- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Studies have shown that moving can be a stressful experience in any person's life. When you're carrying enough personal baggage from one city to the next to fill a fleet of U-Hauls, even the security of a $142 million contract only goes so far to ease the transition.
Carl Crawford knows the drill. When the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired him from the Red Sox in a nine-player trade in August, Crawford headed west with a bum elbow, negligible self-esteem and a tarnished image from two lost seasons in Boston. It didn't help the public perception when reports surfaced that the Dodgers were forced to assume Crawford's contract as the price for landing Adrian Gonzalez, the prime target of their affections.
Three weeks don't officially qualify as a turnaround, but it appears the change of scenery has been liberating and therapeutic. Although Crawford's numbers have dipped in the past week, he is hitting .314 with a .400 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot in 19 games as a Dodger. Combine his performance with Barry Zito's impressive start in San Francisco and Vernon Wells' April rebirth in New York and we have the makings of a theme: nine-figure flops who are showing they still have some game left in them.
Teammates and Dodgers personnel think it's less a case of a new-and-improved Crawford than a return to the old Carl -- the guy who made four All-Star teams, led the American League in triples and stolen bases four times and played the game with an innocence and zeal that made him a fan and clubhouse favorite for nine seasons in Tampa Bay.
After a disastrous tour of Boston, Crawford is back in his element. He loves the mild weather and the laid-back atmosphere of Los Angeles. His game seems well-suited for the big parks and spacious gaps of the National League West. And he's struck a nice rapport with the Dodgers' hitting coach -- a big, congenial, red-headed guy who has weathered a few storms of his own.
Every day, Crawford and Mark McGwire chat about something, whether it's the pitcher the Dodgers will be facing that night, the quality of the at-bats Crawford had the day before or the state of baseball and life in general in Los Angeles. McGwire and John Valentin, the Dodgers' assistant hitting coach, are always available to look at video, head to the cage for some soft-tosses or just engage in some light-hearted banter to keep the lines of communication open.
The low point of Crawford's April came on Jackie Robinson Day, when Major League Baseball flagged him for a fashion faux pas he made in homage to his personal hero. More often than not, there's a bounce in Crawford's step regardless of the shoes he's wearing.
"I definitely lost confidence over the past two years," Crawford says. "To hear all the stuff being said about you definitely puts you in a deeper hole. But I've been gaining the confidence back, slowly but surely. I've been working with those guys and it's been wonderful for me.
"I just try to stay positive at all times, even when things are extremely bad. Even when everybody has nothing good to say, you have to be the only person who believes. That's the main thing."
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Oddly enough, Crawford's resurgence is coming while Dodgers are floundering as a group. They rank 29th in the majors with 61 runs scored, and they're batting .195 as a team with runners in scoring position. If those numbers fail to improve relatively quickly, McGwire can expect to catch some heat. Hitting coaches usually do.
But McGwire gets a big thumbs-up for his early influence on Crawford. When the two men met for the first time this spring, they clicked almost instantly.
"I just thought he was a nice guy," Crawford says. "Easy to talk to. He didn't seem like he had one of those chips on his shoulder that some ex-players have."
The players who worked with McGwire during his previous tenure in St. Louis could have told Crawford that the tenets of the Big Mac approach to hitting are relatively simple. McGwire understands the importance of sound mechanics, but he doesn't want his hitters so focused on their hands and hips that they overcomplicate matters. He thinks 17 inches of plate are too much for a hitter to cover, so it's important to carve the plate into 8½-inch segments and focus on one half or the other. McGwire also stresses taking the quickest route possible from Point A to Point B -- the fewer loops, hitches and detours, the better.
Although casual observers might think otherwise, McGwire disdains a cookie-cutter approach and has no illusions that he's going to make everyone a power hitter. As former Cardinal Lance Berkman observed in 2011, "He's not trying to make everybody into miniature Big Macs. He looks at your swing and says. 'These are the things you're doing well. Let's go with it.'"
In his first sit-down with Crawford, McGwire spent more time listening than talking. The Carl Crawford Reconstruction Project began with a heart-to-heart reflection on what had gone wrong in Boston. Then McGwire let Crawford take the lead in coming up with solutions.
"The bottom line is you get to know him first and then ask questions," McGwire says. "What makes you tick? What's your routine? In Boston, I think he got out of a routine. They have a certain way of doing things there, from what I understand. I said, 'Well, this is a different place, and we're going to do what Carl wants to do. And when Carl gets ready, this is what Carl is gonna do.'
