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The Crawdelli factor

Carl Crawford is ready to make another routine basket catch.

He moves calmly into position, fixes his eyes on the small object _ and deftly drops the package of bacon into his Publix hand-held shopping basket.

It's 10:35 on a recent weekday morning, and a handful of people in the store are casting furtive glances at the tall, muscular man wearing sweatpants, a Charles Woodson-Los Angeles Raiders jersey and a cell-phone wire hooked to one ear.

They either know he's the speedy starting leftfielder of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, or they just know he's somebody they've seen on TV.

"Is that Carl Crawford?" asks a woman nearby.

He quietly strolls up one aisle and down the next, snagging a bottle of fruit punch, chocolate chip cookies, buttercrust bread, pork chops, a quart of ice cream and margarine.

Minutes later, he's breezing out of the Gateway Crossing Publix on Roosevelt Boulevard, slipping into a white Cadillac Escalade pickup and heading for his townhouse a few minutes away.

"When I go places, I can tell people may be looking at me," says Crawford, 21, with a grin. "I'm sure some of them are wondering, "What is he doing in here?' But I'm just like anybody else. I need to come buy food to eat."

In another part of St. Petersburg, on another summer morning, Rocco Baldelli, ace rookie centerfielder of the Rays, prepares to make a nice grab.

Of laundry.

He pulls a handful of clean clothes from the Whirlpool dryer in a small upstairs room of his downtown apartment, and tosses another load in the washing machine.

"We've got a long homestand so I have a chance to catch up on the laundry," says Baldelli, also 21.

So much for the glamorous, never-a-dull-moment world of two kids in the big-league spotlight: the outfielding tandem of Crawford and Baldelli _ or, simply, "Crawdelli" as the Rays' front office has dubbed them.

They are the two youngest players on Tampa Bay's roster and have been among the struggling Rays' biggest highlights this season.

They're single. They've got money _ both will earn about $300,000 this season (Baldelli got a $2.25-million signing bonus as a first-round pick in 2000; second-round pick Crawford got $1.553-million in 1999). They've got high profiles around town.

But that doesn't mean Crawford and Baldelli have been leading the lifestyles of the rich and famous, with endless limos, fancy restaurants, entourages and late nights on the town.

Mostly, it's a lifestyle of endlessly aching muscles, late-night pizzas and falling asleep in front of the TV. It's a world of rented furniture, rigid schedules, frequent phone calls to their families in distant home towns _ Houston for Crawford, Woonsocket, R.I., for Baldelli _ and a daily grind that leaves little time to socialize.

Making it to the majors takes extraordinary ability. But away from the crowds, away from the cameras and the ballpark, life can be extraordinarily ordinary.

Plenty of guys their age would be working summer jobs, getting ready for their senior year in college. But playing side by side in the bigs?

The last time a pair of 21-year-olds started the season in the same outfield for a major league team was 31 years ago, when Greg Luzinski and Mike Anderson did so for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Crawford and Baldelli have given curmudgeonly Rays manager Lou Piniella a few reasons to smile this season. When both have reached base at least twice in the same game, Tampa Bay is 10-5 _ not bad considering that's about a third of the Rays' wins.

Baldelli has been the stud. He wowed fans by starting the season with a 13-game hitting streak. Through Monday, he led the team in hitting with a .309 average, including 18 doubles, seven triples, five homers, 16 stolen bases and stellar play in the field.

Crawford, a second-year player, started hot as well, though he has tailed off. Still, he's batting .268, leads the team with 19 steals, and has posted an impressive two-year fielding percentage of .991.

"They're not anywhere near where they're going to be," New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said of the twosome earlier this season. "They are feisty youngsters . . . and they have ability."

Baldelli, in particular, has caught the attention of opponents and the national press. A film crew from Major League Baseball Productions recently spent a day with him for an Inside Baseball segment. Sports Illustrated and USA Today have written about him. But Baldelli, shy and down-to-earth, would be just as happy, it seems, not to have the attention at all.

For one thing, he says, it distracts him from his job. But beyond that, he isn't comfortable being in the spotlight away from the field.

"Some people are very social and would love people around them all the time," he says. "For some reason, I have no problem going out and playing before 20,000 or 40,000 fans; I mean, that doesn't affect me at all. But as soon as someone makes me the center of attention, or if I have to talk in front of a crowd of people, it's something I really don't like."

