Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Legacy of Carl Crawford

Last Tuesday, on the same night he felt the collective sympathy of all male-kind, Carl Crawford celebrated the eighth anniversary of his major league debut.

Following his inconspicuous 1-for-4 debut on a 78-degree summer night in Toronto in 2002, Carl Crawford became an oddity in the dome of little talent. Through the years, he became our first home-grown star – the first selected to the all-star game for his merit, not just because someone had to be there in a Devil Rays cap.  He was the first Devil Ray to consistently lead the league in something positive – the only shining piece amongst Naimoli-funded scrap heaps until Scott Peterson claimed he could fix Victor Zambrano in five minutes. But whereas Scott Kazmir and his strikeouts put butts in the seats, Carl Crawford and his stolen bases never drew public enthusiasm. Perhaps because stolen bases are often the first prize of expansion teams searching for a quick buzz. Many a pitiful team has put a speedster on their roster in the hope he steals a base or two. Chuck Carr owes his Marlins career to this practice.

As time progressed and the franchise metamorphasized from perennial chum to a well-oiled machine that could play havoc with Empires and stymie the dominance of Nations, Crawford was forged into the leader of the new respectable Rays. He was the model of consistency, a piece to build a dream on.

Rarely however is a slap-hitting speedster the type of player to bring a team from worst to first. That title normally goes to cornerstone first basemen like Albert Pujols or once-in-a-generation moundsmen such as Stephen Strasburg. Keeping Crawford was the Sternberg Regime’s first declaration of unorthodoxy.

While the Rays exercised the Devil and began to win more often, Crawford began to lose whatever position he had as “franchise player”. His steady 60-watt stardom was rapidly eclipsed by the Hollywood looks and Jeter-esque poise of Evan Longoria. While Evan jumped off helicopters and talked to pretty girls on trolleys, Carl held down position number seven, just as he did in 2002.

Despite no longer being the mainstream face of the Rays, Crawford has continued to see his own career accomplishments grow. While taking the field with more teammates than anyone else in franchise history, he has become the team’s career leader in numerous categories, some due to his skill and others based strictly on his tenure.

In these last eight years, Carl Crawford’s impressive tenure has put him in elite company in the local sports community. By playing in approximately 58% of the Rays franchise games, Crawford has played a role in a more of his team’s games than legendary Tampa Bay Bucs cornerpiece Derrick Brooks (under 50%). Only Lightning mainstay Vinny Lecavalier has played in a larger percentage of his franchise’s total games (nearly 64%).

Unfortunately, Carl Crawford receives far less acclaim than Brooks, Lecavalier, Warrick Dunn, Marty St. Louis, Mike Alstott or others who sit in the pantheon of recent local legends.  This lack of fame can in part be attributed to his personality – a quiet mix of consistency and professionalism – but some of the fault must lie in his location of daily business.  Whereas the other aforementioned Tampa area sports stars played a majority of their games within Tampa city limits, where prominent powerbrokers sitting high in the SunTrust building can be reminded of their presence and corporate support is more accessible, Crawford almost anonymously plied his wares over the cultural chasm that is the Tampa Bay.

For many who do see him on a regular basis, Crawford’s consistency has numbed them of his accomplishments.  No longer the only shining diamond in a domed coal mine, he has become “Just Carl”.  A 3 for 5 day, with a triple and two stolen bases?  That’s “Just Carl”.  Same as it has been since the days before Google went public, before Martha Stewart went to jail, and before American troops tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, there are also those who attempt to make Crawford’s lack of standing a reflection of his ethnicity or upbringing.  They point to his astrological neck tattoo as a symbol of his “street” persona.  They point to where he was raised, the Near Northside of Houston, not far from the “Fifth Ward” made famous by old-school rappers The Geto Boys, as proof that he cannot be a pillar of community.

Whereas casual racists attribute BJ Upton’s flaws to his race, those leaping to geographic and cultural conclusions in order to pin flaws on Crawford show nothing short of overt racism, fear of the unknown, or a sad journalistic tendency to grasp at straws.

The sad reality is that Crawford will never be more popular than he is now and as his career winds down his exploits will be less frequently celebrated. Despite carving a niche as one of the best leftfielders in today’s game, his skills are not quite those of an all-time great, a step or two below those of Rickey Henderson.  Unfortunately, he was the victim of being born 30 years too late and not playing during the 1980s, a time when his athleticism, speed, and defense would have been celebrated since his first day. Playing in the aughts meant Crawford had to wait for baseball’s steroid testing to eradicate a bastardized style of play that made him an anomaly. If he played during the 80s and not during the Bondsian Era, perhaps he would have competed with Henderson, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and other great speedsters who were born to run.

Perhaps one day, when all is said and done, Crawford finds a love similar to that given to Willie Wilson, one of the better supporting actors in the cast of long forgotten championship Royals teams, coincidentally also led by a famous third baseman.

