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Tampa Bay Rays' Carl Crawford is determined to put his career back on track

Carl Crawford, tripling during a spring training game, battled serious injuries for the first time in his career last season and said the mental toll was just as bad.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Carl Crawford, tripling during a spring training game, battled serious injuries for the first time in his career last season and said the mental toll was just as bad.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Tucked in the back of one of his new books, Bill James contemplates the odds of baseball immortality. He considers the recent production and age of today's best players, then calculates their chances of reaching 3,000 hits.

Derek Jeter, for instance, is 34 and has more than 2,500 hits. James figures he has a 93 percent shot at 3,000. Ken Griffey has almost 2,700 hits but is 38, and so his chances drop to 30 percent.

I bring this up only because Carl Crawford's early success gives him an obvious place in this discussion. At 27, and with 1,111 hits, the book puts Crawford's chances to reach 3,000 at 15 percent. That's better than, say, Carlos Beltran or Chase Utley, but it is a significant drop from a year ago when James' formula gave Crawford a 28 percent chance.

So do the actual numbers mean anything? Not to Crawford, who says he's too young to worry about days so far ahead. But there are some implications to be considered from this sudden downgrade, and Crawford is not hiding from that idea.

The truth is, his career veered off the road last season, and the Rays leftfielder is determined to regain control.

"Physically I was beat up, but it was tough on me mentally, too," Crawford said. "Just knowing people are looking at you saying, 'What's wrong with him?' Giving you that look that you don't like because you know what they're thinking.

"It was definitely a humbling experience. Baseball is humbling enough without having to play hurt. So now I don't take anything for granted. Nothing is guaranteed. I definitely look at everything a whole lot different now."

Until last season, Crawford's career had been one gradual arc toward fame. Season after season, the batting average increased. The power spiked, too. He was one of seven players in history to reach 1,000 hits and 300 stolen bases by age 26. Crawford was a two-time All-Star and carried the most recognizable name in franchise history.

Which made 2008 that much harder to grasp. The Rays were winning like never before — and no one could appreciate that more than Crawford — but he was plagued by nagging hamstring problems. He didn't run as much. He tinkered with his batting stance to find a more comfortable position. And then he missed seven weeks during the pennant race with a hand injury.

"I never had any kind of injury problems before. That was the first time I ever experienced any real pain," Crawford said. "It was a big adjustment, and I wasn't sure how to deal with it."

•••

It is a little past 7 a.m., and the sun is barely peeking out. All is quiet at the Charlotte Sports Park except for the rhythmic pounding of ball against wood in a batting cage just outside the clubhouse doors.

Crawford gets to the park earlier than a lot of his teammates. He likes the solitude. He likes knowing he can get his work done before the cage gets too crowded. He likes knowing his future is in his hands.

Crawford attacked the offseason with similar purpose. He skipped his usual training center in Arizona to work in Houston with a therapist who specializes in safeguarding hamstrings. Which makes sense since Crawford's legs have been one of Tampa Bay's greatest assets for quite some time.

In his first days with the franchise, Crawford survived with speed. If he hit the ball in the dirt, his speed could turn it into a hit. If he took a wrong route in leftfield, his speed could turn it into an out. His all-around skills grew every season, and his statistics bear that out, but Crawford could always depend on his legs like few other players.

Which is why he is so enthusiastic about the upcoming season. Because, for the first time in a long while, he says his ankles and hamstrings feel great. And, now, he can combine that speed with the experiences learned in recent seasons.

"The stuff I've done in the past was just on ability," Crawford said. "Now I'm starting to really get to know what I'm doing. That's why I'm excited now; I'm just waiting to see how things develop. I'm still a young guy, I'm still developing, I've got a lot left in the tank."

•••

One by one, they have all departed. First, it was Josh Hamilton. Then Delmon Young. Eventually Rocco Baldelli. All outfield cornerstones, all high draft picks, all unrealized potential in Tampa Bay. In each case, the reasons for divorce were different, but that does not change the fact that they are all gone. And Carl Crawford remains.

Sometime this summer, Crawford should play in his 1,000th game with the Rays. Not only will that be a first for the organization, it would make Crawford a rarity in the modern era. Only about a dozen current major-leaguers have exceeded 1,000 games while spending their entire careers with the same franchise.

For the longest time, this was Crawford's burden. For six consecutive seasons, he was on the field when his team lost its 90th game of the season, and not a lot of ballplayers could, or would care to, make that claim.

Yet, today, Crawford knows better than anyone else about the journey from nowhere. He has played in a World Series, he makes a handsome salary (a team-high $8.25 million), and he is still younger than half the guys in the lineup.

"All the guys in here are always saying I'm old," Crawford said, laughing. "I feel like I've got more energy than anybody in here. I don't think I'm going to let them call me old yet."

Why should he? He may be the all-time franchise leader in games, at-bats, batting average, hits, triples, runs, stolen bases and (in a few more weeks) RBIs, but Crawford is too busy to reflect on what he has already done. Five months shy of his 28th birthday, he is theoretically entering the prime of his career.

He has too many days left to dwell on days past.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Reversal of fortune

Since Carl Crawford's first full season in 2003, his numbers had shown a pretty consistent upward trend, until last season:

YearGABRH2B3BHRRBIsSBBA

20031516308017718955455.281

20041526261041852619115559.296

20051566441011943315158146.301

2006151600891832016187758.305

200714358493184379118050.315

20081094436912112108 5725.273

Tampa Bay Rays' Carl Crawford is determined to put his career back on track 03/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:57am]
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