texan who speaks with a musical twang and has a fondness for the occasional cowboy flourish. On the field before batting practice, when he picks up the twin bottles of water and Gatorade he totes everywhere, he twirls one in each hand and sticks them in his back pockets, like a gunslinging dandy.
But his bravado masks an abiding diligence. Podsednik spends at least 20 minutes before each game watching video, of himself and of the opposing starter's tendencies with men on base; he spends as much time reading advance scouting reports. "The more I know, the better," he says. "What's the pitcher's time to the plate?"-- Raines keeps a stopwatch at first base; anything above 1.3 seconds is an unlocked front door--"Does he like to pick over? What kind of move does he have? What kind of pitches does he throw in certain counts? Does he get rattled with base runners on?" Podsednik is bold, and as it turns out, also a bit of a bookworm.
In the third season of his long-deferred big league career--drafted by the Rangers out of West ( Texas) High in 1994, he spent nine years, three of them mostly lost to injury, kicking around the minors--Podsednik has revived the stolen base, long disappeared into anachronism as baseball spent the last decade bulking up. After getting 70 bags with Milwaukee to lead the majors in 2004, Podsednik was slowed late in '05 by a groin injury and finished third with 59.
The White Sox, keen to reinvent themselves as a little-ball club, according to the preference of manager Ozzie Guillen, dealt slugging outfielder Carlos Lee to the Brewers for Podsednik and righthanded middle reliever Luis Vizcaino in mid-December. Plugged into the leadoff spot, Podsednik hit .290 with a .351 on-base percentage, jump-starting the Sox to baseball's best record and helping them hold on to win the Central by six games despite a late surge by Cleveland. Says Guillen, "He's the igniter."
Guillen and general manager Kenny Williams believed that the '04 Sox, despite leading the league in home runs, had become too dependent on power. So Podsednik, followed by second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, an unselfish hitter who will take pitches, have reconfigured the top of the order. This was, in some quarters, a dubious exchange--after the Podsednik trade, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti wrote that Williams was "trading mashers for midgets"--but the White Sox have responded by amassing the third-most stolen bases and the most sacrifice bunts in the AL. Speed, and the disruption it causes, govern the offense.
Says Raines, "Once Scott gets on, the defense is moving all around, holes are opening up all over the place, guys are cheating to the bag, catchers are edgy, moving around behind the dish, not really giving the umpire a chance to see pitches. He changes the whole outlook of the game."
Podsednik, 29, was born in West, a tight-knit hamlet of 2,500 outside Waco. Scott's mother, Amy, is an administrator at West High; his father, Duane, has worked at a glass plant in Waco as long as Scott has been alive. At a bar and grill near his Chicago apartment last summer, two blocks from the skyscrapers on the Magnificent Mile, Podsednik smiled as he described his hometown. "There's one exit, off I-35, so don't pass it," he said. "Don't blink an eye."
Asked what the town is known for, he hesitated. "What about the kolaches [pronounced kuh-LA-cheese]?" suggested his girlfriend, Lisa Dergan, referring to the pastries filled with fruit or cream cheese that are a signature of West's sizable Czech community, to which the Podsednik clan belongs. West keeps close watch on its local boy made good. At Wolf's Bar back in West, on Oak Street, Podsednik's uniform numbers from Milwaukee and Chicago (20 and 22, respectively) are painted on the wall. "If Scott's playing," says 73-year-old Joe Wolf, a family friend who tends bar, "we've damn sure got that game on."