The late great Howard Cosell once said that “sports is clearly the human drama in microcosm.” Writing about sports is really writing stories about the humans who play sports. With that in mind, here are a few of the story lines I’m most interested in following this season. They interest me not necessarily because the player in question is a super-star or has the power to turn the tide of the team’s fortunes, but because they are compelling stories of, well, the human drama in microcosm
1. Will Grady Sizemore come back from yet another injury?
Injuries happen to professional athletes all the time; it’s the nature of their job. Even so, Grady Sizemore has had more than his share of injuries. I was at Progressive Field on April 17, 2011, when he played his first game in 11 months after having had microfracture surgery on his knee in 2010. He went 2-4 with a double and a home run. It seemed like old times. Grady ended up playing only 71 games last season. And now, when it looked like he might be able to start this season with a clean bill of health, he injured his back and had back surgery on March 1 to remove herniated disc material. It takes two or three months to recover from this surgery, so he’s listed as possibly returning in May. There are five other guys on the Indians DL. What makes Grady stand out is the amount of time he’s spent on the DL and the number of times he’s come back. He’s 29 years old, which in baseball terms should be his prime and in the everyday world most of us inhabit, young. I’m sure part of the attraction to Sizemore is his looks–yeah, he’s pretty. But more than that, he always, always hustled, and that endeared him to far more fans than his dimples. In dramatic terms, Sizemore is a classic protagonist who must overcome increasingly difficult challenges in order to succeed. This last surgery, coming as it does when he’s playing under a one-year, incentive-laden contract, has to be the most difficult setback yet. He’s a free agent. If he can’t come back and play at something approximating the level expected of him (granted, a very high level of performance), he may not find another contract.
2. Will the real Roberto Hernandez please stand up?
The Fausto Carmona false identity story has everything you could ask for in a compelling story–a dirt-poor boy with the talent to lift himself and his family out of poverty makes one terrible mistake as a youngster, and later that mistake threatens his entire livelihood. It sounds like the plot of a made-for-TV movie from the 70′s, but it is, sadly, reality. Everybody knows Roberta Hernandez Heredia was not the first kid to assume a false identity in order to make himself more attractive to a major league team, and he won’t be the last. Hernandez is working with Dominican youth to urge them to be honest about their age and identity, which is admirable. The false identity charges against him have been dropped, and the Indians have restructured his contract. Hernandez is reportedly training as best he can in the Dominican Republic. It’s too soon to tell if he’ll be permitted to leave the country and rejoin the Indians or how he might fare if he does return. He’s a reformed hero that I’d love to see succeed.
3. Can Ubaldo Jimenez live up to the hype (and survive the scrutiny?)
Ubaldo Jimenez’s time with the Indians during 2011 kind of felt like this bit of Fry and Laurie –a lot of “Wait, wait, this is going to be brilliant,” and it wasn’t anywhere near brilliant. At some moments he did pitch well, but it wasn’t, you know, brilliant. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting from a guy who had gone 19-8 the season before and for whom we gave up two of our best pitching prospects. Jimenez’s story isn’t just about one guy overcoming a succession of injuries or rebuilding his personal career. As our number 2 starter, his performance has a huge impact on the team’s fortunes. Jimenez is also the closest thing the Indians have to a big-name player. (You can argue this, but it’s true.) His performance will be scrutinized by more than just the fans and media in Northeast Ohio. No matter how he plays under this microscope, it’ll be hard not to watch.
4. The redemption of Manny Acta
Manny Acta has been managing in the big leagues for five years and has never had a winning record. Last year he came close, with a .494 won-loss percentage, which was enough for the Indians to pick up his contract option for 2013. While that seems like job security, it also speaks of great expectations. When the Indians hired Acta in 2009, I was one of many fans who felt like we had scraped the bottom of the barrel to find him. After all, under his watch, the Nationals had gone 158-252 over two and a half seasons. Acta knew he had a hard sell coming here, and he has slowly won over the Cleveland fans. He’s personable and even a little charming, which are two things former manager Eric Wedge wasn’t. His first season with the Tribe went pretty well–they won four more games in 2010 than they had in 2009. Last season was even better, with 11 more wins that the previous season, including a glorious spring in which it seemed like the team couldn’t lose a ballgame if it wanted to. The conventional wisdom had been that the Indians wouldn’t really be contenders until 2012, that the young players weren’t quite ready yet. Having that taste of dominance last year just whetted our appetite. Now here is it, the 2012 season. Don’t say you aren’t expecting a lot from this team and its manager. He has a great mix of talent, potential talent, streaky talent, and perhaps has-been talent in the 56 players remaining in the Indians Spring Training camp. If he can pull together the right 25 guys, he’ll prove that he’s a much better manager than his record shows.