Editor’s note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will examine one part of Carl Crawford’s journey to major league stardom. Last week, Lee told the story of Adrian Gonzalez, from the slugger’s childhood to the recent trade to the Red Sox. To read the stories on Gonzalez, click here.
Due to year-round warmth and a love of items wrapped in cowhide and horsehide, Houston has had its share of outstanding athletes, particularly on the baseball diamond. Roger Clemens, Josh Beckett, Adam Dunn, Nolan Ryan, Andy Pettitte, Scott Kazmir and James Loney are among those that grew up in the Houston area and honed the skills that made them special.
However, perhaps no athlete in the city’s history has the legend of new Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford.
“He is our hero,” Jefferson Davis High School principal Jaime Castaneda recently said of famous alum Crawford, a superstar in baseball, football and basketball.
It was at JDHS that Crawford, who grew up in the city’s Near Northside neighborhood, first felt the tug from all sides that comes with having hero status, the same sort of tug that prompted Boston to make a seven-year, $142 million push for the Houston hero’s services.
As a teenager, not only was Crawford recruited by college powerhouses in all three sports, he even had to turn down requests at the high school level.
“Our track coach hated me because I didn’t want Carl to run track,” said Crawford’s high school baseball coach, Gerald Garcia, who once saw his prize pupil rip 19 hits in a stretch of 21 at-bats.
Indeed, Crawford was a phenom unlike any of the aforementioned standouts, and so superior athletically that he had bigwigs in each sport watching and waiting for his next move.
The football programs of Nebraska, Michigan, USC and Oklahoma wanted the speedster, who reportedly ran an almost unimaginable 4.21 in the 40-yard dash in high school, to play quarterback. UCLA’s Steve Lavin heavily recruited Crawford to play point guard amid a run of six straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Cornhuskers appeared to have the inside edge, getting a letter of intent signed by Crawford. But when the Tampa Bay Rays drafted Crawford in the second round of the 1999 draft and offered him “first-round money,” the man who once called baseball his “third love” was hooked.
Only it wasn’t entirely about money. There was something about what it took to get ready for a baseball game that stood out to Crawford at a young age. Crawford had seen his uncle, Jack Crawford, play ball in semipro leagues around the Houston area, after a three-year stint in the then-California Angels system, and admired the pride that came with donning the jersey, pants, stirrups and cleats.
“Basketball and football were something that you played easily, so those were uniforms that you wore all the time,” Carl Crawford told The Tampa Tribune last year. “To get into a baseball uniform was a big deal. I wanted to do that real bad. When you’re young, you don’t really know too much about the game. You just see the uniform, all the bright colors. I remember he took me to one of his games, and I saw other kids in uniforms, and I wanted to do it, and that’s when I really wanted to play real bad.”
So much so that Crawford eschewed what figured to be four years of glitz and glam as the big man on campus to toil in towns in West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina, just for a chance to help lift a losing franchise from the ashes.
With the help of a few others, he did just that, which should come as no surprise to those who knew him when.
Check back Tuesday for a look at Crawford’s time in the minor leagues, when his decision to stick with baseball became more than justified.
Photo from LostLettermen.com.