Former MoonDog Brandon Crawford Talks About His Career
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN
SHORTSTOP / SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
My phone rings. It’s the Minnesota Twins.
Actually, it’s a scout from the Twins. I remember sitting down with him in the lead-up to the draft. But now, it’s draft day, and I’m sitting at home in front of my computer screen. Back in 2008, only the first round of the MLB draft was televised. The rest was online. No expert analysis, no player breakdowns, no fanfare. A player’s name would pop up in the empty space next to a team’s logo, and that was it. He was drafted. On to the next.
Before my junior year I was projected to be a first-rounder. The fourth round is now underway, and here I am, still on the board, with the Twins on the line.
“We’re thinking of taking you with our next pick.”
They want to know if I’ll sign with them if they draft me.
It’s a tough one. I could still go back for my senior season at UCLA and enter next year’s draft. Maybe get into the first round. And I don’t know anything about Minnesota. I’m a Bay Area kid, born and bred.
I picture myself in a Twins uniform. I think about the weather in Minnesota — I know it’s cold there as I played in the Northwoods League out of High School. Then I think about UCLA.
As I’m thinking about it, one by one, the empty spaces on my computer screen fill with the names of the newly drafted. With each one of them, a kid’s dream coming true.
I’m thinking — the phone still pressed against my ear, the Twins on the other end. I look down at the Twins logo on my computer screen, 10 picks away at No. 126 overall. The picks are coming in fast. Next up, at No. 117, the Giants. The space next to the logo still empty.
Then, a name pops up.
Brandon Crawford, SS, UCLA
We all did it as kids. You’re out in the backyard, two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded. You step up to the plate, and … you know. You’re the hero. The crowd goes wild.
I did that a lot. And when I did, I pretended I was doing it in a Giants uniform.
When I was five years old playing T-ball in Menlo Park, Calif., Royce Clayton was my favorite player. In T-ball, you play every position. Shortstop was my favorite. Royce was the shortstop for the Giants — my favorite position, on my favorite team. So he was my favorite player.
I had a Barry Bonds growth chart in my bedroom so I could measure myself next to a life-sized Barry and see how tall I was getting. I had Giants posters all over my room, along with a couple of A’s posters. It was pretty much all Giants, but I was just a fan of baseball, so I had stuff from other teams up there, too.
Except the Dodgers. That just wasn’t allowed in our house.
There’s even a photo of me as a kid at a Giants game back at Candlestick. You might have seen it. It was back when there was a lot of talk about the Giants possibly moving to Tampa. I remember my dad telling me before that game that it might be my last — the Giants could be gone soon.
I didn’t like the sound of that.
It wasn’t even our sign. It just happened to be right next to me when the picture was taken.
But it might as well have been my sign. That’s how I felt. The Giants were my team.
So when I had the Twins on the phone — “We’re thinking of taking you with our next pick” — it was a debate. Would I sign, or go back to school?
But when it came to the Giants, it was different. It was the Giants. It was the dream.
So we entered negotiations, and a couple of days before the signing deadline, I signed a contract to become a San Francisco Giant. And I couldn’t wait to put that Giants uniform on.
At one time or another, I was also a Volcano, a Defender, a Scorpion, a Flying Squirrel — all those weird minor league names people love.
But I had to wait. Everybody knows baseball isn’t like other sports, where you get drafted and go straight to the Show to join your new team. Nope. It was mid-July, and the Giants were halfway through the 2008 season.
And I went to Arizona for rookie ball.
I wore a lot of uniforms before I got to put that San Francisco Giants uniform on and walk up the dugout steps of AT&T Park. Sure, we were called the Giants in rookie ball and again in high A ball in San Jose, but it wasn’t really the same. At one time or another, I was also a Volcano, a Defender, a Scorpion, a Flying Squirrel — all those weird minor league names people love.
The years of going from team to team and town to town in the minor leagues is kind of a blur. But you always remember certain moments and the guys you came up with.
I remember rolling my ankle at first base trying to beat out an infield hit in my first game at short-season Salem-Keizer. I missed the rest of the season — not a great start. I remember going down to the Dominican Republic for instructs and hitting home runs in my first two at-bats. I remember being one of the only two Americans on the team, and how cool it was to experience all the Latin players and the culture. I remember meeting Hector Sanchez down there, and him barely being able to speak English.
