The legend of Carl Crawford didn't start on the baseball diamond but rather the football field, where as a young man he could throw, catch and, of course, run so well that scouts would come from all corners of the country to see the phenom from Jefferson Davis High School in Houston.
He put up 50 points in his first game at quarterback, and by the time he was 16, Crawford was not only one of the nation's most highly regarded prep players, he was the school's starting point guard.
By the time the 1999 Draft rolled around, word had gotten out about Crawford's extreme athleticism, but there was a catch. He'd already signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Nebraska.
The scholarship scared away some teams and Crawford literally fell into Tampa Bay's lap in the second round, joining No. 1 overall pick Josh Hamilton as the future of the young franchise.
"You could tell he was really special from the beginning," said Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, who coached Crawford in his second professional season with the Class A Charleston RiverDogs. "And what made him different was his speed."
Stories of Crawford's speed started from a Little League diamond in Houston, where a dozen of his Mt. Zion Angels teammates would race each other for bragging rights. It wasn't until Crawford won one of those -- beating out current Astros outfielder Michael Bourn -- that he realized he was fleet-footed.
And while there was never a question of Crawford's raw ability, when he showed up as 17-year-old to Rookie-level Princeton for his first professional season in 1999, the former three-sport standout was still learning the game.
Crawford hit .319 and stole 17 bases in 19 tries. But, unlike Hamilton, he was not promoted to Charleston until the following season.
"He worked so hard to catch up," Montoyo recalled. "He was never really the [outspoken] leader type, but he led by example. He played by example, he ran every ball out. You could just tell he was special."
The manager often would find Crawford at the ballpark early, working to improve his swing. The one day Montoyo decided to give Crawford a day off, the young outfielder was so mad he wouldn't speak to Montoyo, relaying his message through the team's hitting coach.
"He was just a kid out of high school," Montoyo said. "But man, he came to play."
Promoted to Double-A Orlando for the 2001 season, Crawford batted .274 and led the Rays in hits, RBIs, runs scored and stolen bases. His only weakness was plate discipline -- he struck out 90 times, 12 fewer than the previous campaign.
"He would throw the ball and hit the ball so well and he didn't really go to the plate with a game plan," Montoyo said. "You figured the moment he learned the strike zone he would be unstoppable."
So the organization encouraged Crawford to wait for the pitch to get deep in the strike zone, then hit it to the opposite field, transforming free-swinging hacks into quality line drives. The process wasn't easy -- and was far from complete -- when Crawford zoomed through half a year at Triple-A and up to the Major Leagues in late 2002.
He still might have been learning the game, but the 20-year-old proved a quick study, batting .259 with nine steals in 64 games.
For the next five seasons, Crawford improved his batting average while keeping his strikeouts in check. He also has become the face of the Rays franchise, not just as a tremendous athlete but as a complete baseball player.
Minor League career breakdown
1999: Crawford started his career in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, batting .319 with 17 stolen bases in 60 games.
2000: Crawford hit .301 with 55 extra-base hits for Class A Charleston and was named one of the Southern Atlantic League's Top 10 prospects. |
2001: Crawford got off to a slow start but evolved into one of the top players in the Double-A Southern League. He batted .274 while leading the team in hits, RBIs, runs scored and stolen bases. |
2002: The Tampa Bay chapter of the BBWAA named Crawford the Devil Rays' Most Outstanding Rookie. He also was selected International League Rookie of the Year at Triple-A Durham. After playing 85 games for the Bulls, he was promoted to the Majors. |