Sledgehammer ready to make an impact
Outfielder motivated to lead Padres with breakout season
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Terrmel Sledge showed up beaming at the San Diego Padres' training facility on Saturday morning.Relieved of physical doubts and burdens, he's carrying big plans on his chiseled 195-pound frame, having dropped 15 pounds after a winter spent perspiring in drills, eating the right foods and turning girlfriend Emilia into Mrs. Sledge in a Dec. 20 marriage ceremony. The heir apparent to his close friend and mentor, Dave Roberts, Sledge intends to nail down the left field job with his bat, legs, glove and attitude. And, if he's asked to succeed Doc as leadoff man as well, he'll seize that opportunity with relish. "My destiny is in the palm of my hand and no one else's," Sledge said. As he stood there smiling beneath a modified Afro atop a head that used to glisten, he was greeted by teammates returning to the clubhouse after morning stretching during the first formal workout at Peoria Sports Complex for pitchers and catchers under manager Bud Black's supervision. After a solid rookie season in Montreal in 2004, Sledge has spent the past two seasons diminished by various injuries. The bad run started with hamstring and shoulder surgeries that effectively wiped out the '05 season, followed by a string of ailments that forced him to spend most of last season at Triple-A Portland. "No one to blame but myself for last year," Sledge said. "I got injured. No one shot me with lightning. I got injured in Spring Training, didn't start off strong, and it wasn't the way I wanted to feel after two major surgeries." Now Sledge, a graceful left-handed hitter with power and speed, feels he's back in the form that made Expos manager Frank Robinson such a believer that he kept him in the lineup after a 1-for-34 start in '04. Robinson was rewarded when Sledge busted out with 15 homers, 62 RBIs and a .269 average, slugging .462 with a .336 on-base percentage. "It can only boost your confidence knowing a Hall of Famer like Frank Robinson believes in you," Sledge said. Sledge came to the Padres from Texas along with Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young in a six-player deal after the '05 season, and he feels he's equipped physically now to justify the Padres' faith in him just as he did for Robinson. "One of the reasons we haven't brought in another outfielder is I think Sledge will perform better this way," general manager Kevin Towers said. "I'm confident he can get the job done. Terrmel has a lot of talent and is a proven player at this level."
With his 30th birthday arriving on March 18, Sledge trained diligently. It was at age 30, coincidentally, that his successor, Roberts, emerged as a full-time force with the Dodgers in 2002."I went back to the basics, doing things I did when I was a kid when I was agile, athletic, playing basketball and football, trying to get my first step [quickness]," Sledge said. "I had to change my diet, and it's made a big difference. I'm not a health nut, but I do watch what I'm eating, staying away from desserts, fried foods, pork. And I feel a lot more energetic. My wife tells me I'm not as moody." Sledge has leadoff experience in college, both at Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State, and through his first two seasons in professional baseball. He stole 36 bases in 2000 and 30 in 2001, and he is convinced he can be an aggressive, effective baserunner again. "I know I can't be Doc [and] steal 50 bases every year," Sledge said. "He's probably the last of a dying breed of leadoff hitters -- him and [Rafael] Furcal and Juan Pierre. I feel I can bring a little more power if they put me in the leadoff role, and I can steal some bags. We all try to do the same thing when we're leading off -- get on base. "My No. 1 goal is I want to win. Everyone dreams about being in a World Series and having that ring. If I'm doing my job, whether it's leading off or not, it'll make the team better." Sledge hadn't spoken directly with anyone in the organization about the leadoff responsibilities, but he's been made aware of the possibility by the media. Black has included Sledge with the Giles brothers, Marcus and Brian, as possible catalysts in the absence of Roberts, a man revered by Sledge but a rival now in a San Francisco uniform. "I'm gonna miss him," Sledge said. "In all my years playing baseball, he was the one guy who was like a mentor to me. "He's the greatest clubhouse guy you could find. His attitude, the way he loved the game, loved being around people -- just a great person all around. There are not too many people like him around the game." There might not be a Doctor in the house any more, but there is a Sledgehammer -- and Terrmel plans to make some noise.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.