Shay Crawford resurrected his career with Lee University in Cleveland, TN, an NAIA school for which he was 11-2 with an 1.21 ERA in 2011. (Photo Courtesy of the Cleveland Daily Banner)
For every high selection like Taylor Guerrieri or Mikie Mahtook each draft, there is a player like Shay Crawford.
A player that most people don't know much about and is one of the multitudes of faceless minor leaguers toiling away in the small cities of America, playing the game they love in relative obscurity.
A player who is drafted with little fanfare and who has the odds stacked against him to move up in the organization and get a shot at playing in the majors.
A player who didn't get a huge draft bonus and has to work in the off-season to make ends meet.
The minors are full of players like these and the Rays Shay Crawford is one them. After hearing his story, it is hard not to root for guys like him. They play the game knowing in the back of their minds that it could all end any day, but continue on undaunted, because they love baseball and they just can't leave the sport without giving it their best shot to try and make it to the major leagues.
Shay Crawford's story is inspiring, but in many ways it isn't unique. There have been, and will continue to be, thousands of players like him. Some of them will defy the odds and one day step foot on the grass at a major league ballpark to finally live out their dream. The sad reality is though, that many will not. After talking to Shay Crawford, I'm hoping that he is one of the ones that makes it.
His story after the jump.
Left-handed pitcher Shay Crawford didn't expect to be drafted last summer in the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft, but when he was, it was the culmination of a life-long dream to play professional baseball.
Drafted in the 41st round after 1259 players had been selected before him, Crawford thought that his opportunity had slipped away.
"I was on my computer on draft day, not really sure if I was going get picked or not and not really having any expectations that I would be," Crawford told me last week in a half-hour phone interview. "I got a call from the Twins in like round 36 or 37 saying that they might take me, but then they ended up not taking me. So I got up from the computer and went outside and was actually getting ready to leave - I think I was going to work out or something - and then got a call from a Tampa Bay Rays' scout who told me that they were going to take me in the 41st."
Crawford was finally going to get his shot at pitching professionally for a major league organization and the emotion of the moment was something he'll never forget.
"It was an incredible moment," Crawford continued. "It was probably one of the happiest moments of my life. A lot of hard work had finally paid off. I didn't really think it was going to happen, but it did and I was very excited to get the opportunity that I did."
The journey for Crawford has been an emotional and rocky one and at one point the 24-year-old Tennessee native quit baseball altogether.
"I transferred from UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham) - I had been at UAB for 4 years but had gotten hurt one year - and had a medical red-shirt year available. But after playing at UAB I just really wasn't enjoying baseball. So I hung it up."
"I started working in Nashville and on just some whim decided that I might be interested in playing my fifth year. I sent out a couple of e-mails to a few NAIA schools in Tennessee not really expecting to get an answer. I ended up somehow at Lee University, a traditional NAIA powerhouse-type program and found some success there. It's actually kind of a crazy story."
The decision to attend Lee and play baseball was a good one for Crawford and he re-discovered his passion for the game by returning to his roots as a ballplayer.
"I think the turning point was when they said to go back to throwing in a way that feels normal to you. I think at UAB I was trying to be someone I wasn't and trying to have perfect mechanics and it just wasn't me. So when I was at Lee they told me to go back to what ever felt natural and comfortable and I did and found success. "
Crawford put together a phenomenal year for Lee in 2011 going 11-2 with a 1.21 ERA and ended up being one of four players that were drafted from the school in last year's draft. He credits his turn-around to the help of his family and coaching staff at Lee and admits it wouldn't have been possible without them.
"I think going to Lee really helped me learn to have fun with baseball again, something that I hadn't had in awhile. That helped me with relaxing and not really worrying about the expectation of getting drafted and having to prove myself to everybody and letting everybody down. I think that relaxing and going back to being myself like I was in high school really helped. I credit that to the coaching staff at Lee and my parents who really helped me a lot during that time, because I was pretty down. It ended up working out for the best and I am really excited about it."
It is hard for a talented high school baseball player who is used to being the best player on the field to deal with disappointment and lack of success and Crawford is no different. In fact, it was one of the factors in his decision to stop playing.
"Baseball at UAB just really wasn't fun for me anymore and I wasn't enjoying it. I think seeing a lot of the guys that I had grown up with and played with getting drafted really got me down," Crawford told me sadly.
"I think when I realized that it wasn't fun anymore, that's when I realized that I needed to move on. I loved my coaching staff at UAB, there was never an issue with the coaching staff. They're great guys and I still get in touch with them from time to time. I just kind of felt like if I wasn't enjoying it anymore then it was probably best to move on. I would say that was kind of the reason. Not getting drafted and realizing that there might not be a future in it kind of got me down - that was part of the reason - but I think there were a lot of other reasons that went into it as well."
