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He's a go-go

Straight from central casting, Crisp ready for action

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. -- Hey, check it out, if you can shift your eyes long enough from the sun, the sand, the beach volleyballers, the roller bladers, skateboarders, joggers, and bikini-wearing dog walkers on the Strand. Isn't that the beach house Cameron Diaz lived in as Natalie in ''Charlie's Angels"?

And you know the one over there, the three-story blue building with the long white balconies? That's the place where Donna, Kelly, and David hung out when they were going to college in ''Beverly Hills 90210," and the place Kim Basinger ran into after landing her spaceship out front in ''My Stepmother is an Alien."

That's not cool enough for you? All right, let's pick out somebody famous. How about that guy sitting over there on the bench, the one wearing the mechanic's shirt, with the label ''Grumpy" over his heart and the motto of the place on his sleeve: ''Gas and Grease, Guaranteed Dissatisfaction."

He may not be A-list, but give him time. He's a rapper who writes his own songs, he's developing a TV reality dating show among other projects, he owns a music label, he has a sister who's a figure skater and did Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials as a kid, a daddy who was a boxer, a close confidant and mentor known as ''Big Money," and a PR guy -- get this -- who is the son of one of the great names of the disco generation, Tony Orlando.

Oh, and did we mention that this guy is the new center fielder for the Red Sox and has a name -- Coco Crisp -- guaranteed to make people remember him, even if they're not at all ready to forget the guy he's replacing, Johnny Damon?

What do you mean he doesn't look the part? Just because the hair is close-cropped instead of flowing below his shoulders, and the facial hair is this little wisp of a thing on his chin, instead of the Russian Revolution look?

Go ahead: Ask him if he knows Johnny Damon.

''I don't know him," says Covelli Crisp softly, in what record producer Scott Schorr calls his ''killer voice," his legs stretched out in front of him on a day too perfect to be real. ''I know of him. I might have been doing some jogs one day and given him one of these" -- he breaks off a friendly salute-- ''but I don't know him. I just know his statistics.

''But if you're asking me to come in there and fill his shoes, if you want me to jump into his shoes and pour my cement into them and fill 'em, yeah, I mean it's difficult for me to try and act like him or try to play exactly like him. It would be difficult for me to mimic him.

''But if I go in there and play my own game and succeed, it won't be difficult. If I go and play my own game, people will slowly forget what was there before, similar to when he got there at 26 and people suddenly forgot who was behind him. He came in and people loved his game. If people accept me similar to the way they accepted his game, then it will be a matter of standing in my own shoes out there and filling them in, instead of filling his."

The name game
The real name is Covelli. His father, Loyce, the boxer who got KO'd, saw hamburgers floating around his head and decided the restaurant business might promise a better and definitely less painful future, was called that as a kid -- short, his son said, for Machiavelli.

Coco? Well, you know there had to be a grandmother in that story, actually a great-grandmother, Wilda Smith. ''She used to call me 'Co,' " he said. ''It was 'Little Co, come sit with me.' " His sister, Sheileah, the cute one in the KFC and Pringle ads, and his godbrother, Marcus Andrews, another child actor who partners with him now in his production company, they lengthened it to ''Coco," and the nickname stuck.

The newspapers all called him Covelli, not that there were many stories about him in high school. He was changing schools so many times -- a problem with a grade at this school, a conflict with a coach at that one, an undeserved (he insists) ''F" in Spanish at another school --there was hardly a chance to get noticed playing baseball, even though Coco, by his own reckoning, was the best Little League player in California.

Crisp finally settled in long enough at Inglewood High, a long bounce pass from the Forum where another Inglewood High grad, Byron Scott, played guard for the Lakers, and close to his father's burger place, Quick N Split, to play well enough his senior year to attract the attention of Southern University.

He never did play baseball there -- there were transcript issues, which probably shouldn't come as a shock after four high schools in four years -- but that's when Big Money intervened. If you play baseball in the inner city, chances are Big Money knows you. In Crisp's case, it went well beyond that.

Big Money is Bob Moore, a strapping, 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pounder who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues with the Giants in the '80s, then made it part of his life's work to mentor kids who were willing to learn what he had to teach him.

One of those kids was Crisp, and Big Money believed in him enough that he contacted a friend from his big league days, Darrell Miller, the former Angels catcher now scouting for the club, and told him he had to see Crisp play.

''So I brought him on a scouts' team out here," Miller said. ''I'm old school, so I put him at shortstop. If you can run and you can throw, I let you play shortstop and play your way off there. Play shortstop, second base, and center field.

''I watched him a few months. You could see the kid had some serious ability. He was athletically gifted, the skills were coming fast, and he had this tremendous work ethic. He worked so hard, he'd take thousands of ground balls. That kind of work ethic, he was a can't-miss."

