July 2007

The Accidental Major League Tryout

Below is another article in a series of blog entries I’ve written as a candidate for president of Red Sox Nation. This article originally appeared on my other blog at Crawdaddy Cove.

I was a Greg McMurtrymediocre
pitcher for Brookline High, a 130 lb. reed with infinitely more heart
than talent. Greg McMurtry was the stud of the the state champion
Brockton High School squad, the future Michigan Wolverines legend, #1 draft choice of the Boston Red Sox,
and third round choice of the New England Patriots. In the spring of
1986, for six pitches, the divergent paths of our baseball careers
crossed. It’s funny how vividly I remember that encounter, like a movie
I’ve seen a thousand times…

The day was May 16, 1986. I was playing left field and Brockton’s
lead was something like 19-3. Major league scouts perched along first
and third baseline fences, waiting for another glimpse of McMurtry’s
majesty. I and the rest of the players there that day hungered for a
chance to do something heroic in front of the scouts, to begin our
dream-like march to the bigs and the Baseball Hall of Fame. But by the
sixth and second-to-last inning, it didn’t look like I was going to get
that chance.

Then, the first three or four Brockton hitters reached base to start
of the bottom of the sixth inning, so I was summoned to the mound to
quash yet another Brockton rally. I remember trotting in from left
thinking, When is McMurtry coming up? As I threw my warm-up
pitches, I overheard a scout ask my coach, "What’s this new guy’s
name?" The last few warm-ups were the hardest fastballs I had ever
thrown.

The first batter I faced waved his bat at three smoking fastballs, missed them all, and sat down. Holycrap, I thought, I just wasted that guy in front of twenty major league scouts. I’m gonna be a pro!  As
I watched the next Brockton player step into the batter’s box, I heard
some scouts buzzing. One, in an Astros cap, help up his radar gun and
pointed it at me. I was being noticed.

The next batter watched the first two fastballs tear by him for
strikes, fouled off a curveball, then swung mightily under a high
heater for strike three. I tried to baseball radar gunstay calm. OhmyGod. I’m blowing away the best hitters in the state and twenty major league scouts are watching. I looked over at my father. He was beaming and talking with a rotund man in a Dodgers cap who was holding a clipboard. I’m gonna be a Dodger!

The next batter stroked my first pitch to right field, a clean, line drive base hit. No problem, they’ll forget about that when I nail this next guy. But
I walked him. And the next batter singled, loading the bases. And as
another Brockton batter walked to the plate, I saw the marvelous figure
of Greg McMurtry swagger to the on-deck circle.

He carried a black bat with a red donut on it and stared at me, calm
but fierce, like a panther patiently eyeing a rabbit he wants to maul.
Relaxed, he swung his bat one-handed over his left shoulder, then
switched hands and over his right shoulder, showing beautiful, hard
muscles like in a Michelangelo sculpture. I forced myself to avert my
eyes and focused on my catcher, looking for the signal.

I knew I would fail to retire this batter. That McMurtry would come
to the plate seemed inevitable. I could feel the two of us being tugged
toward confrontation by the strings of fate. (I seriously doubt Greg
felt the same thing.) Sure enough, the batter preceding McMurtry hit a
ground ball that squeaked through the hole between the third baseman
and shortstop. A couple of runners scored, and Greg McMurtry stood at
home plate to give them high-fives.

The scouts adjusted in their lawn chairs and pointed their video
cameras towards the batter’s box. McMurtry stepped to the plate with
the confidence of a superhero. Sweating and trembling, I faced the
awesome challenge standing sixty feet, six inches before me.

The catcher put down two fingers, signaling a curveball. Good idea, he won’t expect that. High,
ball one. I was relieved I had survived the first pitch and I relaxed a
little. Again, the catcher called for a curveball. Ingenious idea, he certainly won’t expect another curveball on a 1-0 count. High, ball two. The catcher tossed the ball back to me as the scouts moaned, worried that I would give McMurtry nothing good to hit and issue him a walk.

Hold on a second, this is Greg McMurtry. Don’t play around with him, I scolded myself. This is your chance for glory, the moment you dreamed of in every wiffle ball game growing up. Wake up and go after him. For Godsakes, don’t walk him! I realized I had made an error of, perhaps, historic proportions in the annals of the Crawford family.