Crawford is the perfect reflection of the Rays’ rise to respectability, quietly efficient and cost effective.  With the exception of a recent possibly ill-worded compliment of his former field general, he has made few waves in the Rays’ ocean.  He has been our prophet, foretelling days of greatness, and after his departure, whether following this season or sometime in the future, he will be the first homegrown Ray with his number retired.  On that day, we will raise his 13 to the rafters – a tribute to the steady consistency and professionalism of “Just Carl”.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Devil in BJ Upton

One of the biggest problems with baseball is that it’s long season tends to grind out all sense of personality. While players start the season with pep and vigor, by the dog days of summer most of their individual uniqueness is all but washed away. There are some traits however that endure the season. Some of these labels even stay attached to a player for their entire career.

These traits and how players perform under their guise is what makes a player’s career all the more interesting. If we say Derek Jeter is a leader, and he fails to motivate the Yankees to overcome some obstacle, is he still a leader? If so, how will he be defended? If we say David Eckstein is a scrappy hustler, how do we react when he doesn’t dive during a day game in August in St. Louis where the temperature is over 100 degrees? Do we let him slide? And then of course, there is a label of “clutch”, which seems to have a life of its own, clinging like kudzu to players who have come up big at some point in their career.

There is no more labeled player on the Tampa Bay Rays than BJ Upton. Since becoming a regular in 2007, he has been the most fascinating player to watch. Sure, Evan Longoria has become the Hollywood face of the team, Carl Crawford has been a model of consistency, and not since the early 90s Braves staffs, has a pitching staff wowed the world with its youthful talent. However, it is BJ that remains the most interesting.

BJ is a collection of skills and personality rarely seen on a baseball field. Where there are similar comparisons is on the hardwood. Basketball players such as Allen Iverson, Greg Oden, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James have all had their talents and motivations poked, prodded, and analyzed to the point of overkill by dozens of writers, commentators, and the blogging bourgeoisie. Among the best of these is, a collection of intellectual bloggers who take a meta view of the NBA and its employees.

BJ Upton is a FreeDarko writer’s dream subject.

BJ is a similar to basketball player standing 6’10 with insane ups, a smooth jumper, a knack for rebounds, excellent ball handling, and the ability to thread the needle with a key pass. He has all the physical tools to be great, yet never achieves perpetual greatness. The NBA is full of players like this. Players who, if they had the killer instinct of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, would redefine their position and possibly the game.

BJ Upton is Lamar Odom in cleats.

Whereas Lamar Odom has found a place in the shadow of Kobe Bryant and in matrimony to Chloe Kardashian, where the occasional superstar performance is enough to suffice, BJ Upton is still stuck with the “loafer” label. It was a label also stuck on former Met outfielder Kevin McReynolds throughout his career, even as he finished third in the 1988 MVP race.

Like BJ, there was talk McReynolds wasn’t “in love” with baseball. That he would rather be doing something else, but baseball paid the bills. With McReynolds, it was hunting and fishing. BJ, meanwhile, is filming commercials to gather support to bring the World Cup to Tampa Bay and is involved in other soccer-related promotions. Perception is a cruel wind to temper.

Upton detractors also have two other arrows in their quill. One resides on the societal third rail of race and the other is based on BJ’s own flesh and blood.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention BJ Upton as a reflection of our still-lingering perceptions on race. Although made mainstream by African-American writer Scoop Jackson in a poorly worded October 2008 ESPN article, the BJ race issue has taken on many of the same traits of the Obama presidency. Like him and be labeled a “new wave intellectual”. Attack him and face being labeled a racist. There was a definite irony in last week’s rumors that had Upton, a Virginian, in a trade for a white man named Lee.

From the seed of Father Bossman comes another obstacle in the acceptance of son Melvin Emanuel, Jr.  As his own sibling prospers in the same chosen field, many have compared one to the other, even going as far as claiming the Rays got “the wrong Upton”. That is amazingly unfair. There are very few instances where the comparison of brothers is warranted. As far as I know, the Upton family didn’t tinker in the field of genetic manipulation and create two clone sons and DNA doesn’t work like that. Just ask the Brothers Aybar, who are seldom publicly compared.

There is more to BJ Upton than any stereotype, be it familiar or racial. He is, as I discussed, a complex collection of physical attributes. His one weakness, however, may be that he relies heavily on the approval of his peers. He was the little brother to Cliff Floyd during Uncle Cliffy’s time with the team and still appears to follow the lead of Carl Crawford, especially on the field.  This is important as only four years ago BJ was surrounded by the nefarious trio of Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, and the ghosts of Josh Hamilton’s career.

Barring any drastic change in personnel or personality, 2011 will be one of the most interesting years in the career of BJ Upton. If Carl Crawford departs as expected, BJ will be the senior Ray. Will he ally with Evan Longoria in Crawford’s departure? Will they be the Castor and Pollux of the Rays, the twin constellation in a galaxy of Rays stars? Or will Upton still bear his crosses, struggle with perception, and carry with him the stigma of being one of the few position players left to wear the title “Devil Ray”?