THERE WAS ONCE A TIME WHEN THE ELITE, MULTISPORT athlete gladly chose baseball, passing up the fame and floodlights of football Saturdays on American campuses for the scruffy, two-bunk dorms of places such as Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., and the apprenticeship that involved minor league games played in sweltering heat before about 50 fans and among players who, with few exceptions, would never realize their major league aspirations. There was a time when players, upon securing that first big contract, thanked their team and their parents for their loyalty, with not a whiff of entitlement. A time when a well-struck ball in the gap or a one-hopper to the mound obligated the same effort on the base paths: full tilt.
If those days sometimes seem as long gone as classic rock and 220.9-inch-long, four-door, 452-cubic-inch-powered luxury convertibles made in Detroit, you haven't seen Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore play baseball—or drive to work from his downtown Cleveland apartment. Sizemore will jump into his baby-blue 1966 Lincoln Continental convertible, turn up the Doors or the Beatles and steer his land yacht two miles to Jacobs Field to put in another hard day's night.
With Sizemore, 25, leading off and leading the way with a throwback style for the Indians, the present and future of baseball looks a lot like its past.
"You're doing a story on Grady?" asks veteran Cleveland reliever Roberto Hernandez, who lockers next to Sizemore—whose own locker is, appropriately, hidden behind a large pillar. "Good luck getting him to talk about himself. He's such a quiet guy who's only interested in playing baseball and doing what he can for the team."
Says Cleveland G.M. Mark Shapiro, "There is a superstar player on our team, but if you walked into our clubhouse, you'd have no idea who it is."
At 6'2" and 205 pounds Sizemore features a historic combination of extra-base power and speed. In 2006, when he hit .290 with 28 homers, 53 doubles, 11 triples and 22 stolen bases, Sizemore became only the seventh player in history—and the youngest ever—with more than 90 extra-base hits and 20 steals in the same season.
"He's the kind of player every manager wants," Toronto manager John Gibbons says. "He's a dirtbag. He'll do whatever he can to beat you."
As someone who turned down the chance to play quarterback at the University of Washington, as well as someone who said he hopes he can inspire other black athletes to play baseball ( Sizemore's father, Grady, is African-American and his mother, Donna, is white), Sizemore is a timely role model for baseball. Just don't expect him to sell himself beyond letting his game deliver the message.
"What's always driven Grady is a desire to please other people," says his father, who is known in the family as Big Grady to his son's Little Grady. "He's always wanted the people around him to be happy."
Sizemore started his pro career with the Gulf Coast League Expos, and on June 27, 2002, almost exactly two years after he was drafted, he was traded to Cleveland.