Small-town Crede makes good in Game 1

CHICAGO -- Joe Crede's parents made the trip from Missouri to Illinois for the World Series opener, and they brought inspiration by the boxload: All the kids from first through eighth grade at Crede's alma mater, St. Joseph's school, sent cards and letters wishing him luck against the Houston Astros.

Did Crede read them? As a small-town boy turned local hero, he had no choice.

"It's definitely a good feeling when you know you have that many people backing you, and they're watching and supporting you," Crede said late Saturday night.

Westphalia, Mo., a predominantly German town located on the Maries River, is barely a spec on the map. At last check, the local population was 306. But the locals can take pride in knowing they've spawned an honest-to-goodness October phenomenon.

Crede, who has tantalized the White Sox with potential in his quest to bring Robin Ventura-like stability to the third base position, is looking more and more like a finished product these days. After contributing a slew of clutch hits late in the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Boston and Los Angeles, he showed a more well-rounded side against Houston.

Crede clubbed an 0-2 pitch from Wandy Rodriguez over the center field fence for a solo homer to give the White Sox a 4-3 lead in the fourth inning and then frustrated the Astros with his glove. He made a diving backhand stop on Morgan Ensberg to snuff one Houston threat in the sixth inning and then stole a hit from Craig Biggio on a similar play in the seventh to contribute greatly to Chicago's 5-3 victory.

One by one, Crede's teammates pointed to the defensive gems as a testament to his unheralded brilliance in the field. While Crede may lack the cachet to beat out four-time winner Eric Chavez of Oakland or New York's Alex Rodriguez for a Gold Glove, the White Sox are convinced he merits one.

"I'm his biggest fan," said Chicago hitting coach Greg Walker. "I'm not a defensive guy, but I would pay to watch him play defense."

Until recently, it was questionable how many White Sox fans would pay to watch Crede hit. After Crede batted .239 with 21 homers in 2004, he devoted last winter to revamping his swing. Crede's biggest problem, Walker said, was firing too quickly with his back knee. As a result, he would commit too early in his swing and couldn't stay inside the ball no matter how hard he tried.

Crede showed signs of progress this season, only to have his hard work undermined by injuries. He suffered two herniated discs in his back and then broke a finger while squaring to bunt against Minnesota's Jesse Crain in late August. In hindsight, the two weeks on the disabled list might have been the best thing for Crede. He used the down time to take a breath, watch some video and make some adjustments with his hands that allowed him to be quicker and more assertive in his approach at the plate.

Crede hit a big home run against Cleveland's David Riske in late September to help the White Sox fend off the Indians in the AL Central race. He won the disputed A.J. Pierzynski third-strike game against the Angels with an RBI double in Game 2 of the ALCS and produced the tying home run off Kelvim Escobar and the winning infield hit against Francisco Rodriguez in the series clincher against the Angels.

It was more of the same Saturday -- with a pair of Web Gems to boot.

"We tease Joe all the time," Walker said. "We tell him, 'You've got the league set up now.' But teams can't get him out going by the book anymore. If Joe swung the bat like this all year, I'm sure some pitchers would be a little more careful with him than they've been in the postseason."

The folks back home in Westphalia are no doubt busting their buttons with pride. Teammate Aaron Rowand, who accompanied Crede home to Missouri for some turkey hunting this season, is amazed that a kid from such humble origins is so unflappable with history bearing down on him and 40,000-plus fans screaming in the stands.

"I'm going to try and pick my words nicely, because Joe might be reading this," Rowand said. "It [Westphalia] is a small town in the middle of nowhere. For Joe to come out of a place like that and be on a stage like this and be as coolheaded as he is, it amazes me.

"I guess you could use the words 'Steady Eddie.' He doesn't get too high or low. He's got a real calm demeanor to him. Pressure or no pressure, he gets the job done."

Crede, who traditionally prefers a clean-cut look, appears slightly grungier these days, with curls spilling out from below his cap and a tuft of hair dotting his chin. He was planning to get a haircut midway through the season. But with the White Sox on a tear, Rowand told him it would be bad luck. The team guy in Crede couldn't help but oblige.

Long hair or short, all those St. Joseph's grade-schoolers still regard him as a role model. Crede remembers the feeling from the early '90s, when he watched Tom Henke, from nearby Taos, Mo., pitch Toronto to a world championship. Those televised images made a lasting impression on him.

"When you dream about playing in the big leagues, you always dream about being good," Crede said. "You don't play in the backyard and think about being a .250 hitter."

Joe Crede, the pride of Westphalia, is most definitely good. The thing is, everybody knows it now.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.