Watch Coco Crisp in batting practice, advises reliever Kyle Snyder, who from the Red Sox bullpen gets a closer view of the center fielder than most. Watch him not in the cage, but in the field. Those dazzling basket catches he makes in games don't occur by happenstance.
"You can see that Coco works at it, as hard as just about anybody I've seen," said Snyder. "He takes a lot of pride in his defense."
Last weekend in Detroit, the Sox lost a game in 13 innings on a ball Crisp couldn't catch, Ivan Rodriguez's liner into the right-center-field gap. The striking aspect of that play was not that Crisp didn't make the catch, but that anyone believed he even had a chance. That's what comes from playing the kind of defense Crisp has exhibited this season.
"I know we watch him every day," said DeMarlo Hale, who coaches the Sox' outfielders. "But I've seen the other guys, and I don't know if there's anyone in the league playing a better center field than Coco Crisp.
"You see him run down some balls, you're saying, 'He's not going to get them. Yes he is. Yes he is. Wow.' That's what you end up saying. You try not to be a fan, but sometimes you watch a game and think about some of the plays we've made defensively, not just in the outfield, and you say, 'Wow, those were some good plays.' "
The fans are not the only ones spoiled by Crisp. He hadn't even launched into his dive on one play and infielder Alex Cora already had raised his fist in triumph.
"That was in Atlanta," Hale said. "That was bad positioning by the coach [himself]. It was the pitcher, [Tim ] Hudson. We had Coco in right-center."
Crisp ran it down in left-center. "When the ball is hit," Hale said, "you're saying, 'Go get it.' And he usually does."
Crisp's defense has improved markedly from last season, when he sometimes ran some questionable routes. Hale said people should remember that although Crisp came up through the minors as a center fielder, the Indians moved him to left when they got Grady Sizemore. With time, Crisp has become much more comfortable back in center.
"That breeds confidence," Hale said. "I just know he's a competitive person, and a good player. He wants to help this team win."
Crisp wasn't born yet when Willie Mays, who made the basket catch his signature, retired in 1973. Other center fielders have employed a similar style, but Crisp is making it an art form again. The practice shows.
"Most outfielders do work like that," Hale said. "It's important for them to see the ball off the bat and the surface they're playing on, whether the grass is thick or fast. They have to have that in their mind. Also the background. In some places, the background is tough, so you've got to get comfortable with that.
"The basket catch? One thing is confidence. The other is that it allows him to stay in very good balance while running. He's not trying to turn. And sometimes it's the only way to catch it, when your arm is extended over your head and beyond."