HOUSTON — The big iron gates swing open, and from the front door on the other end of the long concrete driveway a voice cheerfully hollers, "Come on in!"
It is late on a Saturday afternoon and a sweltering 87 degrees in the quiet here after Hurricane Harvey ripped through two weeks ago. But signs of life are returning throughout the neighborhood. Inside the big house on the sprawling property ringed by what must be a 10-foot-high brick wall, a giant flat-screen TV is primed and waiting.
"We're getting ready for the fight," the man says, eagerly anticipating that night's showdown between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.
There was a time when Carl Crawford would have been smack in the middle of that action, doing what he did best: sprinting straight toward October. Though time changes, sometimes it sends reminders: Checks from the Dodgers still arrive on the first and 15th of each month.
Now in the final weeks of the monster seven-year, $142 million deal he signed before the 2011 season, Crawford is being paid nearly $22 million by the Dodgers this summer to not play baseball.
"It just seems like my hamstrings started hurting one day and never stopped," Crawford shrugs, shaking his head. "Then you compensate, and something else hurts."
Like leaks springing from a hose, once that process starts, the flow that once was so strong slows to a trickle.
Over 15 big league seasons, Crawford, a four-time All-Star, batted .290/.330/.435 with 136 homers, 766 RBI and 480 steals. Four times for Tampa Bay between 2003 and 2007, he led the American League in steals. Four other times, he led the league in triples. He hit .345 against Boston in the 2008 AL Championship Series, then banged two home runs in the World Series against Philadelphia.
He was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger in 2010.
Then, the ink on his free-agent deal had hardly dried when his body began to betray him. He never stole more than 23 bags again, hated Boston and hoped a 2012 trade to Los Angeles would bring new life. By the fifth season of those seven years, it was evident Crawford was chasing his own ghost, and he no longer had the legs to catch up.
"Every time I would get to 15 stolen bases, I'd get hurt," he says. "Every time, right at 15. That's when I knew, when I couldn't steal more than 15 bases.
"I was doing that in a month."
When the Dodgers finally released him with a .185 batting average and .230 on-base percentage following nearly two years of steady decline in mid-June, 2016, swallowing the roughly $35 million they still owed him, Crawford had a couple of chances to hang on. The Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies were among those who reached out. But Crawford says when his agent, Brian Peters, phoned, he knew what was up before answering and gave Peters a short answer: No thanks.
"I'm not bitter," Crawford says, smiling. "I'm happy. I gave the game as much as I could for as long as I could. I like watching now."
TO REACH THIS enormous property on the outskirts of Houston in an area known as Acres Homes, his fight-loving friends will drive past the Sears department store displaying the sign "Your Storm Recovery Headquarters," past a swath of land earmarked as the "Future Home of True Baptist Church" and make a turn at the corner where the Burger King is offering a "2 for $6 Whopper deal."
They will arrive at the property with the big wall, iron gates and the signs reading "Warning: Security Cameras in Use," "Posted: No Trespassing. Keep Out" and "No Soliciting or Loitering."
"Lonely? Nah," Crawford, who turned 36 last month, says from behind that wall. He gets that question a lot, and it's easy to see why. To go from the raucous atmosphere of packed stadiums to days as quiet and wide open as the Texas prairie…well, it's no wonder that last week, a cousin he hadn't spoken with in quite a while phoned with the same assumption. Talk to me, Carl, she said. Really, now, tell me how you're doing...
"It's so funny, man," he says. "I'd really like to get it on record: Everybody thinks I'm sad and lonely, and it's just not the case. It's not the case at all.
"I did my best. I got rewarded for it. I'm at my crib. I did everything I could. So you come home and enjoy your life. People never see me, so they take that as, 'Oh, he's so depressed and lonely.' No. I'm in the comfort of my own home, and I'm not worried about the outside. Trust me, I'm not depressed at all."
That he just kind of came back home when it all ended and is keeping to himself is no surprise to those who know him well. Several Dodgers field inquiries regarding Crawford these days with quizzical looks and zero answers.
"He's a very private person," explains closer Kenley Jansen, who says he hasn't been in touch with Crawford, nor has anyone else in the Dodgers clubhouse to his knowledge. "I think he's at home in Arizona. Or maybe Texas."
Crawford maintains residences in both states and splits his time. In Arizona, Crawford's son Leo, 3, lives with his mother. In Southern California, Crawford's son Justin, 13, and daughter Ari, 4, live with their mother.
