Houston a befitting backdrop for Civil Rights Game
Crawford proud of area's strong African-American representation in baseball
HOUSTON -- It's hard to say how fate would have changed had Carl Crawford, one of the most heavily recruited high school quarterbacks in the country in 1998, decided to quit baseball and attend the University of Nebraska on a football scholarship.
"We used to say that's the reason [Nebraska coach] Frank Solich got fired, because Carl didn't wind up there," said Chuck Arnold, who coached Crawford in football at Davis High School in Houston. "He lost his quarterback."
Football's loss was baseball's gain.
Crawford was taken in the second round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft out of Davis by Tampa Bay and blossomed into a five-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner. Despite the gaudy numbers and mountain of recruiting letters Crawford garnered for his football prowess, those who were close to him always knew baseball was his path to stardom.
"You could tell it right away," Arnold said.
Crawford, 32, is one of a handful of talented African-American baseball players the Houston area has produced in the last 15 years, a list that includes Michael Bourn of the Indians, James Loney of the Rays and Chris Young of the Mets. Each had enough athletic ability to carve his own path in whatever sport he chose and somehow wound up excelling in baseball in football-mad Texas.
"It started out in the backyard, picking up the baseball when I was 3 or 4 years old and just walking around," Loney said. "As I got older, I knew over at the park they had a bunch of baseball fields over there. That's how I got started."
Crawford, Bourn, Loney and Young are helping to carry the torch for African-American players in Major League Baseball. It was a trailblazed by Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947, and has been continued by generations of players.
As a celebration of this legacy, the eighth installment of the Civil Rights Game will be played between the Houston Astros and the Baltimore Orioles at Minute Maid Park on Friday, May 30, airing nationally on MLB Network and called by MLB Network's Matt Vasgersian, Harold Reynolds and Sam Ryan.
As part of the festivities, The Baseball & Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion, moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, will be held at 12:30 p.m. CT on May 29 at Union Station to discuss the pivotal role baseball played in the civil rights movement. The event will be streamed live on MLB.com and Astros.com.
The MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon will take place at noon CT May 30 at the Hilton Americas Hotel in downtown Houston, where Commissioner Bud Selig will speak and MLB will honor best-selling author and poet Maya Angelou, founder of Motown Records and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Berry Gordy and pro football Hall of Famer Jim Brown with the Beacon Award. Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America," will be the keynote speaker.
The impact baseball had on Crawford's life is immeasurable. As a child growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward, he played Little League Baseball at Smokey Jasper Park and was as teammate of Bourn, whose father, Ray, coached both of them. When they reached the playoffs each year, they were allowed to pick up three more players, and the elder Bourn always chose Jason Bourgeois, who's played with five teams in six Major League season, including the Astros in 2010-11.
"We all have pretty much kept close with each other and know each other's stories," Crawford said. "We're all from the Houston area and share that bond."
Crawford is one of the most talented all-round athletes to come out of the Houston area. He was a district most Valuable player in football, baseball and basketball while at Davis. He started on the varsity baseball team as a freshman, but Arnold put him on the freshman team in football.
"As a sophomore, he said he was going to stick to baseball, so we let him go," Arnold said. "Four weeks later, he came back and wanted to stick with football."
Arnold had already decided on a quarterback for the 1996 season, so Crawford would have to be content to be the backup. When the starter got injured, though, Crawford came off the bench threw for 140 yards and ran for 150 yards in a 50-17 win over Bellaire High School.
"It was hard to go back," Arnold said.
Crawford, running the option, wound up leading Davis to the playoffs in football, a remarkable achievement considering the Panthers had snapped an 80-game losing streak only a few years before. Crawford's legend on the football field was just beginning.
Crawford put up huge numbers baseball field, too, hitting better than .600 his senior year, but skeptics scoffed at the level of competition in inner-city Houston. Still, scouts took notice of his raw ability, and Tampa drafted him and signed him to a $1.55 million bonus.
"Besides the fact, I loved to play, it gave me the opportunity to take care of my family instantly," Crawford said. "The combination of that made me choose baseball over football."
Bourn, 31, had passions other than baseball as well. He was a standout point guard, garnering all-district honors as a freshman for Nimitz High School on Houston's north side, before quitting basketball as a sophomore to concentrate on baseball.
"He just realized that maybe baseball was his best ticket to make it to the pros," Ray Bourn said.
The Astros took Bourn in the 19th round of the 2000 Draft, but he wound up playing three years for the University of Houston before the Phillies selected him in the fourth round in 2003. He later won two Gold Gloves with the Astros and made the National League All-Star team with Houston and American League All-Star team with Cleveland.
"I had a good time doing other sports, but I really think I chose the right path, man," he said. "I know I did. That's kind of tough. I ain't the tallest dude in the world. Trying to go out there and play [basketball], that wouldn't have been an easy option for me."
Unlike Crawford and Bourn, Young, 30, was somewhat of an unknown commodity. He grew up in Southwest Houston in an area where baseball was king. But when it was time to go to high school, he took advantage of a magnet program that allowed him attend baseball powerhouse Bellaire, which had produced Major Leaguers Chuck Knoblauch, Jose Cruz Jr., Kelly Wunsch and Bubba Crosby, among others.
Young was a sophomore on Bellaire's 1999 Class 5A state championship team.
"I was fortunate enough to come up in area where all the kids played baseball," Young said. "Baseball was the cool sport to play when I was a kid. It didn't change until my high school days where everybody started leaning away from baseball and going toward football and basketball.
"I don't know the reasons why, but I chose to stick with baseball, maybe because it was the sport I was best at. It wasn't the most popular sport, but I enjoy playing it and still love it to this day."
Young, drafted in the 16th round by the White Sox in 2001, was on the 2010 National League All-Star team with Arizona and is in his first year with the Mets. He had an attraction to baseball at an early age and never wavered in his love for the game.
"I made the decision to go pursue my dreams," he said.
Loney, 30, grew up in the suburbs, but crossed paths with some of the players from the inner-city who came up with him. He and Crawford are both products of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) youth-outreach program.
Loney played at Elkins High School in the Houston suburb of Missouri City for head coach Rick Carpenter -- father of Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter -- and helped the Knights capture the Class 5A title in 2002. He won the state semifinal game as a pitcher that year.
"My parents both played basketball, but when I was growing up we were doing different things, like baseball, football and soccer," Loney said. "I remember playing basketball when it was baseball season and I remember playing baseball."
These days, the Houston bond remains strong. The contingent mostly sticks together. Young works out in the offseason in Houston with Crawford, Bourn and Adam Dunn, who was a star quarterback at New Caney High School -- about 30 miles north of Houston -- and went to the University of Texas on a football scholarship before leaving the program to focus on baseball.
Crawford said the Houston ties are like a fraternity.
"You definitely let it be known you're from there and you want to stay there," he said.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. Anthony DiComo, Ken Gurnick, Jordan Bastian and Bill Chastain contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.