A framed photograph stood apart from a collection of others inside the Bisons’ clubhouse Thursday as Matt Tuiasosopo explained the winding road that led him back to Buffalo for Opening Day. The photo was of Grady Sizemore, who once stood as Tuiasosopo’s idea of the big picture.
Sizemore, four years older, grew up about 20 miles away in Seattle’s northern suburbs. He was another ballplayer who had a football scholarship waiting for him at the University of Washington before signing a $2 million contract that expedited his ascension to the big leagues.
Tuiasosopo also had a full ride to Washington, where he would play quarterback, but there was a catch. If he received a Sizemore-sized offer, he would follow the same path into baseball. Sure enough, his hometown Mariners showed him the money after taking him in the third round, 93rd overall, in 2004.
“Grady Sizemore was in the same situation,” Tuiasosopo said. “He was going to the University of Washington, as a quarterback, a high school kid out of Seattle. It was going to take at least $2 million to take me away from school. It was a crazy senior year.”
The same year, Sizemore was in Buffalo and carving his route to Cleveland. He showed up as one of the Indians’ top prospects, but it was obvious he wouldn’t be here for long. Sizemore was a phenomenon, a can’t-miss outfielder who played 101 games for the Bisons and was gone for good.
All these years later, Sizemore still stands as one of the better players to pass through Buffalo. He also has become a cautionary tale, a player whose quick rise to the big leagues and instant success was derailed by injuries and doubts and the mind games that haunt anyone who plays long enough.
And that includes Tuiasosopo, 27, who singled to left and scored the first run in a 6-3 win over Rochester. He was credited with a hit in the second when his infield popup landed between the third baseman and shortstop, and he added an RBI single in the sixth.
Overall, it was a good start after a few strange weeks in a bumpy career.
Tuiasosopo understood his road to the majors wasn’t a four-lane highway, but by now he hoped to be a big-league regular.
He played 71 games with the Mariners over three seasons after spending his first four years bouncing around the minors. He never batted better than .227 and was released.
“It’s not all glitz and glamour,” he said.
He should know. He comes from an athletic family. His father, Manu, played defensive line for eight seasons with the Seahawks and 49ers. His brother, Marques, starred at Washington and was a backup quarterback for eight years with the Raiders and Jets. He’s an assistant coach at USC.
You also may remember his third cousin, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, better known as Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend. Tuiasosopo saw his cousin often when they were kids, but he hasn’t spoken to him in several years. Yes, life in sports certainly has its share of twists and turns.
Often, it’s what makes the big picture difficult to see, especially for young players. The game tests their confidence and mental strength while weeding out dreamers along the way. Every player is challenged at some point. Only a microscopic minority survive long enough to enjoy a sustained career.
For a while, Tuiasosopo’s obsession with success clouded his vision. His life once revolved around every at-bat, every base hit, every mistake. The push and pull that comes with the game, two steps forward and another step back, can be exhausting. It became his way of life.
“Every error and oh-for was the end of the world,” he said. “You’re not used to failing until you become a professional and you’re playing against the best. You’re failing every night. I used to think 1 for 4 was awful. If I didn’t go 3 for 3, it was failure. You have to understand that it is a game of failure.”
Finally, after signing with the Mets and spending a year in Buffalo, he appeared to be breaking through last season with Detroit.
He batted .244 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 81 games, respectable numbers for a utility player. It was enough for the Diamondbacks to sign him to a contract. He played well enough in spring training to join them in Australia to open the season against the Dodgers.
Right when he started to believe he found a home, he was gone. The D-backs waived him when they returned. The Blue Jays picked up his contract and assigned him to Buffalo, another step forward followed by two steps back. To come that close to a goal and watch it fade would be discouraging for anyone.
But there he stood Thursday, smiling about his strange journey to Buffalo and determined to solve the mystery of his career.
“Mentally, how strong can you be?” he said. “How positive can you stay and keep your mind strong and confident? This game will beat you up. You’ll start playing the fear game and the doubt game. I’ve played that before. We all do.”
Tuiasosopo is moving forward. Looking back is a waste of time with so much ahead. He was still learning the names of his new teammates Thursday in Buffalo. He batted third and played left field against Rochester.
And he’s still learning from Sizemore, who was out of baseball for two years before landing a spot with the Red Sox this season. Fittingly, the small picture of Sizemore was looking over Tuiasosopo’s shoulder as another baseball season began. Tuiasosopo is concentrating on the big picture.
“You have to keep things in perspective,” Tuiasosopo. “Yeah, we hope and wish things would pan out a certain way. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a bigger story. At the end of the day, we’re getting paid to come to the stadium for work.”