Published June 13 on MLB.com
TORONTO — Carl Crawford, as shy and quiet of a star as you’ll find in the Major Leagues, is uneasy with the amount of reporters crowding his locker on a cool Sunday morning in Toronto. He shuffles on his feet, scratches his head, laughs apprehensively and nervously knocks over a pair of bats leaning against his locker.
The 29-year-old has been able to keep a fairly low profile on the Red Sox current nine-game, three-city road trip which is ideal for Crawford who shies away from the spotlight whenever possible. He anxiously wants to go to go to the cages and lay into some batting practice pitches, protected from the media spotlight under cover of the batting practice netting.
But that cover will have to wait momentarily, as everyone wants to know his thoughts about returning to the sunshine state.
“It’ll be cool to go back and see everybody again,” the unassuming Crawford told a dozen reporters when asked about returning to Tampa Bay for a three-game series starting Tuesday. “I’m just going to treat it like another road trip.”
But for Rays fans and Red Sox fans alike — this is nothing close to an average road trip.
Crawford, of course, spent the first 9 seasons of his Major League career with the Rays, helping the team to the World Series in 2008 before the club and the player divorced in 2010 when the organization simply could not afford to continue paying him for his services.
The Rays didn’t even bother to offer Crawford a contract this past offseason as a gaggle of Major League suitors lined up to try to entice him to join their operations. The Los Angeles Angels showing some of the most aggressive interest, but ultimately Crawford landed in Boston with the Red Sox, staying in the pressure-cooker American League East where four out of five teams routinely finish with records above .500.
“I definitely didn’t want to leave the AL East. I have a sense of comfort here,” Crawford said. “Being in the same division — you know the pitchers, you know the stadiums.”
Familiarity, it seems, was important for Crawford as he prepared to sign what will likely stand as the longest, most lucrative deal of his career. But that familiarity has not been on his side so far, as Crawford has suffered through an extended early season slump in 2011 and struggled to find his stroke at Fenway Park.
Surely Crawford never thought coming to play in Boston’s century-old ball park would be an issue. The 29-year-old was a .275 career hitter (88-for-320) at Fenway Park when he played for the Rays, clubbing four home runs, 24 doubles and 35 RBIs in 76 games.
But compare that to a .246 average in Crawford’s 30 games at Fenway as a member of the Red Sox this year and clearly something has gone awry. The production is still on track as Crawford has one home run, seven doubles and 14 RBIs in less than half as many games at Fenway as he played with the Rays. But the hits are down which is concerning for a player whose speed doesn’t matter if he’s not getting on base.
There was any number of factors for Crawford’s early season struggles. Some called it just a routine slump, while others blamed the pressure of moving to a fast-paced, baseball-mad market from Tampa Bay where life is considerably more relaxed.
But one of the main factors was undeniably playing at Fenway where the fans are loud and the early-season weather is less than ideal for a kid who was born in Houston and spent the last decade of his life in Florida.
“It’s no secret — it’s warmer [in Florida] and it’s cold in Boston. It’s always nice when I’m in the sun,” Crawford said. “But you still have to play — everybody’s in the cold. I think at the time, I was going through so much other stuff that the cold definitely didn’t help.”
It is more than a relief, then, that Crawford returns to sunny Florida this week to play a three-game series against his former team. Back in the sun, Crawford is hoping he can continue his recent tear — he’s hitting .302 with 2 homers and 10 RBIs in his 10 games in June — and even turn the volume up a notch at a domed ballpark where Crawford has always felt comfortable.
Crawford is a.304 hitter in more than 600 games at Tropicana Field, the indoor home of the Rays. Obviously the bulk of his career totals have come under the Trop’s arching roof just based on the amount of games he’s played there but his best averages have come there as well.
In the 9 ballparks where Crawford has played 35 games or more in his career, he has put up his best averages in batting (.304), on-base percentage (.345) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.804) at Tropicana Field. Even his batting average on balls in play — the percentage of times Crawford has made contact with the ball and been credited with a hit — at the Trop is higher than the other eight parks, with a .338 mark which suggests his luck in St. Petersburg is more favorable than in other confines.
Crawford has also had decent luck in Boston where he career BABIP is .317, but standing in left field at Fenway Park wearing a Red Sox uniform can be a lot tougher than wearing one with Rays across the chest. The microscope hanging over the Red Sox at all times is incredibly fine and the pressure is amplified when playing in front of the boisterous denizens at intimate Fenway.
“It’s a little bit different,” Crawford dryly said of playing at Fenway vs. Tropicana Field. “There was a lot of adjusting to everything.”
The fans were sure to remind Crawford at every step this season of his slow start, one of several on the team as the Red Sox limped out of the blocks and lost 10 of their first 12 games.
Of course, Crawford has always been a bit sluggish out of the starting gate, notching a .267 career batting average in April while hitting .297 or higher in each month from May through to the World Series. More than anything, Crawford’s slow start was par for the course in a typical season for the tattooed slugger.
But as Crawford quickly learned in 2011, he definitely wasn’t in St. Petersburg anymore. This was Boston, home of some of the most passionate, fierce and vitriolic fans in the league — a market where both successes and failures are blown up to magnificent proportions.
