Five minutes into my dinner interview with Grady Sizemore, I have already succumbed to his considerable charm.
We’ve met at a steak house, which, as a vegetarian, is pretty much my worst nightmare. My senses are being assaulted: Disembodied longhorns gaze at me from the walls; the dark wood interior produces that shadowy, smoky underground feeling, consequently making it a bit chilly in here even though it’s 80 degrees outside; and I can’t get away from the smell of steak sauce.
But I’ve done my homework, and I know that steak is Sizemore’s favorite food, so I have already resigned myself to watching him devour a giant, bleeding piece of meat.
While we’re checking out the menu, he asks politely, “What are you going to have?”
“Well, I’m a vegetarian, so maybe a piece of fish or a salad,” I reply.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that,” he says. “We should have gone someplace else.”
I assure him that it’s fine and encourage him to order whatever he wants.
He orders chicken.
“Don’t do that for me,” I say. “Have a steak if you want it.”
“I’m not really in the mood for steak tonight,” he says, not really meaning it.
At this moment, he’s hooked me. So considerate.
Even without the dashing good looks and killer smile, Grady Sizemore is a very nice young man. But let’s get this straight right off the Louisville Slugger: If he weren’t a legitimate baseball star, chances are Cleveland’s raucous female population wouldn’t even know how gorgeous he is.
At 23, he’s the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter for a team that took the American League Central race down to the last week of the season last year. In one season, he’s already placed himself in impressive company in the record books of the Cleveland Indians.
So first, give him his due on the field.
OK, now you can squeal.
When you’re a 13-year-old female — or 16 or 20 or 35 or even 60 — it’s not hard to notice and appreciate Grady Sizemore. He is, as they say, easy on the eyes.
For one thing, he smiles a lot, which nicely displays his dimples. His hair is naturally curly (damn him for cutting it), which frames his chiseled, handsome face. He’s 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds of muscle, covered with caramel-colored skin. Face it, he’s eye candy, a hunk, a “hottie” (if you’re 13).
At this rate, he’s a future candidate for People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive or reality TV’s “The Bachelor.” He’s among this magazine’s Most Interesting People for 2006.
But he can’t help it if he’s beautiful. He just wants to play baseball. The truth is, he’s a bit overwhelmed by all the attention he’s suddenly getting from the ladies of Cleveland, and he’s not sure he understands it.
Near the end of last season he innocently asked then-teammate Coco Crisp, who has since been traded to Boston, “Was it like this last year with the females?”
And Coco said, “Heck no, man, it wasn’t like this. This is crazy.”
Crazy is hordes of young women wearing pink Mrs. Sizemore baby tees. Crazy is reading all the signs that dot the Jacobs Field crowd, some of them asking Grady to do embarrassing sorts of things. Crazy is “Grady’s Ladies” all over the ballpark. Crazy is what comes up when you Google Sizemore’s name.
Blog No. 1: “The Grady Girls — a slightly odd tribute to Indians hottie Grady Sizemore! Anyone not living under a rock knows that Grady Sizemore is the hot new player gracing center field at the Jake! This site is a fun tribute, not only to his skill as a player, but to his total hotness!”
Blog No. 2: “This apple-cheeked boy … he’s not just eye candy. He can play. Not to mention the guy hasn’t had a day off in 38 days. I’m sure we can all appreciate such endurance. And I bet you he wouldn’t bring his hairdresser on his honeymoon.”
Blog No. 3: “Some of you will be disappointed to hear that a new suitor has taken the place of Johnny Damon in my Chocha Love Hall of Fame. His name is Grady Sizemore and he just turned 23 years old.”
Sizemore isn’t aware of all this Internet attention until I clue him in. He throws back his head and laughs heartily, as if genuinely enjoying the absurdity of it all. “It’s just not who I am,” he says, finally. “I’m not trying to be the sex symbol of Cleveland. I’m just out there trying to play. I focus on baseball 24/7.”