Looking in for the catcher’s signal, I got the sign I wanted, a
single finger, then I blazed a fastball over the outside corner.
"Stee-rike!" yelled the ump. Suddenly, I had a shred of
self-confidence. The count was two and one. I had to throw another
fastball. I knew it, my catcher knew it, and Greg knew it. I threw the
heater, this one with extra juice, right down the heart of the plate.
McMurtry coiled then swung majestically and we all held our breath for
an instant. Thwack! The ball met the catcher’s mitt and Greg
McMurtry, for the first time all day, was mortal, stumbling momentarily
to regain his balance after a frighteningly robust swing. "Stee-rike
two!"

Holycrap, I’m one pitch away from striking out Greg McMurtry in front of twenty major league scouts. I
looked over at my coach. He was pacing and smiling, arms crossed,
savoring the possibilities of the next pitch. "Go get him, Robby!" he
said. "One more, one more, kid!" I looked at my father. He smiled at
me, winked, and pumped his right fist. With his left hand, he wiped the
sweat from his forehead. I looked in for the sign. McMurtry leaned in a
little more over the plate to protect the outside corner. The
perspiration on his steel forearms glistened in the sun. The catcher
put down a single finger and I threw the ball as hard as I could.
McMurtry stepped into the pitch but held his swing. Outside and low.
Ball three.

"Full count!" bellowed the umpire, who was obviously auditioning for
the majors, as well. I got the ball back from the catcher and closed my
eyes. Please God, don’t let me walk him, don’t let me walk him. I
glanced over at my dad. He and the Dodgers scout were chuckling, the
scout carelessly and my father nervously. Our eyes met and his seemed
to say, "Oh boy, Rob, you’ve really gotten yourself into a situation
here!" McMurtry started at me. I could tell he wanted a chance to show
those scouts that his futile swing had been a fluke. He wanted to take
me deep.

The catcher didn’t even bother with a sign. It was fastball all the
way. Just hum it in there and see what happens. I looked at the mitt
and tried to focus. I tried to block out my teammates, the scouts, my
coach, my father, even Greg McMurtry. I tried to block out the full
count and the fact that the next pitch would be remembered and talked
about in my family for years to come, regardless of the result (and it
has been!).

Then, pulled along in the current of time and fate, I wound up and
delivered my pitch, a fastball that I tried to guide with my will as it
approached home plate. The scouts watched, my father prayed, my coach
grinned, and Greg McMurtry checked his swing as the ball crossed the
outside black of the plate. "Ball four," said the umpire non-chalantly,
rising from his crouch. I shrugged as McMurtry glided toward first
base. He proceeded to steal second before one of his teammates flew out
to end the inning.

I walked Greg McMurtry.

That summer, the Red Sox drafted him in the first round, but he
chose college instead and starred for Bo Schembechler’s Rose
Bowl-winning Michigan Wolverines for four years. He was drafted by the
Detroit Tigers (27th round) and New England Patriots (3rd round) in
1990, and played wide receiver for the Patriots and Bears for five seasons, during which he had 128 receptions for 1,631 yards and five touchdowns. He was out of major pro sports at the age of 27.

I never saw another athletic moment as important or dramatic (to me)
as my 3-2 pitch to Greg McMurtry. That day, that situation, was the
closest I ever came to my dream (and every kid in Red Sox Nation’s
dream) of being drafted by the Boston Red Sox. Greg McMurtry wouldn’t
recognize me if I walked right up to him and introduced myself. But the
image of his chiseled body, his confident glare, and his one elegant,
lusty whiff at a Rob Crawford fastball will be with me always.

A Meaningless JV Baseball Game, A Timeless Memory

Below is another article in a series of blog entries I’ve written as a candidate for president of Red Sox Nation. This article originally appeared on my other blog at Crawdaddy Cove.

Before every little leaField of Dreamsgue
game I coach, I remind myself that what’s about to unfold on the field
might be forgotten by me and other spectators within a day, but that
for one or two of the kids playing that day, something might happen
that will be carved in their memories forever. The memory might
be marvelous (home run), and it might be torturous (bonehead error),
but it will endure in the player’s mind the rest of his days. If you
ever played organized baseball at any level growing up, you know what
I’m talking about.

One of those baseball memories I’ll always carry around is of a game
that took place my sophomore year in high school, in 1984, as a member
of Brookline High’s JV baseball team. I was a skinny kid with a decent
glove and strong throwing arm, but no bat. I was either the last or
second-to-last player to make the team (and I still have the stubby
stick I picked up off the ground and rubbed like a good luck charm as
Coach Cohen read the names of players he was keeping on the last day of
tryouts), and I knew I’d see very little playing time that year. That
was OK with me. I was happy just to wear the uniform, to go to baseball
practice after school every afternoon, and to sit on the bench with the
guys, munching sunflower seeds and talking baseball.

