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Fielder’s choice

Crawford asks Rice about playing left field at Fenway

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox have had a variety of left fielders since Jim Rice retired following the 1989 season. Mike Greenwell ably filled in for a few years before giving way to Troy O’Leary. Then Manny Ramirez came to town.

Many other players have filled in over those 21 seasons.

But not one had asked Rice his advice on how to play the position until Carl Crawford approached him late last week.

“Isn’t that something?’’ Rice said.

To be certain, Rice made it to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his booming bat and not his glove. But he played 733 games in left at Fenway Park and handled the position well. Outside of Carl Yastrzemski, nobody knows that hallowed acreage better.

Crawford does not consider himself a baseball historian. But he knew Rice could give him a firsthand account about how best to play balls off the Green Monster and negotiate the narrow gap between the foul line and the grandstands.

“When I saw Mr. Rice, I wanted to ask him some questions,’’ Crawford said yesterday. “It was a good conversation. He gave me a few tips.’’

Rice, 57, did not venture far from the Red Sox once his playing career was over. He was the organization’s roving hitting instructor from 1992-95, the major league hitting coach from 1995-2000, and then joined NESN as an analyst in 2003.

He is justifiably proud of what he accomplished as a player and is willing to help anybody who asks. But he doesn’t force the issue.

“I wait for them to come to me,’’ he said. “It’s not my place to just butt in. If you want to talk to me, I’m here. I think a lot of these guys just think they can figure it out on their own. But I know Yaz talked to me when I was a young player and I appreciated it.’’

Counting the 2008 American League Championship Series, Crawford has played 79 games at Fenway in his career, the equivalent of a full season. Advanced defensive metrics also show that he has been baseball’s best left fielder for several seasons. Playing left at Fenway is a challenge, but no player is better equipped for that than Crawford.

But Crawford’s attention to detail compelled him to seek out Rice.

“You want to get an edge,’’ he said. “If I learn one thing that helps me, it was worth it.’’

Crawford is one of the rare star players who embraces his role on defense.

“I’ve always loved playing defense and playing the outfield. I take pride in that,’’ he said. “You can go 0 for 5 and still win a game on defense, that’s how I feel.’’

That attitude developed early in his career. Crawford broke into pro ball in 1999 playing on the same rookie league team as Josh Hamilton. In 2003, when he became a starter for the Rays, he played in the same outfield as Rocco Baldelli, another defensively gifted player.

“We had some good outfielders at Tampa and we all pushed each other,’’ Crawford said. “That was good for me. When I won the Gold Glove for the first time [last season], that was big. I really wanted to do that.’’

Though left field at Fenway Park is the smallest in the majors, the Red Sox do not feel Crawford’s skill will go to waste.

“Our decision will be, quite honestly, where to play him,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Do you move him in and try to take everything away? Do you move back? As he gets out there and there’s some comfort and he plays every day, then there will be a determination. Where does he have more comfort and where can he take more balls away? We don’t know that yet.’’

For Rice, left field at Fenway is about the angles. He shifted his defensive stance for lefthanded hitters so he could get a better jump into the gap, then turned the other way for righthanders so he could get to balls in the corner. He also preferred to play a little deeper.

“To me, you can come in faster than you can go out,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to get beat on something over my head that I could have caught. There’s no one right way to do it. Carl has such great speed, he can do a lot of different things.’’

Because both Crawford and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury are lefthanded, Rice thinks Crawford will play more balls in the gap.

“It’s an easier throw for him,’’ Rice said. “Jacoby would have to make more of a turn. Those guys will have to make sure they communicate well because they both have speed.’’

Once the Red Sox return to Fenway in April, Crawford plans to take balls off the Wall during batting practice until he feels comfortable. If Francona approves, he hopes Rice will get a chance to work with him.

“I appreciate the fact that Carl wants to learn and I’ll be happy to do anything I can,’’ Rice said. “It tells me a lot about him that he asked for help. You can never stop learning in this game.’’

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

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