KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the anesthesia's fog lifted and Grady Sizemore(notes) snapped awake June 5, he looked at his left knee, his troublesome, pesky, good-for-nothing knee. For 90 minutes, the best surgeon around had drilled tiny holes into the bone in an attempt to heal it. It took a few minutes more for Sizemore to absorb his new reality, one in which doctors break a bone to make it better.
Nothing about microfracture surgery makes sense, other than its successes. There were enough – namely Amar'e Stoudemire – to remind Sizemore that no longer was it the explosive athlete's version of the electric chair, a career killer. Otherwise, sheesh: Sizemore was 27 and facing a gruesome rehab during which he would sit around and let a machine crank his leg in circles for hours at a time. He went under expecting the worst. He awoke facing it.
"I didn't know it was going to be that surgery until the surgeon went in there," Sizemore said. "You have to trust the doctor and put your knee in his hands. I told him I want my knee to be healthy and to be healthy for a long time, so do what's necessary."
Ten months later, he's walking without a limp. Running without one, too. It's too early, of course, to call Sizemore recovered, even after he banged out another three hits Monday night and sluiced about the outfield like someone without the cute little tattoo of an arthroscope on his knee. What can be said unequivocally: Sizemore, longtime Cleveland Indians cynosure, onetime Sports Illustrated cover boy and sometime superstar, looks a lot more like the player who made more than 700 plate appearances four years in a row than the schlump of 2010 crippled by that stupid knee.
"It's nice," Indians manager Manny Acta said, "to have him back."
Such sentiment filtered throughout the clubhouse of the best team in the major leagues. One more time: Best. Team. In. The. Major. Leagues. Temporarily perhaps, but the Indians pushed their record to 12-4 with a 7-3 victory in 10 innings against their equally surprising AL Central running mates, the Kansas City Royals. Only Colorado matches the Indians' win-loss mark, though the Rockies have avowed their status as contenders. Cleveland's beginning-of-the-season surge emerged from nowhere, and they're left now to prove its staying power.
Getting Sizemore back doesn't hurt. "It's like picking somebody up down the stretch," second baseman Orlando Cabrera(notes) said, only it's the middle of April and, if the Indians are lucky, they can salvage 130 games from him.
For now, they're skewing conservative. Every four or five days, Acta said, he'll give Sizemore a rest. Then they'll move to every five or six days. Come the All-Star break, Sizemore could be playing every day.
"The last thing we want," Acta said, "is to run him into the ground too early and not have him the rest of the year."
Primarily because the Indians' hot start gives them designs on stealing an AL Central where a hobbled Minnesota team can't find its groove, Detroit pitches its way to mediocrity and Chicago's inability to sustain a lead could well result in Ozzie Guillen going on an all-time great Twitter rant. The Indians are in the midst of a two-week pitching jag that if repeated – colossal if – would keep them atop the division, especially with a stellar defense and enough hitting to subsist.
[Big League Stew: Grady Sizemore looks great in return to Indians' lineup]
If Sizemore's first two games back – another titanic if – portend anything, he'll surely help in that endeavor. He's 5 for 9 with two doubles, a homer and a slugging percentage of stick figures (1.111). Though untested in center field, he made running catches during his rehabilitation and progressed enough that Cleveland felt comfortable returning him there.
No center fielder before has undergone microfracture and remained at the position. Preston Wilson was long past his expiration date in center when he had the procedure. The other players known to have it – Brian Giles(notes), Jason Kubel(notes), Sandy Alomar Jr., Aaron Boone(notes), Chad Tracy(notes) and, most recently, Carlos Guillen(notes) – never regained their explosion, let alone the sort it takes to play center.
The purpose of microfracture, a surgery devised by Colorado surgeon Richard Steadman in the 1980s, is to stimulate cartilage growth through tiny breaks in a bone. Bone marrow releases stem cells, and those stem cells turn into fresh cartilage. It is always the last resort, and even as Steadman started the surgery on Sizemore, he wasn't sure of its necessity.
The internal damage made apparent what Sizemore figured when he lost all ability to drive off his back leg and generate power. He went homerless in 128 at-bats last season before succumbing to the surgery. The 598 days between his last homer in 2009 and the one he hit in his second at-bat back Sunday seemed like a million, which is also how many bucks he feels like.
"I'm just healthy," Sizemore said. "Any player will tell you if he's not feeling good or has an issue with his body, it's going to make it that much harder to produce. I couldn't ask for a better start. I'm excited to be part of that. Hopefully, now that I'm back, we can keep adding on. I didn't want to mess that up."
Only Texas boasts a better run differential than the Indians' plus-33, lending credence to their hot start being more than a fluke. The Indians still can't draw 20,000 to Progressive Field, and their payroll still isn't even $50 million, and they're still at 62 years and counting since a championship. Forgive Clevelanders for their tempered outlooks. They've been through a thing or two.
And yet this is good, really good, seeing Justin Masterson's(notes) evolution and Carlos Santana's(notes) emergence and Josh Tomlin's(notes) maturation and the entire bullpen's dominance and, most of all, the return of No. 24 at the top of the lineup and in center field. He may not be the Grady of old. Probably not. But it's better than no Grady at all. Such is the beauty of expecting the worst.
Sometimes, the best may come of it.
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- microfracture surgery