Let it be known: I want to be the No. 1-ranked fantasy player out there.
-- Carl Crawford, 2/19/06
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Carl Crawford is sitting at his spring training locker, and he has a quick story to tell. Last summer the preposterously talented Tampa Bay Devil Rays left fielder was standing in the on-deck circle at Yankee Stadium when a New York fan began yelling at him. It wasn't the typical obscenity-laced, Lewis Black-esque invective showered upon most players from opposing teams. It was a simple request. "Steal a base for my fantasy team, will ya?" the fan cried. Crawford smiled to himself and thought, I can do that.
The 24-year-old rising star laughs at the story because it is all a little strange to him: how he can be worshipped as such a fantasy god by so many Americans and yet still live in relative anonymity.
"Nobody recognizes me," says the speedster, who considers last year a disappointment despite posting career highs in batting average (.301), hits (194), home runs (15) and RBIs (81) while adding 46 stolen bases. "Ninety percent of the guys who picked me first in their drafts don't even know what I look like. But you know what? Putting up big fantasy numbers is part of what motivates me out there. That's another thing to play for."
Crawford, who last year became the fifth player in history to amass 150 steals and 500 hits before turning 24, has plans for bigger numbers in '06. He says that last season was his "toughest season ever," after going through some personal issues he won't elaborate on and because of his soured relationship with ex-Rays hitting coach Lee Elia, whom Crawford did not talk to for the last five months of the season. "I basically did everything on my own," he says. "I learned how not to depend on anyone. Everything I did in the past I got advice about; I was constantly talking to people. But last year I didn't, and things turned out OK."
A first-time All-Star last season, the Houston native reinvented himself as a hitter after his falling out with Elia. "For years people would say I'm a line-drive hitter who should hit the ball over the shortstop and just use my speed," he says. "But I'm a guy who can do much more than that. I can hit homers, I can drive the ball deep, and that's what I started to do last year. I want to be known as more than a guy with speed."
Crawford, who is so athletic that out of high school he was offered scholarships to both Nebraska (to play quarterback on the Huskers) and UCLA (to play in the Bruins' frontcourt), is energized by the makeover the franchise underwent in the offseason, but he's just as motivated by putting up monster numbers -- the kind that make fantasy geeks drool. And he's ready to take off -- his bruised left wrist, the injury that caused him to pull out of the World Baseball Classic, "feels great" and won't keep him off the field on Opening Day. Says Crawford, "Not a lot of people would say this, but I will: I want to be the guy who people see at No. 1 in the fantasy rankings." What will it take? "Well, if I can get to 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases," he says, "who will be able to top that?"