Stifling another laugh, he adds: “Not that I’m complaining about the attention. Everyone wants to be loved by women, but sometimes it takes away from the fact that I’m a baseball player and I’m here to do a job. Baseball is what I’m focused on.
“I’m always trying to improve my game … my baseball game,” he adds, realizing the double meaning. “I’m not out at the bars trying to pick up a different girl every night or any of that kind of thing. I guess you just have to go with it. I’m not complaining about it.”
Good thing, because it’s not likely to end soon. He’s firmly established as the Tribe’s leadoff hitter, and he’s practically put down roots in center field. And as long as he’s at The Jake, the girls will be too.
Blog No. 4: “Grady Sizemore ROX MY SOX! I love going to Cleveland Indians games. Grady is there, hence the reason I enjoy being there!”
The Indians aren’t complaining about the attention on Grady, either. They know they’ve got a hunk of gold — on the field and off.
The Indians have always been above the Major League Baseball average in female demographics, according to Bob DiBiasio, Indians vice president of public relations. But “since we’ve had Grady, our marketing research shows that the female demographic has increased dramatically,” DiBiasio says.
Market research has shown that during last season, female viewership of televised games increased by 22 percent, while the Indians’ female radio audience jumped 200 percent. And the storm has just begun brewing.
“No question about it,” says Bart Swain, the team’s director of media relations. “Media-wise, [pre-season] interview requests have gone crazy. He’s far outnumbering everybody else in requests and photo shoots. Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, everyone on the national scene wants him.”
And the Tribe’s public relations office is ordering extra glossy photos to fill fans’ requests. “I’m sure Grady’s going to need his own cabinet for pictures this year,” Swain says.
And it’s not just limited to teens. “It’s all over the place, all ages,” DiBiasio adds. “It’s incredible what cuteness can do.”
DiBiasio has a theory about a player’s popularity: First and foremost he has to be a good player. Then, the intangibles come into play: Is he a good guy? Does he have a wonderful sense of humor? Is he media-friendly? Is he extremely good-looking?
In Sizemore’s case: yes, yes, yes and yes.
“Hi Grady, First of all, I want to tell you how great looking you are! I’m sure you already know that. And you’re a really great player too! I’m 14 and a freshman at Rocky River High. (Go Pirates!!!!!) I play volleyball, and I love to jet-ski in the summer and snowboard in the winter. I love movies. Do you? I really hope I can get your autograph at an Indians game this summer. I’m there with my ‘Marry me, Grady’ sign. Will you look for me? I’d really love to hang out with you.”
When the letters started coming in, Sizemore was naÃƒ¯ve, simply happy to have fans who bothered to write about how much they liked his game … oh, and him, too.
But more than anything, he was trying to make it through his first full season in the Major Leagues. “I really didn’t focus too much on [the fan attention],” he says. “I was just trying to get through the season.”
Then the letters multiplied — like little bunnies in center field. So did the media attention and the female fans. Before he knew it, the snowball was rolling down the hill in the middle of July. “The more you comment on it, the more that gets read into it, and then you get more letters and more letters, and the next thing you know, it’s everywhere,” Sizemore says. “Once I said in an interview that I preferred pictures [with letters] and then all of a sudden, I had pictures galore, everywhere.”
Sizemore spreads his hands out in front of him, as if he’s trying to keep a small mountain of photographs from falling off our table. Our server, Brandy, stops by just as Sizemore is doing this. She picks up his empty bottle.
“Another Coors?” she says.
Slightly chagrined at his gesture of a moment before, he smiles and says, “Um, yes, thank you.”
This might be the most polite Major Leaguer I’ve ever had dinner with.
While Brandy is off to retrieve more beer, Sizemore returns to his mail.
