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02/27/12 4:05 PM EST

Crawford laments lost season, eyes rebound

Left fielder out to show he has skill set to be among game's best

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the 2011 season finally ended, Carl Crawford was emotionally drained and physically spent.

"I can't even describe how bad last year was," he said. "Going through failure for the first time, it was hard to deal with."

Crawford returned to his home in Houston to begin the process of clearing his mind. For several weeks, he attempted to think of anything except baseball.

"Houston is a comfortable spot for me, back home," he said. "I didn't do anything the first month, just stayed in my house. Finally, I got up and said, 'It's time to go back to work.'"

I'd visited Crawford shortly after he signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in December 2010. That deal represented so many things to him, not just financial security, but the confirmation that he was one of baseball's best players.

Crawford has always been relentlessly conscientious in his preparation, and in the weeks before Spring Training last year, he spent several hours a day in the gym with his longtime trainer, Lee Fiocchi, working on his strength, speed, flexibility, etc.

By the time Crawford reported to the Red Sox, he'd never been in better shape or worked harder to get his swing back in a comfortable spot. The 30-year-old was completely confident he was going to do special things in 2011.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona texted him several times prior to Spring Training to warn him against trying to justify his big paycheck. Boston only wanted him to do what he'd always done -- play great defense, steal bases, etc.

In nine seasons with the Rays, Crawford led the American League in triples three times and stolen bases four times. But he'd never hit more than 19 home runs, and the Red Sox were fine with that.

Looking back on it, Crawford said it was impossible not to be impacted by becoming one of baseball's highest-paid players.

"I think it's natural when something like that happens, you just want to show what you can do and why they paid that money," he said. "In baseball, you can't really play like that. You have to be relaxed and do the things you always do and not try to overdo things."

Whatever the reason, Crawford looked like a shadow of the player he'd once been. He hit just .155 in April and seemed to be playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"It was more mental," Crawford said. "I couldn't think straight. Everybody knows I'm gifted when it comes to the physical part. I felt good until I hurt my [left] hamstring. It seemed like I couldn't catch a break. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. That normally never happens."

That had never happened to Crawford. To this day, there are Houston high school coaches who say he's the greatest athlete the city has produced. He was a three-sport star who was courted by Nebraska in football and UCLA in basketball.

That Crawford might actually fail at something seemed laughable to those of us who'd seen some of the spectacular things he'd done.

"It was everything," Crawford said. "It was the mental part of dealing with the media, and all that stuff kind of got hold of me. It was downhill from there, and I could never turn it around."

There was almost never a time last season when Crawford looked like the player who'd been so good and so consistent for nine years. Some of it was a nagging left wrist injury that required offseason surgery and has left him questionable for Opening Day.

"You start to struggle and then you're thinking about stuff," he said. "We both know you can't think too much in this game. It's already hard. I couldn't figure out what was going wrong. I was still trying to figure out my way around, the organization, stuff like that. It was tough for me.

"When I woke up every day, I was hoping I'd be myself, that I could be the old Carl Crawford. I didn't understand why I was going through what I was going through. It was a hard time."

Crawford's .252 batting average was down 52 points from 2010, and his other numbers were stunningly diminished. His stolen bases declined from 47 to 18, his on-base percentage from .356 to .289.

Crawford knew things would be different in Boston, where there's more attention, praise, criticism, etc. The left fielder just didn't figure he'd have trouble dealing with that part of the game.

"It's a little more magnified on the national scene," he said. "Everybody knows what you do. If you have a bad game, the whole country knows about it. It comes with the good and the bad. If you do well, everybody knows about it. I stopped watching [TV] after awhile. I knew I'd had a bad game and nothing nice was going to be said. Why would I even put myself through that?"

Somewhere along the way, Crawford completely lost the fundamentals of the swing that had taken him to the big leagues.

"I couldn't figure it out at the plate, so the easiest thing to do is to swing hard,'' he said. "That's what I tried."

Crawford arrived at Spring Training this year still recovering from left wrist surgery, but intent on getting back to and sticking with the hitting mechanics he'd always used.

"I was able to rest my mind and go back and correct things," he said. "Hopefully we'll see the results of that this year."

Crawford has had some housekeeping to do. First, there was a meeting with Red Sox owner John Henry regarding Henry's comments that he was against signing Crawford from the beginning. Henry apologized.

Crawford also had some chats with new manager Bobby Valentine, who made critical comments of Crawford's swing last season when he was an ESPN analyst. (Crawford agreed his swing had become a mess.)

Mainly, this spring is the next step in Crawford reestablishing himself as the player he'd been for the first nine years of his career. That player was one of baseball's best, a consistent producer capable of winning games both offensively and defensively.

"It's not even about showing people I can still play," Crawford said. "It's about proving to myself that I can still play. My goal is just to get back to being the person I was -- running again, going the other way, playing good defense."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.