"I asked him, 'What have you done when you've had success?' He said, 'I've done A, B, C and D.' So I said, 'Perfect, we're gonna do A, B, C and D.' There were certain things he wanted to do to get himself going, and he's taken off."
Crawford's quick start is rooted in part on some overdue mechanical tweaks. He's more closed and less spread out in his stance, which has allowed him to maintain better balance and do a more efficient job of reaching the outside pitch. Crawford has always been more of a slasher and an athlete than a work of art at the plate, and he can still take some funky hacks when his top hand comes off the bat and everything else flies in the vicinity of the first-base coaching box.
"He's always been kind of unorthodox," says a scout. "But there's strength and explosiveness. He just whacks. Hit it hard and run as fast as you can."
If Crawford has shown growth in one particular area, it's plate discipline. According to FanGraphs, he has swung at 23.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this season, compared to 35-40 percent in Boston. As a young player in Tampa Bay, Crawford never warmed to the responsibility of leading off, but he has tempered his natural aggressiveness in the quest to make opposing pitchers work and seems more comfortable hitting with two strikes.
In the Dodgers' 7-4 victory over Baltimore on Sunday, Crawford went hitless in two at-bats. But he walked three times and saw a total of 25 pitches in five plate appearances. Crawford has seven extra-base hits this season, and McGwire wants him to use the gaps and hit a lot of line drives and ground balls to take advantage of his wheels.
"I'm enjoying it," McGwire says. "In the three years I've been a hitting coach, I've never really had the opportunity to work with somebody with really good speed and a good eye like he has."
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Crawford's dedication to the game and commitment to putting in the hours have never been a question. The Dodgers found that out in spring training when he arrived at 5:30 a.m. each day to rehabilitate his elbow and be ready for Opening Day.
"He works too hard," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "We actually have to slow him down."
Nevertheless, until Crawford re-establishes himself, he'll be stuck with a reputation as a player who chased the megabucks to a big market and failed miserably. Never mind that he simply piggybacked on Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals and capitalized on the euphoria of the moment. He will forever be lumped in with Edgar Renteria, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Julio Lugo on the list of the Theo Epstein front office's big whiffs.
Crawford is accountable enough to realize he didn't play well in Boston, but he seems anxious to let people know his shortcomings on the field weren't the result of some internal character flaw. His media interviews reflect the conflict within. Although he is by nature an upbeat person and wants to put the Boston fiasco behind him, that sorry chapter in his career provides motivational fuel in his desire to put himself back on the map as an elite player.
"When you don't play well, everybody gets on you and says you're stealing money," Crawford says. "But they don't see all the hard work you're doing to try to play well. In my case, the worse I did, the harder I tried. And for some reason, that didn't work. It ain't like I was just sitting around on a couch waiting for 7 o'clock and saying, 'Oh, I'm about to go play.' That's what you would think if you listen to what people say.
"I'll always carry it with me, because it did so much damage to the inside of me. I have to keep that in me and remember how that feeling felt. I feel like that pain and stuff I went through there is going to carry me through the rest of my career."
Hey, whatever works. The Dodgers owe Crawford $102.5 million through 2017, and no matter how freely Guggenheim Baseball throws money around, it will look much better in the form of a productive, All-Star left fielder than a sunk cost.
Dodgers first-base coach Davey Lopes, for one, thinks Crawford has the potential to be a productive hitter, defender and base stealer for the duration of his contract, even though it runs through his 36th birthday.
"He may not steal 60 bases, but he can steal 40," Lopes says. "It's just a matter of how often he gets on base and how much he wants to push himself. I read a lot about speed guys not being able to do things at 31. All last winter I read 'Michael Bourn's legs are gone.' It's absolutely absurd to think that. I was 40 years old when I stole 47 bases in a utility role. But people in this business like to generalize and throw everybody into the same pot. It's ridiculous."
In the grand scheme of things, players fail to live up to big free-agent contracts for a variety of reasons. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by the expectations or view the money and security as a license to coast. Or maybe the team just made a miscalculation, and the investment was destined to be a bust from the start.
When Crawford reflects on his time in Boston, he sees a perfect storm of bad at-bats, injuries, self-imposed pressure and negativity preying on his mindset and approach. He didn't experience a lot of sunny days in New England.
"Those two years, man, everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong," he says. "What are the chances of that happening? I don't really know what to say, because you can't make excuses or nothing. You just have to take everything that comes at you."
So far, so good in his new baseball home in Southern California. Crawford has a healthy elbow and strong legs beneath him, a game plan for every at-bat and a new pal to help him keep his head straight in the batting cage and the video room. He'll never be able to erase the past. But he still has time to resurrect a career.