Little did I know I wouldn’t see any game action until midway through the season, and that when I did finally play, the game’s outcome would depend on my
individual performance. That moment came on a wet, overcast afternoon
at Amory Field in Brookline, which is located just off of Beacon
Street, about a half-mile from Fenway Park. It was the top of the last
inning, we were ahead of Waltham High by one run, and they were batting
with two outs and the tying run on second base. A beefy left-handed
hitter approached the plate as I blissfully played catch with another
sophomore behind the bench.

"Crawford!" rang Coach Cohen’s voice. I was jolted by the
sound of my name and it took a full second for me to realize the coach
needed me to do something. Pick up the helmets or straighten the bats,
I assumed. But there was urgency in his voice. Brookline High School JV baseball team 1984"Crawford! Get in there for Jeff in right field. His arm’s sore. And if the ball comes to you, throw it home!"
I grabbed my glove, pulled my hat on tight, and glanced over at my
father, standing in his usual place behind the backstop. He smiled,
winked, and pumped his fist, communicating wordlessly his faith and
encouragement.

I sprinted towards right field, imagining myself to be rocket-armed
Dwight Evans. "Two outs, Rob!" said Justin Walker, the second baseman,
as I chugged by him. (Justin, front row, second from the left, later
went on to an acting career and had a major role in the 1995 movie, Clueless.
By some amazing coincidence, that BHS JV team’s first baseman, Joe
Reitman, back row, far right, next to me, also went on to an acting
career and also appeared in the movie Clueless.)
It wasn’t until I reached my post in right and turned to face the
diamond that I realized the dreadful mistake I had made before taking
the field.

As I peered towards home plate from my unfamiliar post in right
field, everything looked foggy. I blinked, but the fog remained.
Suddenly, my heart stopped. My God. I forgot to put on my glasses. The
reality of my plight spilled over me like icy water. My saliva tasted
metallic and my legs wavered. I was too embarrassed to call time out. Oh God, please let that big lefty hit the ball to someone else. Please God, I begged silently. But God had already finalized his plans for that big left-handbaseball catched hitter, the baseball, and me.

The big Waltham kid swung at the first pitch. Ping! The ball
shot up into the sky and, to my horror, it entered the air space above
me. All eyes turned to me as I jerked forward, believing the hit to be
a shallow bloop. But three running steps forward and a new perspective
on the white blur above me revealed a drastic error in my calculations:
the ball had been socked, not blooped!Red Sox win!

Trying
to change direction, I slipped on the muddy turf and fell to one hand
and one knee. But I kept my eye on the hurtling white puff and bounced
to my feet. Back, back, back I stumbled until I hit another wet spot
and lost my balance. I fell backward, with my glove arm outstretched.
Then, at the same moment I landed flat on my back in the cold, muddy
outfield – plunk – the ball fell into my glove, and I squeezed.

Rising to my feet, I held the ball proudly above my head, showing
the umpires, my teammates, my coach, and my dad that I had caught it.
We had won. Within seconds I was mobbed by my screaming, disbelieving
teammates. What a moment! My father, who retells this story every time
our family is together, recalls that, as Coach Cohen walked over to the
Waltham coach to shake hands, he put his hat over his face as if to
say, "Did we just see what we just saw?"

What does this story have to do with Red Sox Nation? Maybe something
about how we all wonder how we would perform under the same pressure
our Red Sox heroes face regularly. Or maybe it’s about the snapshots we
all carry around about our own triumphs and failures. Or how the Red
Sox bring out the dreamer in all of us. I don’t know. Maybe you do.

Birth of a Song

I have written a few Red Sox songs this summer. (I guess you could say writing baseball songs is a hobby — but the truth is, these tunes just come to me when I’m driving or hacking on my guitar.) One is called, There is Nothing Bettah, Than Beating Mariano Rivera. My kids like thakids bandt one. Another is called, On the Corner of Brookline Ave and Yawkey Way. This is the song I invited my songwriting friends, Dan Page and Michele Page, to come listen to about a week ago to help me write some lyrics. Just before they got to my house, the tune and first line of, I’m A Member of Red Sox Nation came to me. When Dan and Michele arrived, I didn’t even bother playing the Brookline Ave and Yawkey Way tune for them — I knew that the Nation song was the one we needed to work on. And we did.

