Editor’s note: Each day this week, Tony Lee will examine one part of Carl Crawford’s journey to major league stardom. On Tuesday, Crawford’s jaw-dropping minor-league career was recalled.
Carl Crawford should’ve seen it coming.
In his debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays midway through the 2002 season, Crawford had a hit, scored a run and drove in two to help spur a 10-run attack. Unfortunately, three Devil Rays pitchers gave up 12 runs, with four errors helping them out along the way, as Tampa Bay fell in Toronto.
It was the kind of game Crawford would see for five-plus years as a member of what was a hapless franchise. That setback in the Rogers Centre was part of a 106-loss disaster, the worst in what was, until 2008, a miserable team history. Crawford was one of the few bright spots along the way.
Through it all there were teases, moments of promise or high-profile signings that suggested the organization may be on the upswing. Crawford probably felt that tease even in the first game; he was on deck with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, dreaming of a chance to be a hero. Excitement ran through his veins.
Alas, Jared Sundberg, one of the countless members of the rabble that would inhabit Tampa Bay’s roster for years, struck out to end the game, leaving Crawford wanting more. It was an emotion he would have to get used to. Hope was often fruitless.
“I was kind of hoping it would come to me, to get a chance to drive in the winning run,” Crawford said after the loss, a 20-year-old who needed to get used to trial and tribulation as quickly as he could.
What made Crawford stand out, or should have made him stand out if anyone was paying attention to the trials in The Trop, was the fact that he rose to stardom amid such disappointment without an issue. Players with less drive or worse attitudes have succumbed to similar situations, piping up about their misery or expressing a woe-is-me attitude while making millions doing what they love. That loss of perspective can come about through persistent losing, but not with guys like Crawford. He methodically and quietly worked harder than anyone around him to become a better ballplayer, even though few would’ve noticed if he didn’t go the extra mile.
“Carl works his ass off, and he doesn’t have to,” former teammate Jonny Gomes once said. “He can roll out of bed and be the fastest guy in baseball. He can take terrible routes to the ball and still catch everything. He’s a five-tool guy with a great work ethic.”
And so, while the Devil Rays won just over 40 percent of their games from the time Crawford came up through the end of the 2007 season, the Houston native hit .296 and averaged nearly 50 stolen bases a year while rarely missing a game and playing a dazzling left field. He was, for all intents and purposes, the stalwart of the worst team in baseball.
Three days after that 12-10 loss to Toronto in Crawford’s major league debut, the Devil Rays took a 4-0 lead on Tim Wakefield in Fenway Park, only to see the Red Sox score 22 unanswered runs for an 18-run whitewash. It was another example of hope being dashed in humiliating fashion.
The next day, Crawford began a nine-game hitting streak, during which he would hit .433 (16-for-37) with three triples and seven RBIs. So began a pattern that would carry the headstrong speedster through some otherwise difficult years in Tampa Bay.
By embracing the pattern, Crawford eventually earned his reward.
Check out Thursday’s story on Crawford’s days as a winner in Tampa Bay.