In his role as the San Francisco Giants' shortstop, Brandon Crawford is accustomed to being measured against Troy Tulowitzki, Andrelton Simmons and his more esteemed positional peers. But his most relevant major league comparable might be Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, a man who annually tops the list of dugout heartthrobs most likely to appear on the cover of People magazine for purely non-baseball reasons.
In Crawford's case, the aura of cool begins with the swag, or flair, if you prefer. For as long as people around him can remember, Crawford has been fond of wearing wristbands, Titanium necklaces or wraparound shades perched just so atop his cap. During his college days at UCLA, the Bruins had a rule prohibiting players from hanging batting gloves out of their back pockets, so Crawford grudgingly complied. But he pushed the sartorial envelope and made sure those pants were as long and baggy as possible.
"We tried to tone it down, and he tried to tone it up," UCLA coach John Savage said. "If you look back at his UCLA pictures, he looked like he was 15 years old. Now he looks like a movie star."
Crawford's ultracool vibe is enhanced by a mane of hair that's equally formidable spilling out from beneath a baseball cap, batting helmet or wool beanie -- a look that he somehow manages to pull off during 75-degree spring training days in Arizona. Joel Wolfe, Crawford's longtime agent, jokingly refers to him as a "cross between Tupac and Eddie Vedder."
Throw Crawford's boy-band good looks into the equation, and it's no surprise he's popular with female Giants fans. A group known as Crawford's Cougars roots him on fervently via Facebook. As an aside, the Cougars are not a collection of Brigham Young University alums.
"I know a guy who goes to Giants games a lot, and he tells me, 'The ladies' room at AT&T Park is always empty when Brandon Crawford comes up,'" Wolfe said.
Curiously, amid the 415 area code buzz that Crawford generates, his national profile is borderline subterranean. He's on a list with Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Sale, Nolan Arenado, Sonny Gray, Brian Dozier, Chris Archer, Yan Gomes and a select few others on baseball's All-Underrated team, despite a portfolio that should be attracting lots of national attention.
Crawford has been the starting shortstop on two World Series winners, and last year his grand slam silenced PNC Park and propelled the Giants past Pittsburgh 8-0 in the National League wild-card game. He also landed in the middle of the pivotal play of Game 7 of the World Series, catching a relay throw from the outfield and steeling himself to nail Alex Gordon at home plate before Kansas City third-base coach Mike Jirschele wisely threw up a stop sign.
Crawford even has budding connections to baseball royalty: His sister Amy, a former UCLA softball star, has been dating Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole for years, so he's practically in-laws with a future NL Cy Young Award winner.
To those who wonder how Crawford could do all that and still be relatively anonymous, the times might be changing. In this, his fifth big league season, Crawford continues to earn raves for his glove work while logging his best offensive numbers yet. He leads major league shortstops with a 2.8 WAR and 40 RBIs, and is second overall with an .855 OPS and nine home runs. That kind of production is hard to ignore.
"Everybody on this team understands how good he is," Giants pitcher Tim Hudson said. "He's one of those upper-echelon shortstops who should be talked about in the same breath with the best. I think he's on the verge of his coming-out party. This could be the year where he says, 'Here I am, and I'm not going anywhere for a while.'"
Bay Area boy
Playing shortstop for a major league team in the San Francisco Bay Area puts Crawford smack in the middle of two lifelong comfort zones.
As a youngster in the town of Pleasanton, 25 miles east of Oakland, Crawford cheered on Giants teams led by Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. His father, Mike, had season tickets, and the calendar year played out with a diamond-themed rhythm. Each spring the family headed to the Cactus League in Scottsdale, Arizona, to soak in the sun and collect autographs. Come summer, the Crawfords spent a lot of nights at Candlestick Park, and young Brandon grew accustomed to watching batting practice in a T-shirt and wearing a parka by the sixth inning.
In 1992, the Giants flirted with a move to Tampa, and the San Francisco Chronicle snapped a photo of a 5-year-old boy beside a sign urging National League president Bill White to help keep the team in California. The young Giants die-hard had a skinned left knee and wore an earnest expression beneath a backward baseball cap.
No one could have predicted that two decades later, little Brandon Crawford would be riding down Market Street in two World Series parades. But the kid's priorities were clearly in order. It was only fitting that Crawford's earliest Candlestick memories revolved around Royce Clayton, San Francisco's starting shortstop from 1992 to 1995.
"My favorite position on my favorite team became my favorite player, just kind of by default," Crawford said. "I probably went to a game and he made a great play and became my favorite. When you're a little kid, that's all it takes."
Crawford, a talented high school quarterback when he wasn't playing baseball, got a nibble from Georgia Tech before deciding to attend UCLA. He started 179 straight games in Westwood and helped the Bruins to three straight NCAA tournaments, but the early draft buzz around him faded after he hit .189 for Orleans in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2007.