Usually, the letters are short, harmless, filled with exclamation points and heart-dotted i’s.Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes serious, mostly “laid-back and goofing around,” Sizemore says. Still, owing to his solid upbringing as a compassionate and decent person, he sorts through all of them himself, dutifully reading every one. He admits that the volume has gotten so high that he doesn’t know how he’ll keep up this season. But he’ll try. “It’s all fun. They’re fans. It comes with it,” he says.
What also comes with it is sometimes candy or small gifts. “Nothing too fancy yet, usually candy,” he says with an air of resignation, as if he knows he’ll eventually have to deal with something fancy.
What about lingerie, I ask. Any of that yet?
“Not yet,” he says, and then with a grin, knowing full well the tape is rolling, he adds: “I’m still waiting for that.”
Grady Sizemore’s no dummy. He knows he’s in trouble now.
Still, he keeps his eyes open for interesting mail.
Not that he’d do anything with it. For one, he’s not that kind of guy. “I don’t think I’d ever be tempted to pursue anything through the mail,” he says, as if the idea is truly distasteful to him.
And secondly, he knows how to keep himself out of trouble. The best way, he figures, is not to tempt it at all. “[Women and sports stars] can be a very serious situation,” he says. “Most players don’t ask for it, but the women are everywhere. You never really know what’s going to happen — it’s like rolling the dice. It almost makes you want to stay in all the time because you don’t want to get caught in a situation that could hurt you or your family.”
He admits he’s looked twice at a few photos, but that’s as far as it goes. “I’m pretty careful who I interact with socially,” he says. He goes out “here and there” for a beer with the guys but he doesn’t sample nightlife much because he’s an everyday player and his focus remains on the game. When he does go out, though, he picks his spots carefully. “I try to stay in low-key spots where people don’t recognize me,” he says. With a sigh, he adds: “It’s getting harder and harder, though. Fortunately, I’m not usually at the places where a lot of singles are hanging out.”
“Dear Grady, I’m 23 and single and I’d really love to meet you and get to know you. I like to hang out at the Velvet Dog and I’m hoping that I’ll see you there some night. I haven’t yet, but I’m always looking for you. On the lookout … Melissa”
Note to Melissa: Grady Sizemore wouldn’t be caught dead cruising at the Velvet Dog.
Instead, Grady is likely reviewing his latest performance on the field, looking for ways to improve. It’s already a tall order to follow last year’s first full season in the Majors — he hit .289 with 22 homers, 81 RBI and 22 stolen bases. He’s only the second Indians player with 20 doubles, 20 homers, 20 steals and 10 triples in the same season. (He had 37, 22, 22 and 11, respectively.) The first? All-Star Robbie Alomar.
“Grady has done everything we’ve asked of him,” says Tribe manager Eric Wedge. “We know he’ll continue to improve. We’re just looking for progression at the big-league level, and we have every reason to expect it from Grady.”
Sizemore was acquired in the 2002 trade that sent pitcher Bartolo ColÃƒ³n to Montreal. Then in the Class A Florida State League, Sizemore was sent to AA Akron, where he hit .304 with 13 home runs in 2003. He was in Montreal’s system only because the Expos offered a $2-million signing bonus out of high school, which was too good to pass up. Until then, he was headed to the University of Washington on scholarship to play football and baseball.
Now, just a few years later and after only one full season, baseball superstars are so impressed with his game that they are asking for his autograph. Johnny Damon and Bernie Williams are among those who asked Sizemore to sign a souvenir last season.
“It’s very flattering,” Sizemore says. “That happened a few times during the year with different players and you’re like ‘This is Johnny Damon and he’s asking for my autograph.’ It’s unbelievable, it’s overwhelming. I mean, who am I? I’m nobody.”
National baseball observers are calling Sizemore “a natural-born superstar,” and predicting that he will become one of the premier center fielders and leadoff men in the game. Here’s why: He led the Indians in runs scored (111), hits (185), triples (11), steals (22) and total bases (310). His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .832 led all American League center fielders.