That's what Miller told Bob Fontaine, the Angels' scouting director, and Fontaine gave him the green light to sign him. Crisp still remembers the day, sitting at Jerry's Deli in Marina Del Rey, signing the contract.

The only problem was, Crisp was still registered in college. He wasn't eligible to be drafted. ''I didn't know there would be a problem," Crisp said. The commissioner's office voided the contract. Instead of being angry, Miller steered Crisp to another school, Pierce Junior College, in the San Fernando Valley. ''There are people you meet in this life that you like," Miller said, ''and people you meet in this life you just love. Covelli was a kid you just loved. A great kid with a great demeanor."

(OK . . . say it. When you first read all that stuff about rapping, acting, producing, and living on the beach, you took this guy to be some really Hollywood high-maintenance type, didn't you? Not even close. The kid is not shy -- he talks a good game -- but it all comes lightly dusted with a sugar-coating, just like a [sorry] breakfast cereal. And he doesn't even like the beach that much. He rents a place a half-block off the Strand because his wife, Maria, loves it, and enjoys taking pictures of their new daughter, Amaile Kamryn, with daddy in the sand. But when he sees sand, all he can think of is the running he does daily between the lifeguard shacks, and the sprints up the sand dunes, before he peels off to practice with Big Money at nearby Darby Park. That's where the little kids love to congregate and watch, because if Coco misses a ground ball, they know he'll do pushups in response, then hit them some grounders and make them do the same when they miss them, laughing and exercising right alongside them.)

Second effort
Crisp settled into Pierce, was moved to center field, and had a nice season. Bob Lafrano, the coach, said Crisp reminded him of Spiderman. The scouts came calling, except for the Angels. Miller's bosses, not surprisingly, had lost interest. The Cardinals took him in the seventh round in the 1999 draft; he was the 222d player picked.

''Bing, bang, boom," Miller said. In Single A ball, Crisp was named the Cardinals' minor league player of the year. He was in Double A New Haven, hanging out with his host family in July 2002, when he got the news he'd been traded to the Indians in a deal for pitcher Chuck Finley. A couple of weeks later, Cleveland center fielder Milton Bradley needed an emergency appendectomy, and Crisp was called up to the big leagues. Game Boy was replaced by a kid who sounded like something you pulled out of your cupboard.

''Who knew rebuilding could be so much fun?" cracked one scribe.

Crisp made his debut in Anaheim, close enough for family and friends to be there. He walked, stole a base, and scored a run in his first game, then had three hits his second. Miller got a phone call from a tearful Loyce Crisp, thanking him for what he'd done for his son.

Indians manager Eric Wedge said he was never sure what the team had in Crisp, who had been pegged as a utility outfielder. ''Story of my life," said Crisp, who watched the Indians keep bringing in outfielders -- Alex Escobar, Ryan Ludwick, Jody Gerut -- only to beat back their challenges.

He went back to the minors after Bradley recovered, then hit .360 in Triple A Buffalo before the summons came again in summer of 2003, this time for good. Escobar was sent away, and eventually Bradley, after a falling out with Wedge, was, too.

Grady Sizemore, the organization's best prospect, finally dislodged Crisp from center field this past season, the Indians moving the switch-hitting Crisp to left, where he hit .300 with 61 extra-base hits in just his third season of 400 or more at-bats in the big league.

A big hit
Not surprisingly, Cleveland fans took to the hustling Crisp. He cut a rap song, ''We Got That Thing," which he wrote for an album featuring big league players (and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith) called ''Oh Say Can You Sing." Record producer Schorr was impressed. ''Zero hint of ego, laid-back and soft-spoken," he wrote of Crisp, who performed the song at MLB's party at the All-Star Game. He and godbrother Marcus came up with a reality dating show they call ''A Bucket and a Tank of Gas." The gimmick is that a well-heeled guy pretends to be broke; he's given a beat-up car -- the bucket -- and very little else to try to impress a young woman on a date. At the end of the show, his real identity is revealed -- they used actor Rashaan Nall in the pilot -- but if the woman had earlier expressed no interest in pursuing the relationship, then it was the guy's call if he'd see her again.

Crisp had tried some acting himself as a child, but it never got serious. ''I'd go on auditions and only read the cue cards," he said. ''That's it. Never put any emotion in it."

He plays the game with considerably more flair, which is why he expects Red Sox fans will eventually be won over.

''They're going to do what they're going to do," he said. ''I'm going to go out there and have fun, crash into a couple of walls. If they enjoy it, they do. If they don't, they'll say, 'Hey, don't hurt yourself.'

''I'm going to go out there and play the best I do. If they enjoy watching me play, then that's good.

''If not, I'll tell them to watch Manny. He's going to hit a home run."

Audio Listen to Crisp sing "We Got That Thing" (Courtesy of Amazon.com)
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