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Crawford is a signing of progress

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 25, 2011 09:38 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Progress is not always obvious. Sometimes what makes it progress is that it is subtle, silent, defined by the absence of discussion at all.

The Red Sox signing left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142-million deal this offseason is such progress. The significance of one of the premier African-American players in baseball choosing to play in Boston, a city saddled with a checkered racial reputation, for the Red Sox, a franchise that bears the burden of an ignominious history of race relations, has gone largely unspoken and uncelebrated.

The only race issue that has come up with Crawford playing for the Sox is who would win one between him and Jacoby Ellsbury (for the record both men said they wouldn't bet against themselves). Crawford said racial climate wasn't a concern in his move to Boston. Actual climate was.

"Nah, the only thing we were worried about was the cold weather," said Crawford.

Now, the cynics out there will say that the only color that really matters to professionally athletes is green. This is true to some degree, but it is also dehumanizing. Any prospective employee is going to consider the ramifications of the city he or she chooses to work in, whether it's the climate, the traffic, the nightlife, the school system or diversity. It's human nature.

Spending nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, American League East foes of the Red Sox, Crawford is familiar with Boston. He is versed enough in Red Sox lore to refer to Jim Rice as "Mr. Rice" and to know that the Sox were the last team in major league baseball to field an African-American player, 12 years after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball.

"If there was some kind of feeling that I needed to feel I never felt it when I went up there. I kind of know what that racism feel feels like from being in Texas," said Crawford. "I haven't had that feeling. I never had that feeling. I honestly never experienced it. I mean you know the [Boston] fans they're going to heckle you. They're going to curse you out and stuff like that, but you know never any racial slurs or anything like that."

Crawford's Boston is far different from Bill Russell's and even Rice's. While Boston and the Red Sox have evolved past their pasts, in the words of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, "perceptions die hard."

"See some of that perception comes from the outside. Even other guys in the majors ask, 'So, what's Boston like?' " said outfielder Mike Cameron, an elder statesman among African-American players in baseball who signed with the Sox as a free agent in 2010. "It's not as bad as everyone thinks. It's a good place to play."

Cameron, who helped recruit Crawford to Boston even though it cost him a starting role, said he has never experienced any racial slurs playing at Fenway in 16 big league seasons.

It was just six-plus years ago that another prominent African-American left fielder, Barry Bonds, proclaimed Boston "too racist" for him to ever play there.

You have to consider the source on that one, but you can't dismiss the sentiment as simply Barry being Barry. Bonds was not the only African-American player that clung to such a negative perception. In 2007, outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., comparing Sox and Yankees fans, said of Boston: "They're one of the few places you'll hear racial comments."

Racial climate never came up in Crawford's courtship, but Epstein said that it had in pursuit of other players. He said it has never been a hindrance to signing a player during his tenure.

"It's come up from time to time because reputations die hard, so dynamics that were real and substantive and present every day 20 or 30 years ago still live on, maybe even in reputation only in some cases," Epstein said.

"Obviously, I'm not naive. There are pockets of racism everywhere, but I think that reputation still lives on in some circles. We embrace [the discussion] because I think there is a lot to talk about in terms of how things have changed. How multicultural a place like Boston is and then how progressive this organization is ... We welcome any closer examination of Boston as a potential destination for players and their families because we think the more they find out the more they'll want to be here."

Epstein had his own brush with racism at Fenway Park as a child. He told a story about going to a game with his father and witnessing an African-American father and son getting harassed.

"I never really forgot that. That was an early lesson," said Epstein. "You couldn't help but notice there weren't a lot of African-American faces at Fenway Park, in the stands and on the field too, really. As I got older I learned more about some of the things that had happened in the 1940s and '50s and how slow the Red Sox were to integrate and just generally the poor record of race relations."

Epstein credited former general manager Dan Duquette and the previous ownership group, led by former Sox CEO John Harrington, for making a concerted effort to reverse the wrongs of the past and build diverse squads. Epstein said current Sox ownership has built on that momentum and that the team preaches "true color-blindness" in regard to roster decisions.

That's why Epstein was wounded and angry when Fox baseball writer Ken Rosenthal penned a piece during the 2008 American League Championship Series that questioned whether the racial composition of that team and the franchise's racially-charged past would make it hard for Epstein to recruit prominent African-American and Latino players. It hasn't, which Rosenthal later acknowledged.

The Red Sox will never be able to fully erase the disgraceful discrimination of the Yawkey ownership (the infamous 1945 tryout at Fenway and the Winter Haven, Fla., Elks Club imbroglio). But they shouldn't be perpetually branded by it either.

"I doubt anyone who takes a close look at the Red Sox organization would find even any hint of racism," said Epstein.

That hasn't always been the case, which is why Crawford's decision to play in Boston is worth celebrating for a greater reason than beating the Yankees.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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