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Fine tools, hard work

Crawford augments natural ability with a dedication to training and an attention to detail

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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HOUSTON — Ray Bourn wasn’t one of those Little League coaches who considered it a successful day if all the kids had fun. He wanted to win.

So after his Mt. Zion Angels won the first game of a district tournament in 1990, Bourn stuck around to scout the two teams playing in the same bracket. That was when he spotted Carl Crawford for the first time.

Crawford was a 9-year-old first baseman, a player so precociously talented that he was supposed to be on a team with older boys that day. Instead, he stuck with a team sponsored by the Salvation Army that was culled from residents of Houston’s gritty Fifth Ward.

“He had one hit and then another,’’ Bourn said. “I stuck around and kept watching and he had a hit the third time he came up. I loved how he swung the bat. I’ll never forget that day.’’

Bourn returned home and told his son Michael about the player he discovered and how he planned to lure him over to the Angels.

Michael, now the starting center fielder of the Houston Astros, raised the pitch of his voice to imitate his reaction.

“I said, ‘Daddy, the Salvation Army? Ain’t no way they have a player who’s any good,’ ’’ Bourn said. “But my dad saw it. He told Carl’s coach he wanted to take him to a camp to show him a few things. But he went and talked to Carl’s momma and signed him up.’’

With Carl and Michael in the lineup, the Angels soared. Crawford, like his new coach, craved winning and came to love baseball. Prodded by Bourn, Crawford stuck with the sport when others he knew dropped away.

“It’s not an easy sport for a black kid from the city,’’ Crawford said. “You have to make a commitment. Mike’s dad, he instilled that desire in me. I can remember him always being, ‘Win, win, win.’ I wanted to win anyway. I think you’re either born with it or you’re not. The combination of those two really made it where I just wanted to do my best all the time.’’

The burgeoning young player from the Salvation Army team became one of the best high school athletes Houston has ever produced — talented enough to merit scholarship offers to play quarterback at Nebraska or point guard at UCLA. But he chose baseball, embarking on a career that would take him to the game’s highest levels, all the way to a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox.

Crawford doesn’t like to acknowledge the part good timing can play in a person’s life. He has always measured success by sweat, believing hard work will supersede factors out of his control.

But when he thinks of that day in 1990 and how fortunate he was to cross paths with the determined Ray Bourn, Crawford can’t help but shake his head.

“I don’t like to think about it,’’ he said. “Maybe I’d be playing football. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. It seems like the stars were aligned for it. It’s crazy when you think about it.’

Prototype outfielder Less unlikely, but perhaps equally fortuitous, was the timing that led to Crawford signing with the Red Sox in December.

A free agent for the first time in his career, Crawford was certain not to be retained by the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays. At the same time, the Red Sox had failed to make the playoffs for only the second time in eight years and were in desperate need of a player who could increase their outfield production and bring back television viewers who had drifted away, uninterested in a team whose goal seemed to be making each at-bat as long as possible.

The Sox were something worse than bad. They were boring.

Crawford was the perfect remedy. At 29, he is one of eight players in history to have at least 100 triples, 100 home runs, and 400 stolen bases. Last season was the best of his career as Crawford hit .307 with 19 home runs and 90 RBIs.

Crawford’s speed plays well in both aspects of the game, creating runs and preventing them.

“You know what really stands out when people ask me about him?’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Our dugout is on the first base side at home. So many times I’ll see a ball hit to left field and your immediate thought is, ‘Oh, no.’ But then you know it’s Carl. Then all of a sudden you see the gap close and you see the ball caught.’’

As baseball slowly emerges from the inflated statistics and biceps of its Steroid Era, Crawford is the prototype outfielder of a new age, a player with skills beyond the ability to hit the ball over the fence.

Crawford’s agents embraced that theme, marketing him to teams by way of an 18-minute video delivered on a new iPad. The presentation included testimonials from fellow players and a study that showed how well he compares with Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente and projects a rise in his power numbers.

That the Red Sox felt the same way soon became evident.

Good fit in Boston The Los Angeles Angels, like the Red Sox, had money to spend and were coming off an unsatisfying season. Unlike the Red Sox, they offered a more relaxed atmosphere, a place where a baseball player is a celebrity only in uniform, not while stopped at a traffic light.

Los Angeles wanted Crawford badly. But when the Angels set a Dec. 8 deadline for him to decide, the Red Sox reacted swiftly with a landmark offer.

One of Crawford’s agents, Brian Peters, called to say Boston was being aggressive. He called back a short while later to say the deal was in place.

Driving down a Houston freeway in his Range Rover, Crawford nearly swerved off the road.

“It was a team I wanted to go to, and the money was right,’’ he said. “There was no reason to go anywhere else.’’