But Houston always will be home. He grew up 10 minutes from here, in the shadow of what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park). A high school sports star who signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at the University of Nebraska and declined a basketball scholarship offer from UCLA, Crawford instead signed with the Rays, who had picked him in the second round of the 1999 draft. His father lives here in this house, and his mother lives not far away. So, too, does his brother, Cory, who manages the barbecue joint Carl owns, Burns Original BBQ.
Crawford knows the grind of the baseball schedule as well as anyone, how bothersome it can be as a player when people keep leaving you messages. So for now, during this transition, he is leaving his friends on the Dodgers alone.
"Just trying to become a normal citizen amongst the people, and that's pretty much it," he says of how he spends his time now. "Relaxing. Absorbing everything. Trying to be subtle. The main thing is trying to catch up on time with my kids, especially my oldest."
That's Justin, and he is quite a baseball player, Crawford says. He's playing some travel ball. Then Carl taps his iPhone and calls up a video of young Leo taking a swing at a baseball on a tee. Thwack! As Leo drills the baseball, Carl smiles the smile of a proud father. Yes, he figures, with these kids' bloodlines, he will be back in the baseball world soon enough.
He is fidgety. As we sit on a couple of bar stools off the kitchen and talk, just as when he played, Crawford's legs keep moving. The man always did have wheels. Only now, where he once routinely stole 50 bags a season, his wheels are out in the back yard of this expansive property. The smell of a neighbor barbecuing is strong. A smoker, probably. Crawford walks out and hops onto one of several four-wheel-drive vehicles that sit amid a full basketball court and three trampolines in the backyard—for the kids in the family—and zooms off along the perimeter of the property to investigate.
A couple of minutes later, he pulls up onto the back patio and brakes.
"Texas living," he says, nodding approvingly.
THOUGH HE HAS not been back to a ballpark since he left, Crawford knows who's winning. He likes the Washington Nationals because he is a Dusty Baker fan. He likes the Chicago Cubs because of his days with Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. And Los Angeles, well….
"The Dodgers did some crazy stuff this year," he says, noting both their 29-4 and 1-16 stretches. "I definitely saw that. You can't miss what they did this year."
When he watches the team that acquired him in 2012 when he was just 31, he says, it is not weird at all.
"I'm still rooting for them," Crawford says.
Then, he pauses, reels off a good line and laughs: "I was watching it from TV, anyway. I wasn't playing much."
Even for those players who leave on their own terms, the game flits by too quickly. One day you're bathed in the spotlight, applause filling your ears. A few blinks later, it all goes quiet.
Even as his body broke down–wrist, elbow, hamstrings, ankle, oblique, back–Crawford, who teammates always described as among the hardest-working players they knew, looked the part. He just no longer could act it.
"I wish I could have performed better there, because I really liked L.A.," Crawford says. "I just wish I could have played some of my prime years there. I gave them what I had, but it's still just frustrating when you can't do what you want to do. That's why it was no problem when the Dodgers called me into the house, because I already knew I couldn't play the way I wanted to play.
"At the end of the day, I'm going to sleep good at night because I knew that I gave it my best effort."
He broke in with Tampa Bay in 2002, when he was just 20, and calls his nine seasons there "the best years of my career." He played under managers Hal McRae and Lou Piniella before Maddon was hired in 2006.
"We went from last to first, we had come up with slogans and all type of stuff. Mentally getting in our head, 'This is what we're going to do.' A lot of stuff we thought was corny at first, but it actually turned out to be the driving force for us winning. It was cool."
"It was attitude. We just brought that culture of being positive and winning. I try to add that to my everyday life. Joe Maddon was the most positive person I've ever been around. I saw how that can rub off on people."
The highs of Tampa Bay quickly ceded to lows he never saw coming as soon as he signed the deal with Boston. A naturally shy, private person, Crawford was no match for the high-volume baseball experience of Fenway Park. Former outfielder Torii Hunter was with the Los Angeles Angels at the time and attempted to recruit Crawford there, but the Boston money spoke louder.
"I should have listened, man. They say, 'Don't go chasing waterfalls,'" Crawford says ruefully, dropping part of the chorus of the 1995 TLC hit.
