TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Scott Sizemore eagerly took the field two years ago for the Oakland Athletics' first full-squad workout. After four seasons in the minor leagues and two more bouncing between farm teams and the majors, he arrived at spring training as Oakland's likely opening-day starter at third base.
He was in position at age 27 to become a major league regular. But then his career came undone with brutal quickness, a reminder the difference between stardom and the sidelines can be a connective tissue less than 1½ inches long and a half-inch thick.
Now he's at spring training with the New York Yankees, trying to earn a job. He's been given Robinson Cano's old No. 24.
Nothing is guaranteed.
"That's some pretty serious shoes to fill, but I'm glad they at least gave me a really good number," Sizemore said.
On that sun-splashed morning at Phoenix's Papago Park on Feb. 25, 2012, everything seemed normal, players getting back on the field and remembering the routine of the 7½-month grind that is Major League Baseball. Most attention was on Manny Ramirez, embarking on yet another comeback attempt.
Sizemore moved to his right to field a ball hit by Mike Gallego, Oakland's third base coach, the type of grounder Sizemore had gloved tens of thousands of times on hundreds of infields.
"I went to plant and go," Sizemore recalled Friday, "I remember specifically, in my mind, I thought, 'My leg's not coming with me.'"
When he thinks about it now, the memory is like a slow-motion replay.
"I looked down and I just saw my knee like do this," he said, taking his two hands, putting them a few inches apart and making a wave motion. "It literally was out of my control. My body went to go, and I just saw my knee go whock! And it popped on the way back. I took a couple hops, and as I'm hopping I heard the coach that rolled the ball go, 'Oh ... "
Sizemore had broken his left fibula in 2009 in the Arizona Fall League but never had any knee issues. He hobbled out of that opening workout on crutches, found out after an MRI that he had torn his left anterior cruciate ligament and had surgery March 21, when Dr. Douglas Freedberg replaced the damaged ligament with part of Sizemore's hamstring tendon.
"Broken heart right here. Safe to say I've cried more over baseball than anything in my life," Sizemore's wife Brooke tweeted at the time.
Sizemore worked hard to rehabilitate the knee, and made it back for spring training 2013. The A's shifted him back to second base, but he wasn't yet ready to be a regular. He started Oakland's third game of the year, then sat the bench until he was in the lineup for game No. 8, at the Los Angeles Angels.
In the fourth inning that night, Mike Trout hit a blooper into short right field and Sizemore chased after it, with his back to the plate. He took about 10 strides, then landed awkwardly as he veered slightly to avoid right fielder Chris Young. Sizemore limped as he walked slowly back to the first base dugout with Oakland head trainer Nick Paparesta, who put a supportive arm on his back.
Sizemore's comeback season was over on April 9 after two games and six at-bats.
"I knew pretty much something was wrong, because, yeah, I felt something in the joint," he said. "And although it wasn't painful, it got swollen pretty quick and the Angels team doctor came over and just did a little manual test on it and he said it felt loose. He kind of used the if it looks like an ACL, smells like an ACL, it's probably an ACL."
Sizemore went back to Oakland the next day for yet another MRI and found out that not only had he ruptured the repaired ACL, "I had what was called bucket-handle tear, where my meniscus folded over into the joint space."
He headed to Pensacola, Fla., where Dr. James Andrews rebuilt the ligament with a patellar tendon graft. Back to rehab. It seemed oh so familiar.
"Rehab's just a grind," Sizemore said. "There's good days. There's bad days. If you get a couple bad days in row, where your knee is sore, it's swollen, it's just tough to kind of get through it. But then you have a good day and you're right back to the mindset: I'm good. I'm going to come back and get over this."
He refused an outright assignment to the minors last November and elected to become a free agent. The Yankees, needing infielders after Cano's departure for Seattle and Alex Rodriguez's season-long suspension, signed Sizemore to a minor league deal last month. He would get an $850,000, one-year contract if he's added to the 40-man roster and the chance to earn $150,000 more in performance bonuses.
Sizemore could share time with Kelly Johnson at third base. He could see action at second along with Brian Roberts. Everything depends on how much of his old self he is.
"He just has to show that he's able to play every day. We expect to see a lot, actually," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's a guy that will compete for that position at third and second and move around. He's had some tough luck the last couple years, but he was a pretty good player."
Selected by Detroit on the fifth round of the 2006 amateur draft out of Virginia Commonwealth, Sizemore hit .224 in 48 games with the Tigers in 2010, then was dealt to the A's in May 2011 for left-hander David Purcey. Sizemore batted .245 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs overall in 429 plate appearances that year.
"We had big plans for him two years ago and he went down the first day of camp unfortunately," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said this week. "And then last year, you're trying to get over that and get that out of your mind and just go out and play baseball, and then it happened to him again. I just pray that he has a full season where he doesn't have to worry about injuries anymore, because he's got a lot of talent."
Sizemore wears a big knee braces now when he's on the field. He gets in a hot whirlpool and performs exercises to activate the muscles in the leg, uses a foam roll to loosen up.
"They say it takes a year-and-a-half, two years before the graft is rock solid, but at this point it's healed enough to handle the brunt, the force," he said. "Obviously two times in a row there was definitely some doubts that crept in if I was ever going to play again, but I just continued to work hard and trusted my rehab staff and they got me back. I'm feeling good right now."
AP freelance writer Jose M. Romero in Peoria, Ariz., contributed to this report