Brandon Crawford’s Bay Area return with Cardinals is a low-key affair

EditorLast Update :
Brandon Crawford’s Bay Area return with Cardinals is a low-key affair

OAKLAND — Brandon Crawford played more at shortstop than any player in San Francisco Giants history. He put his body through 1,617 games of diving, charging, throwing and taxing every fast-twitch muscle fiber. When you’ve logged 13,597 2/3 innings, even the compounding act of jogging on and off the field that many times can feel grueling.

It didn’t take Crawford long to discover the value of a “less is more” approach in his pregame work.

And now, a few weeks into a unique backup and mentorship role with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 37-year-old shortstop is quick to understand that the reverse is also true.

“I’m trying to do as much on-field stuff as I can,” said Crawford, splashed in red workout gear as he stood in the visiting dugout at the Coliseum on Monday. “Before when I was playing every day, I’d take ground balls the first day of the series but after that it’d be more machine and cage work to keep my legs fresh for the game. Now that I’m not playing for three or four days, I want to get as much work on the field as I can and make it as game-like as possible so I’m ready when it’s time to play.”

Crawford’s return to the Bay Area this week is notable mostly because it makes him conveniently accessible to the scribes and broadcasters (including this one) who covered him for more than a decade in San Francisco. Otherwise, it’s not much of a grand homecoming. There’s not even a guarantee that Crawford will play an inning in his final series at a stadium where he grew up attending games.

The Coliseum crowds for this series are the antithesis of the packed houses that confronted Crawford every time the Giants would cross the Bay Bridge for a rivalry series against the A’s. Crawford only left tickets for his parents and his two sisters. The ticket requests were much more overwhelming this past weekend in Arizona, where Crawford makes his offseason home.

“I played that series for free,” Crawford said, smiling.

Not that Crawford is complaining about his ticket invoice. Or the fact he’s started four of the Cardinals’ first 16 games. He’s fine with the fact that he hasn’t been used off the bench once so far, either. The Cardinal don’t pinch hit much, they have other lefty bench bats, and the one player that might be a candidate to be lifted for a late-inning matchup, shortstop Masyn Winn, was hitting .349 before doubling in his first at-bat Monday night.

This is precisely the role that Crawford signed up for when he agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract in March. He is here to support Winn, not to challenge him for playing time. Yet in a sense, it means that the Cardinals have two shortstops — one young, one seasoned — who are learning the ropes of a new role in the big leagues.

“It’s definitely a new challenge to take on this role,” Crawford said. “It’s tough to get any timing at the plate, and really, in the field, too. I definitely have a lot of respect for guys who have made a career out of this role. Not complaining at all — it’s what I was planning on doing and what I want to do. At the same time, it’s definitely tougher.”

Winn grew up a José Altuve fan in Houston but he was all too familiar with Crawford’s defensive reputation. He’d seen all the YouTube videos of Crawford’s acrobatic and creative plays from Crawford’s time coming up in the Giants’ minor-league system. When the Cardinals signed Crawford in the spring, Winn called up those videos and watched them all over again.

“He’s one of the best to do it at the position,” Winn said. “The stuff he was doing back in the day, the trick plays, some of those made it into the game. I don’t know if you were watching 20 minutes ago, but he threw a flip behind the back, which I thought was pretty good. For him, that’s another day at the park.

“The biggest thing is just how professional he is. I adopted his ground ball routine going into a game. He gets out there real early and takes 30 minutes of straight machine ground balls. I’ve been doing that every day with him. Just having him show me how to really work shortstop has been great. We’ve had some middle infield guys who are not really true shortstops. So having him out there is big for me.”

“I like working with Masyn,” Crawford said. “Big arm, very fast, good hands on defense. He’s made an adjustment in the last couple weeks hitting line drives the other way, not doing too much and having great at-bats. He’s looked really good so far. And he’s been receptive to the stuff I’ve talked about with him. I definitely like the team. It’s a good mix of older, veteran guys and some really young players who could be good for a long time.”

A guaranteed contract only guarantees so much, though. Crawford’s place on the roster is secure for now because he’s the only other player who can cover shortstop. That could change in a few weeks if Tommy Edman makes a healthy comeback from his offseason wrist surgery. There might come a time when other roster needs supersede carrying the luxury of a pure backup shortstop whose bat isn’t utilized off the bench.

But it does Crawford little good to think about those hypotheticals. He’s enjoying the slower pace of watching games and the challenge of being ready for when his name is called. He also knows that others haven’t been so fortunate to sign a major-league contract. Crawford keeps in regular contact with Brandon Belt, his longtime teammate with the Giants, who is home in Lufkin, Texas, because the league apparently cannot use a designated hitter who posted a 136 OPS+ last season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Another former Giants infielder, Donovan Solano, is in Arizona hitting against extended spring training pitching, having just signed a minor-league deal with the Padres after finding no takers this offseason.

“It’s surprising,” Crawford said. “Those are two guys who have been for a long time, give you clutch at-bats, can be beneficial for a lot of clubs out there. It’s too bad. Nowadays there seems to be an age cutoff. I don’t have an answer.

“(Belt) is doing fine. One of the bigger disappointments for him is he knows he has more in the tank to help a team. And also, his boys wanted him to keep going. So it’s disappointing for them also.”

Crawford’s kids (he and his wife, Jalynne, recently welcomed No. 5) were his driving force in wanting to play another season. He also wanted to end on happier terms after dealing with injuries and communication issues over his last two seasons under former manager Gabe Kapler in San Francisco. Crawford said his piece in March about the end of his Giants’ tenure and how leaving wasn’t his choice. He still follows the team regularly and keeps in touch with players including like Mike Yastrzemski and Logan Webb. He looks forward to a rendezvous when the Cardinals play host to the Giants in a June 20 heritage game celebrating the Negro Leagues at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., followed by two games in St. Louis. And the really dramatic stuff? That could happen when the Giants play the Cardinals in San Francisco on Sept. 27-29 — the final series of the regular season.

Whether Crawford plays against the A’s in this series or not, he’ll stop to soak up a few last memories of the Coliseum. His parents might have been Giants season ticket holders, but once the family moved from Menlo Park to Pleasanton when Brandon was young, going to A’s games was even more convenient. So he said he shares in the disappointment that the franchise intends to play in Sacramento beginning next season with an eye toward a permanent move to Las Vegas as soon as 2028.

“It’s disappointing overall for Bay Area sports but especially for the city of Oakland,” Crawford said. “They already lost the Raiders (to Las Vegas) and the Warriors to the other side of the Bay, now most likely losing the A’s. The Bay Bridge series was such a great rivalry. They’d get the most fans here when the Giants and A’s would play. That was always a fun series for everyone involved. I can’t imagine a Las Vegas-San Francisco rivalry would be the same. So it’s disappointing.”

Crawford wrapped up his fourth interview of the afternoon. He took grounders shot out of the Little Red Machine, creeping closer with each backhanded stop until he was almost at point-blank range. A 37-year-old backup shortstop has to do everything possible to stay ready. More is more.

That goes for the postgame music victory mix, too.

“I want to say he’s got 40 playlists,” Winn said. “Whatever the vibe is, he’s got it. Definitely some Cali vibes for sure — which we’re OK with.”

(Photo of Crawford warming up pregame on Monday: Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)