Crawford's choice: Baseball beat out gridiron
Rays outfielder had scholarship to play football for Nebraska
ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the years, the scoreboard at Tropicana Field has shown films that have provided a glimpse of what might have been had Carl Crawford pursued another path.
In them, Crawford is seen at quarterback playing for Houston's Jefferson Davis High School. All of the scenes are different, but the results are the same: Crawford runs the option, turns the corner and all of a sudden he's 10 yards in front of the defense and beating a path to the end zone.
Back then, Crawford made opposing defenses look as helpless as he does opposing catchers today when stealing second base.
One time he scored five touchdowns in a game. Then there was the time his coach was expecting the other team to try an onside kick.
"The coach put the hands team out on the line and [the opposing team] tried an onside kick," Crawford said. "Ball bounced right to me. I split the whole defense and took it 50 yards to the end zone. That was a good game for me."
Because Crawford played quarterback for a team that ran the option, he chose to sign a football scholarship to the University of Nebraska, where the Huskers employed the same style of offense.
"I knew I'd be able to run the option," Crawford said. "And that's mainly what I wanted to run. All the other schools wanted to turn me into a wide receiver or a defensive back."
Around that same time, Nebraska had a budding quarterback named Eric Crouch, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2001. What would have happened had Crawford headed to Nebraska?
The quarterback competition "would have been between me and Crouch," Crawford said. "I like my chances."
Before football, Crawford played basketball, a sport he played year round and through his junior year of high school, when he averaged 27 points a game.
Crawford played against players now in the NBA, and he played well against them, leading him to believe the NBA could have been his calling had he opted to go that route.
One can only speculate about what Crawford might have done as the Huskers' quarterback or had he stuck with basketball, because along the way he fell in love with baseball. A passion influenced greatly by Raymond Bourn, who many might know as Houston outfielder Michael Bourn's father.
The two current big league speedsters grew up in Houston together and played alongside one another from age 10 through high school.
Crawford, who lived on the north side of Houston, played for a Salvation Army team when Raymond Bourn saw something in the youngster.
"[Raymond Bourn] saw me hitting against one of the pitchers in the league at that time and just pulled a couple of strings," Crawford said. "After that he came over to my house and got me to start playing with them; we were the same age. [Michael] was athletic and I was athletic. We were always competing against each other. I think his dad wanted to win also. His daddy is a competitor. He hated to lose."
Crawford joined the East Mountain Little League team coached by Raymond.
"The Little League was on the east side of Houston," Crawford said. "He'd come by with Mike and they picked me up every day for the games and the practices."
Crawford played first base and Bourn played shortstop and pitcher. When talking about the team, Crawford stated the obvious by noting "that team was pretty good."
"[Bourn] was one of the best players, but he wasn't the best," Crawford said. "He probably was the fastest on the team. We had another guy who was the best player. They were a good team before I came around."
Crawford credits Raymond Bourn's efforts for making a major impact on his life.
"[Raymond] was kind of like a father figure," Crawford said. "He was a positive male to look up to. He never got in any trouble, treated Mike and them real nice. They had a nice little house, a yard and stuff. I joked with them that that was the first time I'd ever seen a backyard before. I can remember going in his house and my eyes lighting up, 'This where you stay?' I didn't care if it was raining on the day of a game -- I wanted to get picked up."
Crawford and Bourn did not attend any of the same schools, but they remained close through their summers playing baseball together, and they remain close today.
"We're always talking," Crawford said. "We always have that connection. We're like brothers. His dad was such a big influence in my life, we'll be close forever."
Crawford did not attend Nebraska. Instead he signed with the Rays after getting drafted in the second round of the June 1999 Draft. After signing he never looked back, shooting through the organization's farm system while showing improvements at every level. And he's remained in the improvement mode ever since, making gains each season.
Crawford is currently on track to have the best season of his Major League career, which says a lot given his previous accomplishments.
"I've been trying to make it my best season," Crawford said. "We've got three more weeks left -- we'll have to see. But I definitely hope this is my best season. I'm trying my best to play as well as I can. But I do that every year. I try my best every year. For some reason, it's been a little bit better this year."
Some believe Crawford's motivation is all about getting a ring. Others speculate he wants to cash a big check on the free-agent market after the season. Crawford allowed there is merit to both theories.
"I'd say they were right about both of those things," Crawford said. "The fact that I understand things a little better; I'm learning the game a little more, too. You never stop learning. I know it's easy to say, 'Yeah, we're winning and he's contract motivated.' But I've learned a lot over the last two years, and that's been helping me on the field this year."
Among the new items on Crawford's learning curve is being a No. 3 hitter. Rays manager Joe Maddon dropped Crawford from second in the order to the third spot to generate more offense, and the outfielder has thrived in the new slot.
Maddon's logic in making the move was simple.
"Carl drives in runs with singles and doubles," Maddon said. "Carl puts the ball in play. He's not a high-strikeout guy. We tend to strike out with runners in scoring position. Carl will not. Carl will always move the baseball, and that's what I like about him. Nobody's really spoken about him as an RBI guy."
Crawford wasn't about to disagree with the skipper, and he noted that the move "seems to help the lineup a lot."
"We've been scoring runs," Crawford said. "[Maddon] wanted to shake things up. I never looked at myself as a three-hole hitter, but it's been working for us. I've been settling down a little bit. I don't get to run as much, but still, it's been working for us as a team, so I don't have any problems with that."
In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, Major League players voted Crawford the fastest player in the Major Leagues. Given that speed, many see Crawford more as a leadoff man. Crawford sees himself as a No. 2 hitter. But if Maddon wants him lower in the lineup, Crawford's fine with that.
"These guys are smart people," Crawford said. "I've learned not to question what they say or do. So if they want me to hit in the three-hole, that's where I'm going to go. And it seems to work. [Maddon has] been pressing the right buttons this year, and this is another button he's pressed that's been right, and hopefully he keeps pressing the right buttons all the way to the World Series."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.