Only thing Carl hasn’t stolen: Attention

By Bill Chastain
Updated: September 2, 2009

Carl Crawford

Carl Crawford

ST. PETERSBURG — Carl Crawford used to joke with reporters that where attention was concerned, he held a position under the radar and would remain there until one day he would just explode.

Consider the explosion detonated.

For years, Crawford labored in semi-obscurity for the Rays.

While the franchise struggled, Crawford tirelessly carved out a name for himself. And while ESPN never seemed to show his daily highlights, including his speedy stealing on the bases, his peers recognized what unique talents the native of Houston brought to the game.

“Carl is definitely one of the most underrated players in the game,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. “That’s probably because of the market he’s in, where he’s played. This guy has five tools. He’s a tremendous athlete. He can beat you in so many ways — with power, average, steals, his glove, his arm.

“He’s the whole package. He’s probably in the top 10, maybe top five players in the game, as far as I’m concerned. There are players, and there are hitters. Carl’s a player. He’s one of the best.

I love him.”

Based on the fact Crawford has won four American League stolen base titles and has hit over .300 three times in his career, it’s remarkable he has remained under the radar as long as he has.

Last year afforded him with his first real extended national exposure when the Rays advanced to the World Series, where they lost to the Phillies in five games. But that wasn’t the true Crawford, who was playing on dinged-up legs in addition to coming back from a hand injury. Now he’s healthy.

“I can’t even explain about how happy I am about things now that I’m healthy again,” Crawford said. “After going through what I went through, trying to play with injuries, I learned a lesson. It’s been nice to get back to elite status. I didn’t know if I would be able to return to form or not.”

Crawford has ranked first or second in the AL for stolen bases for most of the 2009 season in addition to having a stellar offensive season. Entering Wednesday’s games, he’s currently tied for first in the Majors with Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury at 55 steals while also hitting .311 with 60 RBIs in 127 games.

Texas manager Ron Washington used the word “terror” when describing Crawford between the lines.

“I still see him being the dangerous guy that I’ve always seen,” Washington said. “He’s an experienced player now, and he’s come into his own. I think when they first got him they thought he could do what he’s doing; I don’t think they’re surprised, it just took him those years to catch up. They always thought he could hit .300. They always thought he could steal 60-70 bags. He’s a talent.”

Andy Pettitte of the Yankees would not commit to who was the better base stealer among Crawford, Chone Figgins, Brian Roberts and Jacoby Ellsbury.

“Those are guys that when they get on, you know they’re going to run,” Pettitte said. “Usually, you have a hard time getting them at second.”

Detroit catcher Gerald Laird was happy to single out Crawford as “one of the best in the league.”

“You know when he gets on, he’s probably going to take a chance,” Laird said. “All I can ask for is the opportunity to throw him out.

“I think he’s a good base stealer. He’s getting better with years. He definitely knows what he’s doing out there, and his speed helps him. He’s probably one of the fastest guys in the league. I’d say him and Figgins are right there. He’s got to be probably one of the best.”

Crawford opened some eyes while winning MVP honors at this year’s All-Star Game in St. Louis after making a game-saving catch. He smiled when asked how that feat and others would discontinue his low-level flight through the league, a change he doesn’t quite believe himself.

“In Boston and New York, those kinds of cities, they’re really serious about their baseball, they know me,” Crawford said. “But most places, I’m still under the radar.”

To prove his point, Crawford cited a poll that appeared in a national publication this season in which he wasn’t ranked among the top 50 current Major League players. He keeps that publication as a motivator.

“People who picked that list actually played the game,” Crawford said. “That’s frustrating to me. Every time they leave me off those kinds of lists like that, it makes me want to take my game to another level.”

Base stealing in particular. Once Crawford is on the bases, chaos follows.

“I’m right there where I want to be as a base stealer,” Crawford said. “I think you can always get better. But right now I’m probably at one of the highest points of base stealing, and I haven’t been even getting good jumps.”

Not exactly the news American League teams want to hear.

“My ankle is better, but I’ve got to get used to getting better jumps again,” Crawford said. “That’s something I’ll work on next year.

I used to get better jumps before. Ever since I had to learn how to work with my sore ankle, my jumps haven’t been as nice.”

Efficiency is important to Crawford.