I remember how good it felt to play at home in San Jose in 2009, and how stacked our team was. We had Conor Gillaspie at third, me at short, Nick Noonan at second. We had Tim Alderson, a first-rounder, pitching. We had Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.
That was hands down the best minor league team I played on.
I remember Tim, Bum and me all getting called up to Double A Connecticut together. On one of our first nights with the team, we were on the road in New Hampshire. We were staying at a Holiday Inn or something, and the three of us walked to an Applebee’s across the street. Tim and I split a 2-for-$20 deal. One appetizer, two entrees and a dessert.
Bum ordered a 2-for-$20 deal. For himself. The appetizer, both entrees and the dessert. And he ate every bite.
Minor league living to the fullest.
I remember Brandon Belt making hitting in the Double A Eastern League — probably the toughest league to hit in in the minors — look easy.
I remember seeing Hector Sanchez again in San Jose a couple of years after playing with him in the Dominican, and his English had gotten so much better. You could hold an entire conversation with him, no problem.
I remember thinking how hard he must have worked on that.
The minors are a grind. Sometimes you forget that you’re playing for a major league organization. But when you’re with a team like the Giants, you never know when you’re gonna get called up. They move guys around a lot in the minors, and I think one of the reasons they’ve had so much success in recent years is because they have a really good feel for when to bring a guy up, whether it’s just to the next level or up to the big leagues. They’re not afraid to call a guy up, even if he’s not a top prospect.
Look at Matt Duffy. He was an 18th-round draft pick. As he put it, “Not exactly at the top of anybody’s, ‘Hey, watch this guy’ list.”
He never even played in Triple A. He got called up to the Giants straight from Double A. And now he’s got a World Series ring and he’s a key contributor on this team.
The Giants don’t care who you are or where you came from. If they think you can help the team out, they’ll call you up.
When I got the call in 2011, I had just finished rehabbing a broken finger and I was back in high A ball in San Jose. I figured it would be like any other rehab stint and I’d be headed to Triple A soon. So after a couple of weeks in San Jose, I called up Bobby Evans, who’s now our GM. He was the assistant GM at the time.
“What’s the plan, Bobby?”
“Just keep playing, Brandon. You’ll be in [Triple A] Fresno soon. We’re trying to figure out where everyone’s gonna go. It’ll probably be a couple more days.”
So I just kept playing.
A few nights later, we were on the road in Bakersfield, and I had a good night — like, 3-for-4-with-two-doubles-and-a-home-run good. And that night back at the hotel, close to midnight, I got a call from Bobby.
“How easily can you get to Fresno?”
“Well, I came here on the team bus, so I don’t have a car here. How would I get to Fresno?”
“Okay, well it doesn’t matter. You’re coming up to San Francisco tomorrow.”
The Giants don’t care who you are or where you came from. If they think you can help the team out, they’ll call you up.
That’s the Giants’ way. They see you hit a hot streak down on the farm, and if they have a spot they’ll bring you up and see if it’s the real thing. You show them a little and they’ll see what else you’ve got.
So I called my wife — who was my fiancée at the time — and my parents, packed my bags and hit a 7 a.m. flight out of Bakersfield (I didn’t even know they had an airport in Bakersfield) and flew to San Francisco. There was a driver waiting for me at the airport, and he took me straight to the stadium.
There was a hat and a jersey and everything set up in my locker for me when I arrived, but it was kind of a weird day because I got there so late. It was an afternoon game, and I arrived about an hour before the game. So nobody cared about this kid who just got called up. They were getting ready to play.
I didn’t play that day. I just kind of hung out and took it all in. I almost pinch-ran at one point.… I had my helmet on and I was ready to go. But I never saw the field.
That night, we flew to Milwaukee. And the next day, for some reason, Bruce Bochy posted the lineup earlier than usual. Like around 2 p.m. Five hours before game time. I walked into the clubhouse, checked out the lineup and instantly got butterflies.
7. Crawford, 6
That was me, batting seventh, playing shortstop.
With five hours before first pitch.
Plenty of time for the anxiety build up.
I tried to do everything as normal as I could — just treat it like another game, that’s it. But by game time, the butterflies and the nerves were still there. I’m starting a major league game.
But in the first inning, I got exactly what I needed.
