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Wise beyond his years

21-year-old Carl Crawford is taking nothing for granted in the spring. "He's hungry, and a hungry dog is a dangerous dog.''

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Carl Crawford is a big-league baseball player. By virtue of asparkling-at-times debut with the Devil Rays during the summer, he is viewed as an anchor for the future. By hitting .259 with 30 RBIs and showing glimpses of his many tools, an outfield job is his.

You can say it, but Carl Crawford won't.

He knows better. He's smarter than that. And he takes nothing, and he means nothing, for granted.

So take your can't-miss label, the highlight reel from last season, and all the praise heaped on him by teammates, managers and fans, and stick it over there. You know, right there next to Paul Wilder's old locker.

"He doesn't come in here with all his high school clippings and what he did in the minor leagues, he's leaves all that at the door," veteran Greg Vaughn said.

Because Crawford, in his mind, is fighting for his life this spring. There are a host of young, hungry talented outfielders -- and a few veterans trying to rebound from disappointing seasons -- hoping to send Crawford back to the minors. Crawford had better years than almost of them, but smartly, isn't walking around like he owns the place.

In fact, he's walking around like he doesn't know the place at all.

"My thought was to come into spring like I've never played in the major leagues before," Crawford said. "So that's what I'm doing."

Crawford, 21, has been in the majors before, and looked good while putting a much-needed charge into Tropicana Field. For a franchise thirsty for a hot-shot prospect to pan out, he was a refreshing sip of energy.

He had two RBIs in his debut. A stolen base the next night. After 11 games, he was batting .371. Through 14, he had hits in 12 of them.

But then there's that wall, a point in the season where a rookie with more games and more talent than he has ever faced runs out of gas.

Crawford thinks he hit it.

This year, he plans to leap over it.

"I kind of got tired toward the end of the year," said Crawford, who did rebound to hit .303 the last two weeks of the season. "This year, the focus has been on being strong all year."

Instead of one month with a personal trainer like he did in 2001, the 6-foot-2, 219-pounder did three months. In January, he went to an athlete performance center in Phoenix. In February, he reported to camp as fit as he has ever been.

"This year I busted it for three months; we went real hard," he said.

To Vaughn, this comes as no surprise. He expected Crawford to take the little bit of success he had and immediately go to work building on it. It's the reason Crawford is one of his favorites.

"There's something different about him," Vaughn said. "He's one of the few young guys that have come along that doesn't act like he's doing the game a favor. He's a tremendous athlete, plays hard and is just trying to get better every single day. Some people in his situation with his ability and the money probably would have took a different route.

"He's hungry, and a hungry dog is a dangerous dog."

Crawford was nudged down the right route he took this offseason by whispers that he had been rushed to the majors. As his average fell, the talk arose that maybe the Rays erred and were damaging his career in the long run. They were shots at the organization, but Crawford took it personally.

"I was ready," he said. "I know I was doing good for a while and no one said I was rushed then. But now when I start going down all of a sudden I was rushed? I thought about that this offseason, trust me. It played in mind. ... I'd say it was probably one of my biggest motivations."

Crawford's biggest motivation is simple -- winning a job.

Manager Lou Piniella has said he sees Crawford starting in left, batting first or second, but adds a caveat -- he wants better pitch selection by his free-swinging hitters.

Crawford only walked nine times in 259 at-bats last year. And he struck out 41 times. But the good news is, Crawford's mentality -- last year is last year -- is apparently one shared by Piniella.

"We're going to go more on what we see here than past history," Piniella said. "I have not looked at the past, so I can formulate my own ideas."

Those ideas include turning leftfield over to the rising star.

"I know he's a good-looking young player and he came up here last year and did some nice things," Piniella said. "He's got good speed, he's a good athlete and a good defensive corner outfielder. I'm looking for Crawford to take over the leftfield spot. Let him play."

If he does, Vaughn is among those who think Crawford's future is limitless.

"He'll be the first one to tell you, he hasn't done nothing," he said. "But before he leaves the game, people are going to know about Carl Crawford."

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