If there is a concern about Carl Crawford with the Red Sox, it goes back to a play that occurred last Sept. 14 — and Crawford’s surprise at the rare criticism he received afterward.
Crawford, playing for the Rays, violated baseball convention by making the final out of an inning — and the game against the Yankees — at third base. His judgment came into question only after New York executed with exquisite precision. But the play was magnified because it happened against the Yankees in the middle of a pennant race.
Even now, it doesn’t seem fair to say that Crawford made a mistake by trying to reach third on a flyout down the right-field line with one out and the Rays trailing by one in the 10th inning. Mariano Rivera was on the mound. Crawford, one of the game’s fastest players, could have scored on a wild pitch, passed ball, infield hit or balk if he had been safe.
Still, the one knock on Crawford from scouts is that he occasionally displays poor instincts. And the one thing that he has yet to experience, after spending his entire career with Tampa Bay, is the intense fan and media scrutiny of a place like Boston. It’s scrutiny that will be only heightened by his seven-year, $142 million free-agent contract, which makes him the second-highest-paid outfielder of all time by average salary, trailing only Manny Ramirez’s deal with the Dodgers.
Crawford, 29, does so many wonderful things on a baseball field, he likely will dazzle Red Sox Nation to the point where fans and media discount any mistakes. He is a hard worker, a solid citizen, a player who is excited to perform at a packed home park and join a perennial winner.
If you had to bet, you would bet on Crawford making a smooth transition. Heck, even in that Sept. 14 game against the Yankees, Rays manager Joe Maddon said that right fielder Greg Golson had to make a “Roberto Clemente-ish type play” to throw out Crawford — and Alex Rodriguez had to make a brilliant tag off a short hop to finish him off.
Scouts, though, say that Crawford doesn’t always react properly on the bases or in left field, at times throwing to the wrong base or misreading situations. Granted, these are small things, and Crawford is far from the only player with such deficiencies. Unlike most, he compensates with his speed, and his positives far outweigh his negatives, 142 million times over.
Yet the perspective on his game will be different now. A questionable baserunning decision such as the one that Crawford made against the Yankees will draw far more attention in Boston than it did in Tampa Bay.
“Something like that, I probably couldn’t do in Boston,” Crawford says. “In Tampa, I didn’t have much backlash from that. Obviously, New York made a big deal out of it, like it was the best play ever or something. I imagine if it would have happened in Boston, it would have been a big deal, too. I have to try to limit those mistakes over here.
“But I don’t want to play afraid to make a mistake. That’s part of how I play. I’m going to make a few mistakes because I play so aggressively. I’m not going to let being scared of getting talked about stop me from playing aggressive, playing the way I play.”
Still, he says that the increased media attention is different, his biggest adjustment thus far. “It’s not a big deal,” he says. “But it’s still new to me.”
He has played in Boston and in New York, played in two postseasons, played in a World Series. But after the Golson play last September, Marc Topkin of The St. Petersburg Times wrote that Crawford “was taken aback by the volume and tenor of the criticism given the way the Rays play and the relaxed atmosphere they play in.”
“I saw where (Jorge) Posada said he couldn’t believe it (that he tried to go to third) and I’m like, you need to believe it because that’s how we play,” Crawford said then. “He plays against us all the time. You can’t believe it? That’s probably the first time he ever saw me get thrown out like that. Hollering about he can’t believe it. I can’t believe I was out. That’s what I can’t believe.”
The Red Sox, like the Yankees, are acutely aware that players from low-pressure markets often face culture shock adjusting to the manic northeast. Sox officials tell players that the best way to handle criticism is to accept responsibility. Be accountable when times are bad. Deflect credit when times are good.
Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, after playing most of his career in San Diego, is in a similar position to Crawford. But both players will benefit from being part of a star-studded lineup that includes Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz.
“It can get a little hectic sometimes, but the good thing is, he’s got so many good players who can relieve so much stuff off him,” says Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron, who joined the team as a free agent last season. “He doesn’t have to be The Man. All he has to do is his part.”
For Crawford, as for any player joining a new club, a good start will help. Crawford’s .284 batting average and .741 OPS in April are his lowest career marks for any month. But those numbers are far from awful; it’s just that Crawford is better in other months.
The difference in Boston, Cameron says, is that, “there will be times when he may be 0 for 6 or 0 for 7 and people will make it seem like he’s 0 for 20 . . . They get out of hand a little bit with that sometimes. A couple of days you don’t get any hits, it’s like the world is coming down.”
Crawford seems unfazed by the possibility, saying, “It’s not something I’m trying to prepare for. If I come across that, I’ll just deal with that when it comes.” As for the rest of his game, a player’s instincts generally do not improve over time. But who knows? Maybe playing for the Red Sox will elevate Crawford.
“That’s what I think. Whenever you’re around a bunch of good players like that, it definitely raises your game,” Crawford says.
Cameron agrees, saying, “The expectancy here is nothing less than a standard of greatness. When you have that kind of expectancy, you have to be on your game every day.”
It’s a new world for Crawford, all right.
In Tampa Bay, he was barely under a microscope. In Boston, the microscope is high-powered.