Those who thought Crawford would seek a lower profile didn’t know him well.

“He liked it when we played the Yankees and the Red Sox,’’ said pitcher Dan Wheeler, a teammate with Tampa Bay who also joined the Red Sox. “He has that football mentality. He was one guy in the clubhouse who would challenge you. He’s a quiet guy but he loves the big game.’’

Michael Bourn, who became one of Crawford’s best friends, believes Boston will be the right fit.

“He can take it. He has that tough skin,’’ Bourn said. “He can hear people talking about him and he’ll go show them what’s up. He has that kind of mind-set.

“Carl has a chance to do some great things. They’re getting a special talent up there. He wants to show everybody. He’s not one of those players who looks at the contract as an accomplishment. He’s going to earn that contract.’

Personal commitment At 7:30 a.m., before most students have settled in at Houston Christian High, Crawford is hard at work. He reports for training four days a week, using the school’s gymnasium, weight room, and track.

Lee Fiocchi, a former college football player, has trained a number of high-profile athletes, including Patriots players Brandon Meriweather and Fred Taylor. His current baseball clients include Adam Dunn, James Loney, and Chris Young.

He and Crawford have been a team for three years.

“There’s a monotony that goes on in training and sometimes it’s hard for some guys to get focused because it’s another offseason,’’ Fiocchi said. “But Carl and I connect. I’ll look at what he’s done in previous offseasons and when he comes in, we talk about what we can do differently and give him an edge.

“He’s so, so focused in on his training and his belief that he can gain an edge. He pays attention to the details. Carl wants to set himself apart in terms of preparing for baseball.’’

That quest can manifest itself in ways that often appear awkward. Last week, during a session in the school gym, Crawford stretched his legs well above his waist against the resistance of a large rubber band wielded by Fiocchi. He nearly toppled over several times as he fought to keep his balance while stretching particular muscle groups.

The idea is to correct some minute flaws in how Crawford runs. Fiocchi studied the stride of Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt, specifically his ability to accelerate without wasting movement. Small adjustments were made on how Crawford swung his arms, positioned his hips, and angled his head.

“They’re making one of the fastest players in baseball even faster,’’ said Michael Bourn, who also trains with Fiocchi, albeit at a more reasonable hour.

The extra split-second of speed could be the difference in Crawford picking up a few extra hits this season or tracking down one more line drive in the gap.

The smallest detail matters to Crawford, who has special meals prepared by a nutritionist and delivered each day.

“Carl’s the example I always come back to,’’ Fiocchi said. “When I have other big leaguers come in, I’ll show them different video of Carl and I’ll tell them, ‘That’s what you want to look like.’ He makes it look effortless, but it comes from the deliberate practice.’’

Fiocchi has worked with professional athletes long enough to know their weaknesses. When Crawford signed with the Red Sox, Fiocchi briefly wondered whether his newly wealthy client might pause to enjoy himself.

But Crawford flew to Boston for a press conference and returned the next day.

“He doesn’t disappear to the Super Bowl or tell me he’s going to Vegas for a few days,’’ Fiocchi said. “He’s single, too. Ever since he came back [from Boston], he’s been wearing a grin ear to ear. Obviously he got paid, but I know being part of an organization that has the potential to win the World Series is what gets him excited.’’

Legendary predecessors After he signed with the Red Sox, Crawford was pleased to learn that manager Terry Francona encouraged the players to bring their sons into the clubhouse.

He has a son himself now. Justin recently turned 7 and lives with his mother in Arizona. Plans have already been made for him to spend time in Boston this summer.

Justin is at that age where athletic talent becomes noticeable, and Crawford was quick to pull out his cellphone and show off video of his son running.

“Look at how fast he is,’’ Crawford said with pride.

Crawford said being a good father is important. His own father, Steve Burns, was an infrequent presence in his life from early on.

“I’m not one to cry over spilt milk,’’ Crawford said. “The way it was then is the way it is now. I see him almost the same as back then. We see each other; we talk. It’s not . . . hey, it is what it is.’’

Justin will not need a Ray Bourn to guide him. Nor will he wear the patched-up uniforms of the Salvation Army, not with his father signing a long-term lease to patrol the same Fenway grass as Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice.

Good timing helped lead Carl Crawford to Boston. Now sweat will prove he belongs.

“He has earned his moment,’’ Maddon said.

Where will it lead? Crawford and the Rays went to the World Series in 2008, beating the Red Sox in the ALCS before losing to the Phillies. Now he joins a team that will start every season with championship expectations.

“You want to put your name up there with the elite,’’ Crawford said. “When they say my name, I want them to say I came to play that day — I played hard, and gave my team what I had. I want to be known as somebody you knew was going to bring it that night.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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