But just because he has been drafted, Crawford knows that he can't let up. He will still have to prove himself to the coaches and player development people in the Rays organization.
He did very well in his first year professionally, and between the rookie level GCL Rays of the Gulf Coast League and the Princeton Rays of the Appalachian League went 3-2 in 16 appearances with an ERA of 3.14 while striking out 44 hitters in 28.2 innings. Crawford told me about his first taste of professional ball and how he managed to have so much success.
"Being a 41st round pick, I just came in with the idea that I had to come in and prove myself every time out. I'm 24 now, so I'm a little up there in age and it took me a long time to get here. So when I got there, I really just emphasized on attacking the zone. So I was trying to go with my best stuff every time and be aggressive and it paid off. I'd attack guys with the fastball and felt very confident in my slider. I just felt like I could go right after guys. For the most part I found success. There were a couple of outings where I was getting the downward bite on my slider and it came back to bite me a little bit. But for the most part, I felt pretty confident in attacking the hitters with my best stuff. So that was kind of the plan I stuck to and for the most part found success with that."
His success last year is a building block for Crawford to work off of, but he knows that his future in the organization hinges upon him moving up through the system fairly quickly and the Rays have told him that his future will be that of a left-handed reliever out of the pen. To his credit - he seems fine with the role after starting primarily in college. He also knows it is his best shot at making the major leagues.
" I was pretty much told right off the bat that If I was going to move up in the organization, it was going to be in that role as a lefty reliever out of the bullpen. So I've kind of embraced that. I really enjoy it. I like the idea of being able to throw multiple days in a row. . It took a little but of time to get used to. Having to warm up really quickly and going through that process. But I've really enjoyed it and really embraced it. I feel good about it and feel like that gives me the best shot.
There are plenty of mental adjustments to make for Crawford now that he is a reliever and one of them is adjusting his daily routine.
"I think being a starter, you have a lot more time. You are very detail oriented and have a warm-up plan that you go through as a starter. I repeated that routine every week. The mental adjustment as a reliever is just knowing that at any time you might have to warm-up and go out there and throw. It took awhile to get adjusted to that and feel like 'OK I'm warm enough, now I can get on the mound and throw.' It's a mental adjustment learning to speed up a little through that warm-up process. Over the summer I think I got pretty used to that. "
He has been working hard this off-season to better his chances of continuing to get hitter's out as he prepares to move to a higher level in the organization and hopes that he will have gained some velocity on his fastball from his efforts.
"An area of focus for me has been gaining strength in my upper body, so I've hit the weight room extremely hard since I got back. I think I've put on close to ten pounds of muscle since I started. I'm really excited to see how that translates into added velocity. The coaching staff that worked with me were hoping that I could get into that 90-92 mph range as a reliever out of the bullpen. I was in the 88-90 mph range last year, so I'm excited to see if the added strength increases my velocity."
He has also been working on a new pitch which he plans to unveil this spring and hopes that it will help him once he begins to face better hitters.
" A work in progress has been the change-up and that's something that I've really been emphasizing this off-season. I'm excited about bringing it out in the spring."
Many of the young 18 and 19-year old players that Crawford played with last year - and now counts among his friends - have been impressed with his long, arduous journey to be able to play professional baseball. Crawford hopes that - if nothing else - he can be a mentor for them.
"I think at Princeton, I might have been the oldest guy on the team, and in the GCL I know I was. It's a little but of an insecure feeling in a way I guess. I think a lot of them were really impressed with my story and how I got there and they were interested in hearing about all that."
"A lot of those guys have some really good tools and the talent to make it. I was excited to share the summer with some of them and make friends with a lot of them. Going forward I'm going to try and mentor some of those guys and try and give them the advice that they need to keep pushing forward. It's gotta be tough being right out of high school and being away from home for the first time."
As excited as Crawford is about being a member of the organization, he knows that the odds are long and having to face the old "he's too old for this level" thing is not deterring him from going out this season and giving it his all - and more importantly enjoying the experience.
"It's definitely crossed my mind. (being 24 years old in rookie ball) But I think that my parents and girlfriend and everybody have convinced me to just go out there and take it day-by-day."
Crawford has his bachelors degree from UAB and is currently working on his Masters degree in Business Administration at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. He will finish up his studies for the semester just a few weeks before spring training, and knows that if professional baseball doesn't work out for him, he has a college education to fall back on. He hopes to one day work in a major league front office when his playing career is over.
" I'm just going to go out in spring training and hope it all works out. If it doesn't, I have a college degree and I'd be happy with whatever came next."
He also know that if the Rays cut him today, that he has already won.
"If it ended tomorrow, I'd be ok with it, because I made it. I got drafted and got that shot that I was looking for and had a lot of fun with it. It's a great opportunity that I got drafted and nobody can ever take that way from me."