“I want my percentage to be high,” Crawford said. “I don’t like to get caught. It’s just one of those things where you have to run sometimes, and you’re going to get caught. But I definitely don’t like to get thrown out. I want my percentage to be high. That’s important to the team.”

Baseball wasn’t a high priority for Crawford as a youngster, rather basketball captured most of his attention. He played the sport year-round, and in his junior year at Houston’s Jefferson Davis High School, he averaged 27 points a game.

“I was a slasher man, I got to the rim so easy,” said Crawford, his easy smile spreading across his face.

The inevitable question had to be asked: “Could you throw it down?”

“If I had to, you know,” Crawford said of his dunking ability.

Crawford played against players now in the NBA, and played well, leading him to believe the NBA could have been his calling had he opted to go in that direction.

And then there was football, which showcased Crawford’s unique athletic abilities, too. Ask him about his best memories from his football days, and he’ll tell you about scoring five touchdowns in one game. And there was the onside kick.

“The coach put the hands team out on the line, and [the opposing team] tried an onside kick,” Crawford said. “Ball bounced right to me. I split the whole defense and took it 50 yards to the end zone. That was a good game for me.”

Crawford was an option quarterback and signed a scholarship to play football at the University of Nebraska. The Huskers ran the same offense he ran in high school.

“And I knew I’d be able to run the option,” Crawford said.

“And that’s mainly what I wanted to run. All the other schools wanted to turn me into a wide receiver or a defensive back.”

Around that same time, Nebraska had a budding quarterback named Eric Crouch, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2001.

The quarterback competition “would have been between me and Crouch,” Crawford said. “I like my chances.”

Nobody will ever know if Crawford might have been the Huskers’ quarterback or if he would have won the Heisman Trophy because somewhere along the way he fell for the game of baseball and signed with the Rays, shooting through the organization’s farm system while showing improvements at every level. And he’s remained in the improvement mode, making gains each season.

“He’s turned into a real good hitter over the last couple of years. He’s gotten a lot better,” Pettitte said. “Anytime you’ve got anybody who can steal a base, when you know they’re going to run and they still steal it, it’s a distraction. He’s a real good hitter, he’s got a little bit of power, he can hit a home run, and if he gets on base, he’s usually going to be on second.”

Steve Henderson, former Major Leaguer and current Rays hitting coach, served as the organization’s hitting instructor when Crawford joined the Rays’ organization and he immediately recognized the youngster’s raw talents.

Initially, the athleticism captured Henderson after seeing Crawford beat out a grounder to second base for a base hit. But there was more to Crawford than simply athletic skills.

“What he did was continue to work at it to try and get better,” Henderson said. “He’s never satisfied. And that’s what I love about him. Never satisfied and he’ll do anything he needs to do to win a ballgame.”

Henderson now works with Crawford daily in the batting cage, and his admiration for Crawford’s work ethic is evident.

“He’s got a lot of talent, but this guy is in the cage early every day,” Henderson said. “He’s got a routine that he does. I mean, it’s everything positive about him. If I had anybody to set a pattern for everyone, it would be this kid here.”

Henderson attributes Crawford’s baseball intellect as the final piece for making him the complete player he has become.

“He’s very intelligent up there at the plate,” Henderson said.

“People talk about his raw ability, but he’s really good at making adjustments. And he learns the game.

“A Major League pitcher shouldn’t be able to get you out the same way twice. If Carl gets out one way, he goes and makes that adjustment where it won’t happen again. And that’s what’s good about him.”

While Crawford is a unique player, his future with the Rays is not definite. The Rays have a $10 million option on him for the 2010 season, then who knows what.

The price tag for Crawford the free agent might simply be too much for the Rays’ checkbook, because controlling the payroll is such an integral part what the Rays need to do in order to remain successful. In addition, the Rays have the likes of Matt Joyce, Fernando Perez and Desmond Jennings waiting in the wings.

Crawford said he and the Rays have not talked about a long-term deal at this point since the season is in progress and such a negotiation could be a distraction, but it’s clear he would like to remain a Ray.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Crawford said.

“I’d like something to happen. I’m just not sure what their plans are.

It’s important to me to stay here because this is the only team I’ve been with my whole career. Nowadays, guys aren’t staying with one team.”

“It’s always nice to finish something you started.”