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Dan Shaughnessy

Signing makes for full holiday stocking

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 12, 2010

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Nebraska wanted him as an option quarterback. UCLA wanted him as a point guard. But the Tampa Bay Rays won the Carl Crawford sweepstakes when they drafted him in the second round out of Houston’s Jefferson Davis High School in 1999.

Here we are 11 years later and Crawford is a $142 million left fielder, wearing No. 13 (where are you, John Valentin?) for the Boston Red Sox.

Left field in Fenway is a special spot. It’s where Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and (gulp) Manny Ramirez served. It’s sacred sod, and now Crawford is taking his talents to the shadow of the Monster.

Crawford was introduced to the Nation yesterday morning at Fenway. His arrival coincided with the Sox 2011 ticket campaign kickoff (“Christmas at Fenway’’), and general manager Theo Epstein shamelessly offered, “Red Sox tickets went on sale a half-hour ago, and they’re going fast.’’

It was quite the hello for this speedy outfielder. Having passed his physical, with the ink still drying on his new pact, Crawford made the rounds at his new workplace. He was greeted by Sox ambassador Peter Gammons, soldiered through a press conference with a Stevie Nicks voice (Crawford says he’s catching a cold), then greeted Sox fans attending Christmas at Fenway on the EMC level.

Jason Varitek was glad to see his new teammate. Crawford has embarrassed the Sox for most of this century, stealing 62 bases in 66 attempts against Boston. He stole six bases in a game against Varitek in 2009. He swiped 35 in a row against the Sox, dating to 2005.

In Tampa, Crawford hated to bat leadoff and did not like playing center field. He should be able to avoid both roles here as long as Jacoby Ellsbury is healthy (supply punch line here). Manager Terry Francona yesterday indicated that Crawford will bat second or third.

“I don’t mind hitting anywhere in the lineup,’’ Crawford said. “Terry is the manager. Whatever lineup he makes, I’m OK with it.’’

Folks in Tampa considered Crawford polite, cooperative, and something of a stand-up guy. When Pat Burrell disrespected a bench player at a social outing, Crawford is the one who got in Burrell’s face and almost provoked a clubhouse brawl. Manager Joe Maddon applauded the intervention.

Like some other Sox before him, Crawford is prone to malaprops. Strapped for time at a Rays charity golf outing, he explained that he would only be able to stay for half of the tournament — “just eight holes.’’

Guess we won’t have to worry about him sneaking out to Pebble Beach when the Sox are in Oakland.

He is a superior athlete who is not particularly fluid nor graceful. His swing is on the choppy side. But he gets the job done. And Sox fans are going to like his defense.

I worry about his legs. Crawford does a lot of his damage with his wheels and the horrid surface inside Tropicana Field no doubt took a toll. There is also his mediocre history at Fenway — a .275 career average and .301 on-base percentage with only four homers in 320 at-bats over 76 games. Fenway doesn’t seem to amplify his offensive skills.

On Tampa’s 100-loss teams, Crawford was the player who never mailed it in. With Evan Longoria and David Price still maturing, Crawford goes down as the most popular and best player in the history of the Rays franchise.

It’s been interesting to listen to the reaction since the Sox bagged the top free agent position player in the 2010 class late Wednesday night.

Across Baseball America, this signing makes folks hate the Red Sox more than ever. The Sox for years have presented themselves as a middle-market franchise, crying about the Yankees’ ability to buy championships. Signing Crawford, especially on the heels of trading for Adrian Gonzalez, merely confirms what we already knew: The Red Sox can get any player they want. Even Mark Teixeira.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there may be carping about John Henry pouring all of his available dollars into his baseball operation. No doubt Liverpool fans would rather see money spent on Henry’s futbol team.

Here in Boston, we don’t care. We just want the Red Sox to get back into the playoffs, and Crawford can only help. Who cares if he’s overpaid? J.D. Drew is overpaid. Daisuke Matsuzaka is overpaid.

A $142 million contract for a guy who has never hit 20 homers and has knocked in more than 81 only once is, of course, absurd. But it’s the price of doing baseball business in 2010 and it’s great to see Henry committing to this entity.

Crawford said it’ll be nice to play in front of a full house. He said his 6-year-old son is a “closet Boston fan.’’ He said he’s already exchanged texts with Dustin Pedroia and has worked out in offseasons with Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. They are expected to be Tito’s high-paid grinders.

Epstein said Crawford makes the Sox lineup “deeper and more dynamic.’’ We’re all down with that.

It’s no secret that the Sox were a little boring last year. Now they have new weapons, guys in the primes of their career, playing first base and left field deep into this new decade.

Christmas at Fenway. Indeed.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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