Very few people see batting practice anymore. Big league parks usually donâ€™t open their gates in time for the fans to witness this baseball ritual. The gates were open at McCoy Stadium on Friday afternoon but only a smattering of fans were in the stands when rehabbing Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford stepped into the cage and took swings with his temporary PawSox teammates.
Crawford sent line drives into the outfield alleys, stinging most of the pitches he looked at during several five-swing appearances in the BP rotation. These pitches were laid in there by a coach standing behind a small screen 45 feet away. In two hours, Carl Crawford would be playing his first game since straining his left hamstring muscle back on June 18.
The last time Carl Crawford played at McCoy Stadium, he was a 21-year-old budding star dressed in the uniform of the Durham Bulls. There was no real pressure on the gifted athlete. Durhamâ€™s parent team, the last-place Tampa Bay Devil Rays, were in desperate need of young players who could improve their chances in the American League East. Carl Crawford had a ticket in his back pocket for Tampa by the team he started tearing up the International League nine years ago.
This time around, a media horde of newspapermen, Internet writers, television and radio reporters and PawSox announcers waited for Crawford to speak before Friday nightâ€™s game against the Durham Bulls.
â€śI guess you could say itâ€™s kind of ironic that Iâ€™m facing Durham,â€ť Crawford admitted after finishing his BP. â€śThat was my team before I went to Tampa.â€ť
Back in 2002, Crawford created a buzz with his athletic talent. A former star football and basketball player in his hometown of Houston, Crawford opted for pro baseball after becoming a second-round draft pick of Tampa Bay in 1999. He moved up through the minors quickly, joining Tampa in 2002 and slowly evolving into an All-Star outfielder who could run, hit, steal bases and cover tons of ground in left field.
After signing a seven-year contract with Boston worth $142M last November, Crawford came to Boston with huge expectations. He walked into the pressure cooker and batted just .155 in April. Slowly, he pulled his average up to .243 by the time of his injury. But he looked lost at the plate against lefthanders, hitting .151 against southpaws in 86 at-bats. Crawford did recover from his April miseries to bat .304 in 29 games during the month of May and .278 in 14 June games before the injury happened.
â€śWas it disappointing,â€ť someone asked Crawford, â€śto get hurt just when you seem to have found your groove?â€ť
â€śEvery injury is disappointing,â€ť Crawford said. â€śThe timing is never good for an injury.â€ť The soft-spoken outfielder seemed determined not to reveal much during his short interview before Fridayâ€™s game, probably a good strategy when one considers how easily comments can be taken out of context in the era of instant media.
His Boston teammates filled in admirably for Crawford while he was gone. Minor leaguer Josh Reddick came up from Pawtucket (where he was batting .230) and hit over .400 for three weeks. Fifth outfielder Darnell McDonald came through with a couple of big hits after enduring an abominable batting slump of his own until late June.
The Red Sox did what great teams do when Carl Crawford went down. They smoothly covered up his absence, even taking over first place from the Yankees last week.
Carl Crawfordâ€™s job is to assimilate his skills back into Bostonâ€™s lineup. Nobody doubts the 29-year-old speedster can add more to Bostonâ€™s lineup than a hot-hitting Josh Reddick, but the memory of his early-season slump still lingers in the minds of some cynics.
â€śI feel good,â€ť Crawford, who does not seem to possess a big ego, said. â€śI just want to execute and get back on the field. I want to go about things the right way. I donâ€™t feel any limitations at all. I just want to go out there and play.â€ť
Crawford was scheduled to get three at-bats on Friday night, play in the field for a second straight game tonight, travel on Sunday, and rejoin Boston in Baltimore on Monday. He is likely to bat sixth in manager Terry Franconaâ€™s lineup against right-handed pitchers. Bostonâ€™s lineup has been extremely productive in the first five spots. A revitalized Crawford could ignite the bottom four hitters in the batting order, adding an element of speed that could shake up opposing pitchers.
â€śHopefully, it wonâ€™t take me too long to catch up,â€ť Crawford said.
And, hopefully, Boston fans and media will show patience with this talented player until he gets back in sync with the game that has made him a rich man since he first came to Pawtucket back in 2002 as a young kid with the world in front of him.