It became his worst nightmare. He was not equipped to deal with the press in Boston, he finished that first year with a lowly .289 on-base percentage, hurt a wrist, had surgery and never regained his balance. It was as if he woke up one morning suddenly old. His best guess is, playing nine years on the hard artificial turf at Tropicana Field probably produced the wear and tear of 15.
"I gotta think it was the turf," he says. "All of a sudden, I was just having problems all the time."
He hated Boston. The feeling was mutual. And after the Dodgers acquired him along with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto in exchange for five players in August, 2012, he was more than happy to sling public arrows at Boston every chance he got.
"I carried hate for that city for a long time," Crawford says. "But now, I'm over that. I feel much better, because I learned that you can't hate something or you never get over it. It definitely was a learning experience, definitely that. I got that out of it, if nothing else."
At home over this past year, watching the Cubs last October, thinking back over it all, he feels Maddon's influence every day.
"I focus on the positive all the time," he says. "Even when the negative energy comes your way, I still find a way to find positive light."
It's why today, as the last of the checks arrive, he will spend October cheering hard for the Dodgers.
"I still got love for that organization," he says. "They saved me at a time when I felt I was just going to collapse as a human, break down as a human. That's why I'll always have love for L.A., because that city just really brought me back to life."
HURRICANE HARVEY HAD barely left town when Crawford joined a group of locals to collect and distribute supplies and food to those in need. The group worked out of a local boxing gym and for this, too, Crawford stayed under the radar.
"We just don't Instagram and things like that," he says. "I feel like some people don't want to be seen at their lowest moments."
That Crawford would be moved to help quietly in his native area is not surprising. Touched by what he saw on television of a youth team from Chicago, he helped support its trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 2014. He paid for the travel, hotel and meals for the parents of the 13 boys on the team, despite never having met any of them. He also has funded multiple scholarships through the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
"I came from nothing, so I always remember what it's like to have nothing," he says. "Those memories are still fresh in my mind. So if I see someone in need of help who was in a similar situation to how I was, I try to help. That's what I would have wanted as a kid for me."
Out back is the fitness equipment with which Crawford starts his wide-open days. He gets up in the morning and lifts weights (though nothing heavy anymore), goes for a jog around the perimeter of his property and then starts his day. Whatever errands he has to run, maybe some business with his restaurant.
He still looks like he's in something close to baseball shape.
"Well, you know, you don't want to feel like a bum," he says. "You want to be active. I don't want to just sit on the couch all day. I've got a big family. They're all big people.
"I don't want to get like that right now."
Always, he says, he planned to come back home when his career was over and, hurricane or not, help out in his community.
"I just fixed one of my cousins' roofs," he says of another post-hurricane task. "There's always going to be stuff. People still need help. This job ain't over.
"You feel better as a person when you know you contributed in a way you should have."
The family-run barbecue joint is a seven- or eight-minute drive from here. Crawford says he is a hands-on owner, that it "ain't one of those things where I just gave somebody some money to keep it going." It also helps shield him from financially strapped family members, because if one of them comes to him in need, he's got a pretty good line on getting them a job.
He's open to other business opportunities, too, as he tries to balance that line between enjoying his still-new free time and finding things to stay busy with. Same as most retired people, only the vast majority of them have 30 or 40 years on him.
Once, he would take himself out on Friday nights to watch high school football games. He thinks he'd like to start doing that again. Yeah, maybe one of these Friday nights real soon. Otherwise, when there is no fight, many of his nights are gobbled up by Netflix. He loves the current Narcos season, and he watches plenty of comedy specials, especially those starring Kevin Hart. Usually, he finds himself falling asleep in front of the TV.
"Pretty simple, man," he says.
Eventually, he figures, he would like to return to baseball. Maybe to coach.
"If Rocco [Baldelli] can coach first base, I know I can do that," he says, chuckling, of one of his favorite ex-teammates who now is coaching in Tampa Bay.
Closer to home, his favorite childhood team, the Houston Astros, young and athletic, are his kind of club. Maybe, he says, he'll make his return to the ballpark during a playoff game there this autumn.
But right now, there's a fight tonight, and the driveway is long enough that Carl Crawford, the former All-Star who once covered large swaths of big league outfields with the ease of a gazelle, hops onto a Razor scooter to accompany his visitor back to the main street. He whizzes around energetically, enthusiastically, like a reborn teenager with nothing but time and space in front of him.
Autumn is here, and Crawford mentions the Dodgers one more time, saying, "Tell the fellas I said hello."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.