Scouts questioned Crawford's bat, and some talent evaluators looked at the serene exterior and wondered if he had the requisite passion for the game. Giants area scout Mike Kendall, the brother of longtime big league catcher Jason Kendall, looked beyond the surface assumptions and pushed for Crawford, but it didn't prevent him from dropping to the fourth round and the 117th pick overall.
"Almost to a man, the scouts said they didn't think Brandon had enough fire or played with enough energy," said Wolfe, who was Crawford's adviser in the draft. "Brandon had just one gear, but it was the same gear. He brought the same level every day, whether he struck out three times or went 4-for-4. That's what you want out of your shortstop, isn't it?"
Crawford methodically worked his way through the Giants' system on the strength of his defense. When he talked to his parents or his agent and reflected on a given day's events, the highlights were invariably the same: Crawford would recount how many ground balls he had fielded cleanly or double plays he had turned or accurate throws he had made on the run.
Somewhere during a 15-minute conversation, he might also share the news that he had two hits, a stolen base and a run scored.
Crawford's obsession with defense at the expense of almost everything else is a recurrent theme in his career -- from Foothill High School to UCLA to the stops in San Jose, Richmond, Norwich and Fresno that marked his path to the majors.
"We couldn't keep him off the field," Savage said, "and we could barely get him in the batting cage. He wanted to play defense. That was his stage. It didn't matter what he did offensively. He'd run out there and make the routine play and the acrobatic play."
During the Giants' 8-5 victory over the New York Mets on Wednesday, Crawford ranged into the hole to make a fine defensive play, prompting Mets TV analyst Keith Hernandez to praise his defense and lament that East Coast fans don't have a chance to watch him more often. The sequence was garden-variety Crawford to Giants fans, who see his instincts, strong arm and exceptionally quick glove-to-hand transfer on display on a daily basis.
"It doesn't matter if a ball is in the hole, up the middle or a slow roller," Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said. "There's no play he can't make. He made 21 errors last year and people say, 'He makes errors.' But just look at all the plays he makes."
In a more understated way than Simmons or some of his flashier peers, Crawford embraces the creativity and imagination that comes with the position. He feels a sense of belonging at shortstop that the batter's box will never completely provide.
"It's like his art -- his instrument," Wolfe said. "It's like the pitcher is the lead singer, and Brandon is the lead guitarist behind him. He's got that look."
He's hitting too
Crawford has enjoyed an offensive coming-out party this season while becoming less discerning at the plate. He has offered at a career-high 37 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and swung and missed a personal-high 13.4 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. He's also hitting .422 with a .733 slugging percentage in 45 at-bats against left-handed pitching.
"I'm trying to be more selectively aggressive," Crawford said. "If a ball is slightly out of the zone and it's still a hittable pitch, I'm letting it fly a little bit. I'm trying to stay up the middle rather than try to pull everything or go the other way, which hasn't worked for me in the past."
Although Crawford's placid demeanor can make him appear distant or aloof, the people who know him best see a different side. He's a low-maintenance athlete who posts doting pictures of his two little girls on his Twitter account and has been described as a "homebody" by his wife, Jalynne.
During a recent interview, Crawford pulled out his cellphone and proudly displayed a photo of his 2-year-old daughter doing gymnastics. Jalynne Crawford (who has an identical twin) was a gifted gymnast at UCLA, so the two Crawford girls, Jaydyn and Braylyn, were blessed with some athletic genes.
Slowly but surely, Crawford's profile is coming up in the world. He did some endorsement work for the True Religion jeans company last year, currently appears on a Nike billboard in Union Square in San Francisco, and is partnering with Wells Fargo to raise money for San Francisco schools.
Crawford's Cougars are definitely fired up about the heightened exposure for their favorite player. As one ardent member recently observed, it would be "Crawsome" if their boy makes it to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati in July.
Until that day, the most spirited debate in the Giants' clubhouse revolves less around Crawford's place in the major leagues' shortstop hierarchy than how his "flow" compares to World Series hero and staff ace Madison Bumgarner. The San Francisco players try to be diplomatic. But when pressed, most of them say Crawford has the better hair.
"Bum is definitely more proud of his than Crawford is, for sure," Hudson said. "Craw has the nice flowing locks, but he's like, 'whatever, who cares.' Every time Bum walks by a mirror, he's glancing at it and flipping it up like he's in junior high."
Bumgarner grudgingly concedes that Crawford has the superior hair, but only because Crawford is "sensitive" about the topic and he doesn't want to hurt his shortstop's feelings.
"He likes to look good -- there ain't no doubt about that," Bumgarner said. "He used to catch a little heat for that in his first year or two when we had a little bit older club. But he stuck with it. He's got all the gear. He's got it figured out."
With the benefit of hindsight, it appears Brandon Crawford had it figured out from his days as a starry-eyed Giants fan at Candlestick Park. The baseball world just took a while to start paying attention.