BOSTON -- In the category of serendipitous timing, Christmas at Fenway took place on Saturday -- the same day the Red Sox were unveiling their latest marquee acquisition in what has become a Hot Stove for the ages in Boston.
The first batch of tickets for the 2011 season went on sale, in conjunction with the club's Christmas at Fenway event, at 10 a.m. ET, the precise time that Carl Crawford took part in a packed news conference at his new baseball home.
Crawford had his new white Red Sox jersey (No. 13 on the back) adorned over his dress shirt and tie (red, of course), and the Boston cap on his head.
Forgive the Red Sox and their rabid fanbase if they are feeling even a little more festive than usual this holiday season.
It was less than a week ago that Boston pulled off a blockbuster trade with San Diego for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. And now with Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million deal, they have an impact player of a different kind -- one who can take over games with his legs, bat and glove.
"Carl's been on our radar as a potential free-agent acquisition for a while, and actually since he signed his last contract, really," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "We started to get serious about it this year. We assigned Allard Baird, one of our top scouts, to follow Carl basically for the whole second half of the season.
"We did a lot of research and background information. As soon as the offseason plan started, we started to discuss it internally."
If the Red Sox had been planning this for months, the first Fenway seeds were planted in Crawford's mind not too long ago. It was less than two weeks ago that Epstein and manager Terry Francona boarded a plane to Houston -- Crawford's hometown -- and had a face-to-face meeting with a man they had competed against for so many years in the American League East.
"They seemed really sincere about it," Crawford said. "[Epstein] told me about how I could play with the players that they have here, that I really think are great players, and just the whole thing about how we can win and how he said I could help this team immediately. You want to feel like you're wanted, and he definitely came to Houston and made me feel like he wanted me. That was big for me, to feel like I was going to go somewhere where the people actually wanted to have me."
The Angels also wanted Crawford -- badly in fact. But they gave him a deadline of 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday to decide. Crawford's representatives, according to a Major League source, told the Red Sox and Angels that the player would need something in the neighborhood of $142 million over seven years. Once Epstein knew what it would take to get a deal done, he had a discussion with his ownership group and got approval to make the seven-year, $142 million offer.
The Red Sox closed the deal at 10:50 p.m., after being told by Crawford's representatives that Boston would be his choice if the offer was in the same ballpark as the Angels.
Despite multiple reports that the Angels' final offer was for six years at $108 million, a Major League source told MLB.com that the offer from Los Angeles was also for seven years at $142 million.
|Here are the 27 contracts of more than $100 million that have been signed since Kevin Brown's deal first broke the barrier in 1999 (asterisks identify contract extensions).|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||CIN||$116.5M||2000-08*|
|Sources: Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Associated Press and MLB.com archives|
"At the end, another club put a deadline on him, and we had just a couple of hours to make a decisive move and put us in a position where Carl would have to choose between two clubs with very competitive, if not identical, financial offers," Epstein said. "His agent asked, 'If everyone's at the same place [monetarily], where do you want to be?' And he said, 'Boston.' It came together on another team's deadline. We were very happy about that. We were able to get in touch with ownership, and they showed tremendous faith in us and tremendous commitment to winning."
Interestingly, the Angels had been mentioned as front-runners for Crawford for so long -- the assumption being that he wanted to play there as badly as they wanted him.
"I had interest in the Angels, but at the end of the day, I felt like my situation would definitely be better here in Boston," Crawford said.
Another break that came the Red Sox's way during this whole thing is that the rival Yankees were more preoccupied with trying to sign Cliff Lee, the top pitcher on the market. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman confirmed that he never made an offer to Crawford.
But this wasn't merely a case of Boston flexing its financial muscle. The personal approach that Epstein and Francona took with Crawford seemed to play a role, as well as the former Rays outfielder's familiarity with the AL East -- the division he's played in his entire career.
"That was really important to me, because I feel like the American League East is so exciting. The fans are so passionate in the East, and there's so much history," Crawford said. "I really wanted to stay in the American League East. When I heard about the interest [from Boston], I was definitely excited about it and happy I was able to stay here."
The visit to Houston likely wound up being far more valuable to Epstein and Francona than the frequent flyer miles.
"We felt like we had made a connection with Carl at the meeting, and he was really intrigued with being a part of our lineup, particularly after we traded for Adrian," Epstein said. "That kind of piqued his interest even more. We were prepared to under-the-radar grind it out a little bit, stay involved. We felt in the end he'd want to come here."
Francona, unbeknownst to many, had managed Crawford nine years earlier on a Team USA entry.
"He played for me on the USA team back before he was in the big leagues, so I saw him then," Francona said. "He was obviously young, talented, very athletic. Now he's got the years in the Major Leagues and he understands hitting a little bit more. He can turn on the ball and hit it out of the ballpark. He's got a little bit of Johnny Damon in him at the plate, where he can kind of confound you by fouling some balls off and you make a mistake and he hits one in the gap or something. He's athletic and he's talented and we're going to turn him loose and let him run around in Fenway."
And count Red Sox captain Jason Varitek among those who is pleased he no longer has to try to throw Crawford out.
"In my opinion, he's probably the most athletic player that's in the game," said Varitek. "Every year he just seems to get better. I was telling him this yesterday, we call it a window, [catching instructor] Gary Tuck and I call it a window. You get to throw a ball, boom, and I know if a guy's in 'this' window, where he's at, if he's going to be safe or out or if it's going to be close.
"It's just experience -- time and a certain distance. There's probably been three times I've known that if I make a perfect throw, I got him. But then it was like, 'No, I don't got him.' His acceleration the last 15-20 feet was the most different view. And I've seen Rickey [Henderson] slide into second, I've seen Ichiro [Suzuki] slide into second, but he was different. He almost accelerated to the bag more than I've ever seen any player from that view."
It is that type of acceleration that helped Crawford become the first position player to receive a $100 million contract without hitting 20 homers in a season. Ichiro's $90 million deal was the previous record.
Crawford, 29, hit .307 with 110 runs scored, 30 doubles, 13 triples, 19 home runs and 90 RBIs for the Rays this past season.
The contract is 10th largest in MLB history, behind deals previously signed by Alex Rodriguez ($275 million and $252 million), Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki and Miguel Cabrera.
Crawford's average annual value of $20,285,714 will also be the 10th highest in history. And his average annual value will trail only Ramirez all time in terms of outfielders. Ramirez recently completed a two-year, $45 million contract with the Dodgers.
Crawford has played 1,235 games in the Majors, hitting .296 with 215 doubles, 105 triples, 104 homers, 592 RBIs and 409 stolen bases.
A left-handed hitter, he had played his entire career with Tampa Bay, starting in 2002.
"It's never easy to leave a situation like that, because that's all you know pretty much in your life," Crawford said. "I've been with the Rays since I was 17 years old. It was a little different for me knowing I was about to leave, but you get older, you mature and you know things have to go a certain way. You understand that and you go with the flow."
The Red Sox -- with Gonzalez and Crawford adding to a lineup that already has Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury -- should go under the category of must-see in 2011.
"And [executive vice president/COO] Sam Kennedy, not to sound like a salesman, but Sam Kennedy told me to say that Red Sox tickets went on sale about half an hour ago," Epstein said late in Saturday's news conference. "They're going fast."
Yes, Saturday was Christmas at Fenway indeed.