It was a good time. We filled pads of paper with Red Sox images, phrases, memories, and ideas, referred from time to time to our thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, wrote and rejected about 250 lines — and a few days later, the song was complete. I stayed up late a few nights recording/engineering it on my iBook (using Garage Band software and the Mac’s built-in mike) in my basement, which is also my kids’ playroom. Surrounded by Play-Doh, dolls, and Pokemon cards, I perched the laptop on the surface of our air hockey table, and if you listen to the song carefully, you can hear our loud basement fridge droning in the background.

A week after the basement sessions, my good friends Bob Little and Michelle Rufo, along with about ten other day camp counselors at Summer@Park, taught the song to about fifty campers and organized them for an informal recording session in the lobby of the school’s gym. The kids’ enthusiastic singing was added to the last verse, along with their favorite Red Sox cheer, "Let’s Go Red Sox!"

The song was played at Fenway Park between the top and bottom of the fifth inning last Wednesday, July 18. If it has been played since then, I haven’t heard about it. Whether or not I’m elected president of Red Sox Nation, Dan, Michele, and I hope this song is good enough and gets enough play to get stuck in people’s heads across New England for years to come, making them smile every time they hear it.

I’m A Member of Red Sox Nation, by Rob Crawford, Dan Page & Michele Page

(Chorus)
I’m a member of Red Sox Nation, it’s a kind of a family
Wherever I roam, my Fenway home, that’s where I long to be
I’m a member of Red Sox Nation, it’s a kind of insanity
Yeah, I’ll live and die, with Red Sox pride, for eternity

(Verse 1)
I fake a smile, November until Opening Day
Suffering baseball withdrawal around the clock
When April comes, hey, meet me down on Yawkey Way
That’s when Red Sox Nation starts to rock

(Chorus)

(Verse 2)
I sleepwalk through the days when there’s a West Coast swing
Married to the TV and the radio
For tickets in October I’d give anything
Still payin’ Red Sox debts from long ago

(Chorus)

(Verse 3)
My mama told me bedtime tales ’bout number nine
My daddy taught me how Yastrzemski tracked down flies
Dirty Water, Tessie, and Sweet Caroline
Now I sing them to my kids as lullabies

(Chorus)

Who Are Your Most Beloved Athletes?

Writing abodoug flutieut how great athletes talk to themselves got me thinking about my favorite athletes of all-time. Four of the individuals on my distinguished list rise above the rest because of the place they hold in my heart, and because of the influence they had on me as a teenager and young adult. And, looking at the quartet, I am struck by the similarities between the three and the common characteristics they taught me to admire and emulate. The magic foursome is: Doug Flutie, Larry Bird, Jim Barton, and Nomar Garciaparra.

Doug Flutie. I was sixteen in 1984 when he threw the hail mary pass to Gerard Phelan to lead Boston College to victory over University of Miami. His 21-year pro career was just like his college clarry birdareer: he was smaller than every other NFL quarterback, but he found ways to win, time after time. And he never did it the same way twice – he was the king of improv.

Larry Bird. I was 17 that spring the Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals (1986). My dad always used to say, "Remember Larry, because you won’t see anyone like him the rest of your life." It’s not Larry’s clutch shots and passes I remember first, it’s his hustle, diving to the floor to grab control of a loose ball, slamming his chin on the court. Larry was a warrior.

Jim Barton, Dartmouth basketballJim Barton. Jim was a star basketball player at Dartmouth College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. He could catch a pass and get off a shot in one instantaneous motion — and it always went in. His heroics made me lose my voice every game. He was among the nation’s scoring leaders, and at the time, I had never witnessed a more electric athlete in person.

Nomar. As a member of the Red Sox, his love for playing baseball was obvious, and even though he was an Nomar Garciaparra t-shirtall-star, he was humble and appreciated his success. He seemed to be hustling every minute of the game, even in the dugout (mentally). He was my first son’s first favorite Sox player, which has cemented him among my top-four favorite athletes. At the age of 5, he cried when Nomar was traded to the Cubs. He still wears his Red Sox-Nomar shirt, as well as his Cubs-Nomar shirt, and at the time Nomar signed his glove, it was probably the greatest moment of his young life.

Nice list, but why does it matter?

These great athletes were also great teachers of mine. Through countless emotionally-charged athletic performances, they helped develop my world view: the belief that anything can happen if you can imagine it; that the game isn’t over until it’s over, so you must never quit; that calm, confident focus can tame the highest-pressure moments; that spectacular results hurtle towards us when we’re "in the zone;" that the team’s goal of winning supercedes individual accomplishments; and that there is nobility in playing hurt and hustling on every play.

Who are your most beloved athletes, and how have they helped shape your world view?