Rickie Weeks led off for the Brewers, and Timmy Lincecum got him to hit a ground ball right to me. So I got to make a play right off the bat and record the first out of the game. And when the ball left my hands on the throw to first base, I let go of all the butterflies and nerves along with it. It felt natural and normal.
It was just a game, like I’d played hundreds of times.
I felt so comfortable that when I got my first major league at-bat in the third inning, I got some good wood on a line drive to center. The center fielder caught it for the out, but it felt good. That mattered.
After grounding into a double play in the fifth inning, I found myself at the plate in the seventh inning in one of those backyard-when-you-were-a-kid situations …
O.K., it wasn’t two outs in the bottom of the ninth or anything, but top of the seventh, trailing 3–1, on the road, with your team riding a three-game losing streak is still a pretty big spot for a 24-year-old in his major league debut.
With nobody out, I felt like I could drive in a run. All I had to do was hit a fly ball. I had never faced Shaun Marcum before, and to that point, I had only seen a changeup and a couple fastballs from him. But this time I got a curveball — that I was not looking for — on the first pitch.
Normally I wouldn’t swing at a pitch that I had never seen before. But for some reason I just saw it good as it came out of his hand and decided to swing.
I knew I hit it well, but I didn’t know it was going out.
That put us up 5–3, and we won, 5–4.
It felt great to be in the big leagues, but to be able contribute to a win and to do something that not many guys had done before in the history of baseball — hit a grand slam in your major league debut — was pretty awesome. To have it be the game-winner was even better.
My phone blew up with calls and texts after that game. I had to stop going on Facebook because I got so many messages and notifications. I have not gone on Facebook since that day in 2011. It was just too much, and I never went back.
I’d never had my phone blow up like that before, but it’s happened a few times since.
The next time was the following season, after the World Series in 2012.
The thing I remember most about that World Series run — aside from it being the most amazing experience of my life — is that it was when we got our first Hunter Pence speech.
It was Game 3 in Cincinnati. We were down 0–2 in a best-of-five. The Reds hadn’t lost three games in a row at home all year, and we had to sweep all three games in Cincinnati to stay alive. It wasn’t looking good for us.
I think Bochy got up and talked to us first. He gave us a pretty good, “Let’s go, don’t stop fighting!” type of speech. But Boch doesn’t really get fired up. He’s more stoic. All business.
Then, Hunter got up there, with his football mentality. Straight from the heart. F-bomb every other word. Like a crazy person.
It was so … intense.
So … Hunter.
Every team needs a guy like Hunter. Having a mix of guys like Hunter and guys like Buster and Bum and myself, who are more calm and don’t let anything faze them, is great for any team. You have whatever mentality you need, whenever you need it.
Down 0–2 to Cincinnati, we needed Hunter.
In the 2014 World Series, we needed a different kind of mentality.
That entire Game 7 in Kansas City will always stand out to me because it was unlike any game I had ever played before. The intensity level was just turned up as high as it could go. That had a lot to do with the Kansas City fans — they were as loud as any I had ever heard. Win or lose, you’re going home. The whole season literally came down to one game. It was all on the line.
So leading 3–2 in Game 7 on the road, we didn’t need that intense Hunter Pence mentality. We needed that cool, calm, won’t-let-anything-faze-us mentality.
We needed Bum.
When Bum came in, it felt like it was the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera was coming in. That was just the feeling that we had as a team. Maybe the Royals felt it, too.
But it was only the fifth inning.
And just like Mariano did so many times in the ninth inning, Bum shut down a great Royals offense … for five innings. They couldn’t touch him. He was unhittable.
He was exactly what we needed.
We were world champions, again.
And again, my phone blew up.
The most recent time I had my phone blow up was this offseason, when I signed a new contract to stay in San Francisco.
To stay a Giant.
To stay home.
I literally have a lifetime of Giants memories — from Royce Clayton, Bonds and that photo of me as a kid, to my minor league tour and a pair of World Series titles. I wasn’t with the big league club for the 2010 World Series, but as a lifelong Giants fan — and seeing guys I played with in the minors out there winning a ring — it was still special. I’m just excited to have this new contract and to continue living out my childhood dream of putting on that Giants uniform and bringing world championships to the Bay Area.
2010 … 2012 … 2014 … I guess we just like the even-numbered years.
And I can’t help but notice 2016 is another even number.
Let’s go to work.
BRANDON CRAWFORD / CONTRIBUTOR