FORT MYERS, Fla. – Had there actually been a P.I., a sleuth with talents for warm leads, cool mustaches and making like hotel lobby ferns, Carl Crawford(notes) said, almost rueful, “Dang, I definitely made it easy for him.”
Like it might have been fun had he known, and had it actually passed that the Boston Red Sox had put a Jake Gittes tail on him, which they didn’t, but could have and come away with the undercover equivalent of John Shaft chasing a doddering insurance salesman door to door.
Crawford, who’d been told he was followed away from the ballpark (and said he was, “Creeped out a little bit”), then told he wasn’t (“A bad figure of speech,” Theo Epstein explained), frankly doesn’t know what to think of it anymore, and doesn’t much seem to care, though the image of a chef-hatted Jacques Clouseau delivering to him a late-night, room service chicken flambe is worth the miscommunication alone.
See, talk to people who know Crawford, who scouted him, and discover there are three parts of Crawford’s typical day.
He prepares to play baseball.
He plays baseball.
He unwinds from baseball, which constitutes preparing for the next day’s preparation for baseball.
I’m not sure how that would look from behind a newspaper lowered to mustache level, but Thomas Magnum’s greater challenge might have been the insurance salesman.
“He wants to play for a long time,” Crawford’s agent, Brian Peters, said. “He feels strongly in that regimen, that it gives him an edge. It’s something he can control.”
Indeed, when the Red Sox turned their scouts loose on the Tampa Bay Rays and Crawford for the second half of last season, what they loved – beyond the obvious physical talent and production – was Crawford’s dedication to his routine. That it never wobbled. That he wasn’t so much interested in maintaining his skills through the season, but in enhancing them.
Everybody throws before a game. Crawford had a throwing program. Everybody hits. Crawford had a plan for batting practice. Everybody stretches. Crawford stretched at precisely the same time.
Crawford will be 30 in August. The Red Sox came away convinced he would not only endure as he approached his mid-30s, but improve. And that, as much as anything, is why they outworked and outhustled the Los Angeles Angels to pay him $142 million over seven years.
He was an athlete, yes. But there was more to Crawford.
He lacks an outstanding outfield arm (though it’ll play at Fenway Park), but scouts watched him work every afternoon at getting to the ball, releasing it quickly, putting it on the bag. He long-tossed for arm strength and accuracy.
He doesn’t hit for power like the prototypical corner outfielder (though his 18 home runs ranked seventh in baseball as a left fielder last year), but every first round of batting practice he let the ball get deep and drove it to left field. That, too, will play at Fenway Park. And in subsequent rounds he let the pitch decide where he’d hit it, never forcing a ball where it didn’t most easily go.
“This isn’t just a guy blessed with tools,” one scout said. “Because of his approach, he projected as a guy who was going to become a better player. Then, in the important parts of the games, he demonstrated he got up for the big moments.”
Through the lens of Boston, of the Red Sox, of an organization that believes it has built a World Series team, and of the American League East, this was not insignificant. It is indeed impressive that Crawford helped pull the Rays from years of terrible baseball and conflicts of confidence, and yet the challenge is different in Boston and New York, where winning isn’t simply a pleasant story, but an expectation, and then an oppressive part of every day.
The routine, then, carves through the center of the cacophony and the swarming distractions. The routine is trustworthy, a familiar face for the new kid, an invitation to drift into sleep at the end of the day, an honest and unrestricted path to something different.
“I knew I was headed in a new direction,” Crawford said. “New stuff always energizes and refreshes you a little bit. Knowing I’ve got new challenges, new experiences coming up, that’s what I’m excited about.”
On the day he would put on the Red Sox uniform for the first time, the morning before his press conference at Fenway Park, Crawford bumped into Ben Affleck in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the Back Bay.
“Wanna meet your new left fielder?” Peters asked Affleck.
“Get out of here,” Affleck said, thrilled, like, of course he would.
They hugged, took a picture, wished each other well.
Well then, Crawford thought, this is going to be different.
He rented a home in the Wellesley area, west of Boston, with an option to buy. He began sorting through his day, the mornings, the pick-me-up protein shakes, the drive, the Fenway experience, the cool-off drive home, how it would all fit together in a routine.
He said hello again to Terry Francona, whom he’d met a decade earlier, when Francona managed Team USA in the World Cup in Taiwan and Crawford was a 20-year-old outfielder, and then played against in the AL East, and then met with in his Houston home during the winter.
Francona had told him then, during his visit with Epstein, “We have grinders who don’t give away at-bats. So you don’t need to change one thing about who you are. That’s all we need.”
And three months later, asked if there’d been any revelations about Crawford now that he was in his clubhouse, Francona said simply, dismissively, “I knew Carl before. So, no. We knew what we were getting.”
Of course they did. Philip Marlowe could have told them that, assuming he could have stayed awake.
“Hey, whatever, you know?” he said. “It’s going to be fun, man.”