Advice from Crawford's idol: 'Solidify this infield'

Advice from Crawford's idol: 'Solidify this infield'
April 1, 2012, 7:09 pm
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. When he was 8 years old, back when hisbaseball games ended with a snack bar ticket at the Little League field,Brandon Crawford made a daring goal for himself.

Hed watch Giants games on TV. Hed go to Candlestick Parkwith his family. Hed spend most of his time watching shortstop RoyceClayton. And he made up his mind.

Thats exactly what I wanted to be the opening dayshortstop for the Giants, Crawford said. Just like him.

The narrowest of goals. The longest of odds.

Yet Crawford will stand on the baseline for the ceremoniesat Chase Field on Friday. Hell smooth out the dirt with his spikes. He'll watchas Tim Lincecum throws his first pitch, and ready himself for that first groundball.

The dark-haired, blue-eyed kid, born in Menlo Park andraised in Pleasanton, will become the 22nd opening-day shortstop in the Giants' San Francisco era.

He'll achieve his goal. And his idol couldn't be prouder.

I think its great, said Clayton, who was the Giantsopening-day shortstop from 1992-95. Im sure hell do more than fine givenwhat I hear about his ability and the way he goes about his business. Hopefullyhe will stabilize the middle of that infield for many years to come.

I really appreciate that they have a homegrown talent atthat position. That's a rarity.

Indeed it is. Crawford will become just the second fully homegrown Giantsshortstop to start on opening day since Clayton took the field 17 years ago.The other was Brian Bocock -- a short-term emergency fix after OmarVizquel required knee surgery in the spring. Bocock only played 38 games withthe club.

Crawford is expected to play many, many more. Giants managerBruce Bochy said he expects the 25-year-old to start 150-plus games thisseason. Thats partially due to Crawfords strong spring and improved approachat the plate. Its also due to a lack of palatable defensive alternatives. Mike Fontenot was released and Ryan Theriot hasnt lookedgood with the glove or arm on the left side of the infield.

Brandon is really throwing out some quality at-bats and playeda heck of a shortstop, Bochy said of Crawford, who entered Sundays CactusLeague finale with a .327 average and .411 on-base percentage. Hes solidthere and really has had great focus at the plate, using the whole field. Ithink hes going to surprise some people, and hes going to contribute to thisoffense.

And if he doesnt? If he hits a brutal slump and startschasing pitches, as he did when he hit .204 as a rookie last season?

Then allow Clayton to repeat a bit of advice he received asa young buck.

The first day I stepped out there, Robby Thompson took me aside,Clayton said. He said, Never forget that your core responsibility is tosolidify this infield. I never forgot that. All through my career, thatmessage trickled down. And thats what Id pass along to (Crawford).

Id tell him, Make sure you bring your glove, and makesure you have it the last day you walk off the field. Because thats the mostimportant tool hell bring to the ballpark.

Crawford and Clayton have spoken a few times over the years.Their first conversation was a sales pitch, actually. Claytons agent, JoelWolfe, was recruiting Crawford to sign with his agency out of UCLA. When Wolfeheard that Clayton was Crawfords favorite player, the next move was automatic. He passed along a scrap of paper with Clayton's number.

Just in talking to him briefly, I was really pleased at howexcited he was to be a Giant and how much he loves to play the game, Claytonsaid.

Those keyed-up feelings remain fresh for Clayton, whoretired in 2007 after playing 17 seasons for 11 different major league clubs.

Till I decided to retire, I was a starting, opening-dayshortstop and I took that as an honor, Clayton said. When the bell rung,whether I was with the Giants or Cardinals or even my last year in Toronto, Iwas a starting shortstop. Its something I was taught to appreciate just asmuch as making an All-Star game. Its very special. Youre a part of the festivities and you havethat optimistic attitude going into the season knowing, as a shortstop, youreright in the middle of it.

Unlike Crawford's immediatepredecessors, he is not on the downslope of his career.

Creaky Miguel Tejada started at short on opening day last year.Edgar Renteria started the previous two. Then it was Bocock, and Vizquelthe three seasons before that. Neifi Perez was the stopgap in 2004.

The last truly long run at the position belonged to Rich Aurilia,who made six consecutive opening-day starts from from 1998-2003. Aurilia is considered a Giantthrough and through, but by strict definition, hes not a homegrown player. TheGiants acquired him as a minor leaguer in a trade from the Texas Rangers.

Jose Vizcaino and Shawon Dunstoneach started an opener at short for the Giants in the pause between Aurilia and Clayton. It didn't prove easy to replaceClayton, who was traded after the 1995 season to the Cardinals for pitchersDoug Creek, Allen Watson and Rich DeLucia.

Light-hitting Johnnie LeMaster holds the San Francisco-era franchise recordwith seven opening-day starts at shortstop. Chris Speier started six and JoseUribe started five.

Now that I know the history, its pretty cool, saidCrawford, after being shown the short list. It doesnt get much better.

Its easy to forget, but opening day also will mark thefirst time Crawford and Buster Posey will call themselves big league teammates.The two good friends, who bonded after the Giants took them in the same draftclass, have not shared the field since Single-A San Jose three years ago.

Crawford, remember, made his major league debut last May, just two daysafter Poseys ankle was shattered in a home-plate collision. It wasnt easy for Posey to find much to smile about in thedays after the collision. He was in agony. But when Crawford launched a grandslam for his first major league hit in Milwaukee, Posey sent him a text:

Youre my favorite player.

Now Crawford will get to live out the dream he envisioned while watching his favorite player all thoseyears ago.

Its going to be special for him, Clayton said. Ill neverforget my first opening day start in L.A. against the Dodgers. It was a sign ofthings to come, a great rivalry, 50,000 fans and all kinds of requests fromfriends and family. So much going on. I was trying to take in the moment,appreciate it, but not get caught up in it.

Whenever Clayton found himself getting caught up, he rememberedwhat Thompson told him.

Once I got the respect of Robby, that was definitely thething he harped on with me to solidify that infield, Clayton said. I reflectback on that and it helped me maintain my longevity in the game, ringing thebell for 17 years.

"Thats the piece of advice I give to Brandon, andif he understands that, Im sure hell be successful.

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