Tribe General Manager Mark Shapiro has been quoted thusly on Sizemore: “What makes him exceptional is not that he’s a good player. What makes him exceptional is that he’s 23 years old and he’s that kind of player with the poise, consistency and focus that he has. It’s extremely rare.”
Sizemore says he’d like to improve his baserunning this season, and if he also improves on his contact — he had a team-high 132 strikeouts last year — there’s no end to his upside. He’s an impressive physical specimen, he’s focused and willing to learn, and as he showed on Aug. 26 last year in Toronto, he’s completely fearless.
In a 9-3 victory, Sizemore got a big lead on Blue Jays rookie Dustin McGowan and took off toward home with slugger Travis Hafner at the plate with a two-strike count. “I didn’t know what he was doing,” Hafner said afterward. “I thought maybe he had to run to the bathroom or something. If I had swung and hit Grady in the face, I would have had every woman in America mad at me.”
Instead, Grady Sizemore added one more feat — a steal of home — to the swashbuckling style of play that often sends him flying into the wall in center field. “I like to be aggressive,” he says. “I like to play loose and take what I can get when I can get it. You can control effort, and that’s the way I like to play — all-out.”
Some tasty tidbits for your Grady blog:
• His fantasy celebrity? “Well, [actress] Jessica Alba’s pretty gorgeous, but that’s just a fantasy. And [actress] Scarlett Johansson’s pretty gorgeous, too. In a dream world, that’s where I’d be.” If he had to make a choice? “Whew. Of those two, Jessica Alba, I guess. But you can’t go wrong either way there.”
• He likes ancient history, “Greeks and Romans and that kind of stuff. I get caught up in that, it totally fascinates me.” He got hooked on it when he used to watch the History Channel with his dad.
• He’s an old rock ’n’ roller at heart. He loves The Doors, is into Pink Floyd, likes the Eagles. “I should have been living in the ’60s, I guess,” he says.
• He’s very, very clean. “I’m an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleaning,” he admits. “Things have to be my way. I spend a lot of time cleaning my house.”
• His Aug. 2 birthday makes him a Leo. That explains the good hair.
• He says that when a woman has a hobby that’s “crazy or kind of off-beat, it’s almost a turn-on to me. Things that are unusual are interesting to me. Let me into your world. Weird hobbies don’t turn me off at all. I’d try anything at least once.”
Think about that when you address your next letter to Jacobs Field.
When the Indians play in Seattle, Sizemore eschews the team hotel and stays with his parents in nearby Everett, sleeping in his childhood bedroom. “I love being around the people I love,” he says by way of explanation, and that would certainly include his parents, Grady and Donna.
He characterizes their parenting style as “hands-on” and says, while growing up, he was focused on their presence in his life, which was active but not overbearing. “I wanted to be a good son,” he says. “I wanted to be just like my dad. I still want my parents to be proud of me. That’s all I want.”
His younger brother, 20-year-old Corey, attends Arizona State University and lives in Sizemore’s off-season home in Tempe, the only major item he purchased with the $2 million signing bonus. “I like Arizona, it’s a good place to work out in the off-season, and I like having my brother there living with me,” Grady says. “Tempe’s fun, the weather’s good, I love my house there. It’s a nice place to live.”
It has also served up Grady’s current female interest, a woman he recently started dating. (Sorry, girls.) He calls it “nothing too serious yet. We’re just dating, we’ll see where it goes.” He says he’s pretty sure she doesn’t realize yet how big the whole “Grady’s Ladies” thing is. “I think she kind of knows what I do and that there’s a little bit of a fan base,” he says. “She hasn’t been part of the season with me yet. We’ll see, it’s still early, but she might visit me in Cleveland during the season.”
“A little bit of a fan base?”
Our interview is nearing its end. Grady’s eaten his chicken, and I’ve finished my salmon. We’ve each had a few beers. It’s been a very pleasant experience, and I tell him so.
“Thanks for taking the time,” I say.
“Not at all,” he says. “It’s my pleasure. Anytime you want.”
Ooh, so polite.