Hitting .155 in April isn’t the sort of thing that goes unnoticed.
“The first month was a struggle,” Crawford’s manager Terry Francona understated this past weekend. “But I think the rest of the way we’ll get Crawford — which is good.”
Crawford — as Francona coins it — would refer to the aggressive swinging four-time All-Star that has hit over .300 five times and led the League in triples and stolen bases four times in his 10 Major League seasons. It’s the five-tool outfielder who can cause havoc on the basepaths at the top of the lineup with his .335 career on-base percentage or drive-in in runs in the heart of it with seven straight seasons of 55 RBIs or more.
But what the Red Sox have gotten so far this season — in return for a seven-year, $136 million investment —has been nowhere close to what was advertised.
For Crawford, the year started with a fizzle as he struck out three times in the season opener against the Rangers and didn’t get his first hit until two days later when he stroked a single. Despite his historically slow starts, this April was by far the worst of his career.
There was a ten game wait until Crawford hit his first double. There were just five extra-base hits. There were more than three times as many strikeouts as there were walks. And there was just four stolen bases, the lowest April steals mark in the career of a player who has been one of the most prolific and successful base stealers of the last decade.
But more glaring than what there was in April, was what there wasn’t.
There wasn’t a triple, for the first time in his nine full seasons as a Major Leaguer. There wasn’t a single sacrifice fly — and just two hits — in ten plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out. And more than anything, there wasn’t any fear or reluctance from opposing pitchers, who attacked Crawford relentlessly, no longer afraid of what the strapping outfielder could do with the stick.
“I think it was a lot of stuff,” Francona said of his expensive left fielder’s struggles at the plate. “[Playing in Boston] is hard for a lot of guys. There’s a lot of things going on. It kind of snowballed and took him a while to pick himself up.”
Of course, that Fenway microscope can be flipped over as well — a fact Crawford quickly found out in a clubhouse where he is no longer the superstar.
Crawford walks in the company of giants — the boisterous former MVP Dustin Pedroia, the fan-favorite workhorse Kevin Youkilis, the incomparable David Ortiz — and has had to adapt to a new world where he is no longer the leading man, simply a supporting star on one of the most impressive ensemble casts in recent baseball history.
But when you talk to Crawford, it’s easy to get the sense that he likes things that way.
“Things are getting better for me. Obviously I didn’t have the start I would’ve liked to have. But now it seems like things are opening up for me,” Crawford said. “I’m focusing a little better. I’m getting a little more comfortable. Gaining a little more confidence.”
That could be part of the reason why Crawford has settled in and found a familiar swing in an unfamiliar spot in the lineup.
Crawford took more than 4,000 at-bats from 2004 through 2010, but just 15 of them were taken lower than fourth in the batting order. But in Boston it took Crawford exactly four games to match that career total when Francona dropped his struggling hitter to seventh and eventually eighth in the lineup half way through April.
“I’ve been there my whole career, so I’m not going to lie and say I don’t,” Crawford said when asked if he misses hitting at the top of the lineup. “But it’s just one of those things that I have to adjust to with what’s going on and where I’m at.”
No one likes a demotion, especially someone with a $14 million dollar salary. But Crawford has taken the move in stride, hitting .257 out of the seven and eight hole this year. That average isn’t where the career .294 hitter would like it to be but it is a remarkable improvement over his .111 average when hitting from first to third earlier in the season.
Recently, Francona bumped Crawford up to sixth where he’s experienced his best success of the season, hitting .352 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in just 13 games.
“It’s something I’ve just had to accept,” Crawford said of being one of the most highly-paid bottom half hitters in the Majors. “It’s been working for us as a team and you definitely don’t want to mess up that chemistry.”
Chemistry may be the best way to describe what the Red Sox have been doing of late, cruising to a 37-16 record after starting the season 2-10.
Seemingly every hitter in the lineup is on a hot streak as the team has rattled off nine straight wins and has won 13 of the 17 games since Crawford moved to sixth in the batting order. The team will hit St. Petersburg Tuesday in an all-out sprint, riding its recent blitzkrieg offense that has scored more runs in its last two games than the Rays have in their last ten.
And Crawford’s solid numbers at Tropicana Field means the former Rays franchise player will be more than happy to see the city again. But will the fans at Tropicana Field be happy to see Crawford?
“I know there’s a lot of mixed emotions down there about me coming to Boston so I’m not sure what kind of reception I’ll get,” Crawford said. “Nobody wants a bad reception. Hopefully it’s something good.”
A small, unscientific poll of the Rays clubhouse — BJ Upton called Crawford the greatest Ray in franchise history — found his former teammates feel the same way.
Unlike many professional sports breakups, there is no bad blood here between Crawford and his ex-team. The humble outfielder is as well liked as he ever was.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him,” Rays shortstop Reid Brignac, one of Crawford’s closest friends on the team, said. “It’s not like it’s new or surprising anymore. You’re used to seeing him in a Red Sox uniform now.”
And as he heats up at the plate, it seems like Crawford is finally starting to get used to it too.