But like it or not, all eyes are on the young guys.

The night before, the Rays dropped another close game at the Trop. Now, at just past 11 a.m., Carl Crawford is sitting on a chair inside his master bathroom, getting another close shave and haircut without having to leave home.

Sim Adams, who handles house calls for Hair Design barbershop, is trimming and retrimming Crawford's razor-thin sideburns and goatee. It's one of Crawford's few big-league indulgences.

"I usually get it cut twice a week," says Crawford. "It's important. Look good. Feel good. Play good."

The People's Court is on the TV in the adjoining bedroom. Crawford watches a lot of TV from the large bed across from it. "ESPN SportsCenter is like the nightly thing after the game," he says. "You go home, lay back, turn on SportsCenter and fall asleep to it."

The place looks impressively neat _ the bed's made and there isn't a messy pile of clothes to be seen. Instead, on the walls and dresser tops are his 2002 Devil Rays Outstanding Rookie award, his Rays publicity shot and a photo of his girlfriend, whom he met six months ago in Phoenix. She lives out of state, but has helped a lot with decorating.

The haircut over, Crawford heads downstairs. In the living room, there's comfy couch and chair, a coffee table with matching pottery, a wall-sized mirror yet to be unpacked and hung, and a TV with a PlayStation 2 hooked up.

Crawford woke up around 9:30 a.m., and now he's hungry. He'd gone to Wendy's the day before and he was spotted, turning the attempt at a quick bite to eat into an autograph session. So often Crawford prefers simply to cook his own meals.

He opens his refrigerator _ stocked this day with cartons of Capri Sun and orange juice, milk, Eggos and other snacks _ and pulls out a dozen eggs and some Pillsbury biscuit mix. Then, like an old pro, Crawford grabs a pan from his fully stocked kitchen and prepares a half dozen biscuits. He tosses them in the oven, whips up some scrambled eggs, pours some maple syrup, and sits down minutes later for a breakfast that would easily get the seal of approval from his mom, Leisha, back in Houston.

"It's kind of hard to mess up eggs," he says. "My parents are both really good cooks, so my brother and I never really had to do anything of that. I didn't start learning to do stuff 'til I had to get on my own and got hungry."

Crawford spent enough time around home cooking growing up _ his grandfather and father run a family restaurant called Burns Barbecue in Houston. So the idea of fixing his own meals never worried him.

"I make easy stuff _ chicken, spaghetti, hot dogs," he says. "I mean, I might go out with some of the guys to eat after a game, depending on how we played. But most of the time, I really don't like to be out that much."

After a night game, Crawford generally rolls out of bed around 10:30 a.m., eats, runs a few errands. Sometimes he squeezes in a trip to Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg or International Plaza in Tampa.

"I like to dress nice and I have to be comfortable, so I'll go clothes shopping at the mall, usually early in the day when everybody is working," he says.

Then, it's back home for lunch, a nap and then off to the cavernous Trop around 2:30-3 p.m. for daily 30-minute workouts and game preparations.

"Once I get there, the outside world doesn't exist," he says. "It's all about who I'm facing tonight, the game," he says.

Often, he doesn't return home until midnight or later. If he hasn't eaten the post-game dinner spread at the park, Crawford will bring something in or make it, channel surf on the TV for a while, doze off to sleep, and start it all again the next morning.

"It's everything but glamorous," he says. "To the outside world, it may look that way, but it takes a lot out of you to play 162 games a year. We don't just show up every night at 7 and play _ there's the workouts, the lifting, hitting the cage, so much physical and mental preparation. But hey, I'm not complaining. There's no place else I'd want to be."

Crawford's townhouse, which he moved into in February, was the place to be during spring training. Teammates like (former Ray) Greg Vaughn, Damian Rolls and Jason Tyner were frequent visitors, vying for bragging rights on Crawford's PlayStation, watching movies and hanging out.

Now, the townhouse is mostly quiet, except for the times Crawford turns up his stereo, playing his favorite rap and hip-hop CDs. Unfortunately, that hasn't made fans of some of his neighbors.

"I think somebody's telling on me or something, because I've gotten a few letters (from the management) complaining that I play my music too loud," he says. "But I still play it. Maybe that's why my neighbors never say hi to me."