It takes a certain type of athlete and man to handle the pressures of playing professional sports in a tough market like Boston. This notion has led me to wonder if the Red Sox' front office takes this into consideration before signing players to seven-year deals, specifically Carl Crawford, Boston's current $142 million suspect.
We suspect a lot with Crawford, as we should. After all, left field, minus Jason Bay on a good day, has been nothing short of a weak link since Manny Ramirez left after the 2007 season, so solving the problem with a hefty price tag and a long-term commitment immediately causes skepticism, and rightfully so.
Add an owner in John Henry who publicly stated he was against the Crawford signing, and you have yourself a player with hurt feelings who's trying to live up to a massive contract while trying way too hard to please the toughest fan base in sports. Put these characteristics on a humble man who is often referred to as a "loner," and you get one word: underachievement.
Questions naturally arise and small concerns become larger issues with big-contract guys. Expectations also become a reality and pressure tends to set in. So taking all of that into consideration, is Crawford a bust or was the drastic change in his environment simply something that inevitably influenced and affected his first year in Beantown? I mean, look where he came from... a city with little allegiance to their sports teams because the majority of residents are transplants, resulting in a weak fan base. On top of that, the Tampa Bay Rays organization is run by two brilliant minds in President Matt Silverman and EVP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who refuse to let their success be dictated by their payroll.
When it comes to large contracts, I'm not convinced money buys happiness, but I am certain that Joe Maddon has single-handedly created an atmosphere in Tampa that made it impossible to fail due to pressure. His light-hearted and fun-loving, yet professional approach towards baseball is one that has been admired since his he broke out onto the scene in 2006. And the results were two well-deserved Manager of the Year recognitions in 2008 and 2011, an honor Terry Francona never received in Boston even after breaking the 86-year curse... twice.
"If you're not here to have fun, what's the point in playing professional baseball?" Maddon once told me at Yankee Stadium.
"Having fun is everything over here (in Tampa)," Crawford told me at Camden Yards in 2010. "Everyone knows we have a loose clubhouse. We have no rules. Everything is about fun. They really try to make the environment high school or college or whatever you want to call it. We are just real laid back. We're in Florida but we have more of a Cali atmosphere. "
Furthermore, when I interviewed Carlos Pena at the 2010 Winter Meetings after he signed his one-year deal with the Cubs, I asked him how tough it would be to leave his teammates down south.
"It hurts," Pena said. "I'm not going to lie. I'm looking forward to new things but I'm going to miss my teammates."
The players in Tampa, due to the fact that they're mostly homegrown and came up through the system with the same philosophies, have had a special bond no other team can seem to replicate. From BJ Upton to second-year outfielder Desmond Jennings, the motto in Tampa is if you smile everyday, give 100 percent and have fun doing it, the wins will follow.
Let's look at the numbers.
Keeping in mind I'm not a fan of seven-year deals, Crawford's production in Tampa was nothing less than extraordinary. The 31-year-old outfielder is a four-time All Star and received MVP honors in the Mid-Summer classic in 2008 in St. Louis after his incredible catch in left field sealed the American League's victory, 4-3. A year later in 2010, Crawford won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, rewarding him for his talents on both sides of the ball. He's stolen 50 or more bases - led the league four times - and batted over .300 five times in the same season in his career, and also led the league in triples five times. Not to mention, from talking to his ex-teammates, he's known for his positive attitude, strong work ethic and laid-back persona.
In 2010 when I asked Maddon how tough it will be to part with Crawford, especially since Carl had been with the Rays the longest, the manager replied, "Not only that but he's really good, too. Carl really impacts the game in so many different ways. He's a unique player in today's game. And he has a really wonderful personality that people don't talk about a lot. So it's going to be a big hole to fill."
We get it. He's a good guy and a good baseball player. So what went wrong in Boston?
In baseball, seven-year commitments and a bundle of guaranteed money combined with injury-prone athletes just doesn't seem like a winning combination for either party involved. Last winter, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo started the trend when he signed outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract looking to replace the bat of Adam Dunn, who coincidentally is leading the American League in home runs (28) along with Josh Hamilton.
With that being said, I wouldn't change anything about Boston's expectations, but is a player's mentality and their prior employment something teams, and in this case the Red Sox, should take into consideration before making long-term deals? You really can't blame Rizzo. After all, Jayson Werth's situation was the exact opposite. Werth went from playing in the tough market of Philadelphia to a team where success would mean finishing anywhere but last in their division. In fact, Werth is currently on the disabled list and nobody is making a big deal about it. In fact, a weight has probably been lifted OFF of Werth's shoulders.
So... New expectations, new city, new weather, new teammates, new manager, new coaches, new spot in the batting order, new everything. Oh, and a new batting stance. Can we give Crawford a free pass for 2011 or is he just not mentally tough enough to play here?
"I don't know. It's kind of the same old thing," a source close to the situation said. "A player struggles and it can't be his fault. Tito talked to him all the time about where he wanted to hit in the lineup and he told him he didn't care. Tito and coaches would sit with Carl at his locker and make sure he was ok... Tito tried to protect him and make him feel good about himself. Obviously, that didn't work."
Crawford said he didn't think Francona had confidence in him, but it sounds like Crawford didn't have confidence in himself. In fact, coddling is now the word that comes to mind.
"When the season started, Carl panicked," the source said. "Now a year later it's the manager's fault? He was trying too hard to live up to his contract. He was swinging at everything.
"After the Henry comment, it all snowballed from there."
Crawford was not only deeply hurt by John Henry's comments, he lost confidence in himself and his swing because he was batting seventh in the lineup. Primarily a two-hole hitter, Crawford's numbers aren't much different at the bottom of the lineup, although the sampling is much smaller. In 2,499 at-bats in the two spot, Crawford batted .303 with a .347 on-base percentage. And in just 137 at-bats batting seventh, Crawford hit .299 (four points less) with a .351 on-base percentage (four points higher). Plus, why would Francona move Dustin Pedroia out of the two spot after he batted .311 in 2009?
"He did his own thing in Tampa," a Rays' source said. "Joe catered to his superstars so Carl was really able to bat wherever he wanted. That was the luxury he had with the Rays. He took his work very seriously but he knew where he wanted to hit and he relayed that to Joe.
"He's not a big fan of being criticized. Nobody is, but he takes criticism to heart more than most at the Major League level. He was aware things would be different in Boston but I don't think he expected the pressure or expected Terry to move him down so early."
Here's my question. If weather was a factor - numerous people told me the cold affected Crawford's agility and muscles - and he knew he likely wouldn't hit leadoff or second with the presence of Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia, why didn't he take six years, $108 from Anaheim? He said he was a big fan of that "Cali" atmosphere, remember?
Set for life with either contract, though possibly influenced by agents and suits, it's easy to assume that money clearly dictated this decision.
"He could do his own thing in Tampa and not every single thing he did was analyzed," added the Rays' source. "He was the golden child of the Rays."
Here's the thing: Whether he knows it or not, Crawford has the opportunity to be the golden child of the Sox, too. Sure, he will still have to "live up to" that hefty contract, but if he's head-strong, he'll stay out of the drama that's manufactured in Boston and do what he did best in Tampa -- just play baseball. More importantly, there are two things he mentally has to commit to as well. One, he needs to remember that signing that hefty contract was his choice. And second, he needs to remember that Tampa is nothing like Boston.
In fact, no place is.
Jen Royle is a Columnist for SB Nation Boston. You can follow her @Jen_Royle on Twitter.