The first time I encountered Brandon Crawford this year, he was staring at a video machine after a game in San Diego, studying his swing from that day’s at-bats. The last time I encountered Brandon Crawford this year, he was being way too good a company man in filming a Giants promotional video, playing the John Stamos/Uncle Jesse role in a “Full House” re-creation, to the absurd point of strumming a guitar and wearing a late-’80s white jacket.
First takeaway: an intensely hard worker who wants to be great. “Hunger,” as general manager Bobby Evans describes his ethic.
Last takeaway: a grounded guy with a sense of humor who understands the importance of relating to fans while agreeing to a skit that most baseball players, including some of his teammates, would have rejected with snarls.
In the months between, Crawford was becoming the National League’s best all-around shortstop. He made his first All-Star Game, stole the Gold Glove from the dazzling Andrelton Simmons and capped his breakthrough season with the Silver Slugger award, delivering power in pitching-friendly AT&T Park with 21 homers, 33 doubles and 84 RBIs. He also, according to informal surveys of fans who care about such things, is said to be a heartthrob/looker, with rock-idol locks and a smile that could tame a garlic fry. Add the fact he’s from Pleasanton, where he rooted for the Giants as a kid, and the only question about his new six-year, $75 million deal is why the front office didn’t get it finished earlier.
Turns out the hitch was that Crawford wanted a no-trade clause because he loves it here too much. Done. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d rather play,” he said Wednesday, “and that was one of the biggest parts of the contract for me, knowing I’m going to be with the Giants the next six years. To have that sense of security, that I’m going to be here and my family’s going to be here in the Bay Area, was a huge part.”
The investment was wise, not likely to be remembered as anything but the obvious lock-up of a strong asset. Crawford represents the present and future, anchoring an all-homegrown infield that is the envy of an industry. At 28, he’s entering prime years that should extend for the duration of the new contract. And as the sort of family man and upstanding citizen this organization cherishes, after the recurring smudges of the Barry Bonds era, Crawford joins Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and, health permitting, the frenetic Hunter Pence as the leading performance cornerstones and marketing brands at 3rd and King.
No wonder Larry Baer, responsible for maintaining the popularity machine in a sports region now being raided by Steph Curry and the Warriors, was bubbling. “The success of our franchise depends on developing and retaining homegrown talent like Brandon,” said the Giants’ president and CEO. “Brandon is an integral part of the team whose performance on the field will be one of the keys to our success for years to come. This is an exciting day for Giants fans everywhere.”
And no wonder baseball boss Brian Sabean, not highly visible last season while enjoying his bumped-up role as wandering talent guru, wouldn’t have missed this press conference for anything. “The best thing I can say about this young man is he’s as good a person off the field as he is on — and that makes him a hell of a player,” Sabean said. “In front of our eyes, being homegrown and native-born, he’s exceeded a lot of expectations. But we shouldn’t be surprised because of his hard work. We’re thrilled. He exemplifies what we’re looking for in players.”
It’s also a reminder that an outstanding shortstop is an even bigger advantage when accompanied by two dominant pitchers atop the rotation. Yes, it’s that time again, a renewal of my relentless demand that the Giants recognize why they missed the 2015 postseason — their rotation let them down more than a slew of injuries — and commit to signing a second kick-ass starter to pair with a lonely, overburdened Bumgarner. That would be Zack Greinke, who finished second to Chicago’s Jake Arrieta in National League Cy Young voting Wednesday, whose addition not only would return the Giants to World Series contention but serve the double-trouble purpose of weakening the Dodgers.
This is such an obvious alliance — the savvy, unhittable righty matched with the workhorse, lights-out lefty — that you wonder what possibly could prevent it from happening. The Dodgers don’t appear to want Greinke back, maybe because they’d prefer David Price but possibly because they’re tiring of underachieving every autumn with all-time-high payrolls. When co-owner Todd Boehly told the Los Angeles Times that he’d like his business to be more sustainable, he shocked an already disgusted fan base by defining sustainable as reducing the payroll to be “more like the league average, plus some or plus a lot.” Whatever that means, the days of $300 million splurges appear over, which means Greinke should be available for the Giants when it once was presumed he’d re-sign in Los Angeles.
So, now that Proposition D has passed and the Giants can “compete with larger markets” via profits from the proposed Mission Bay housing and retail project — as if the dominant team in America’s No. 4 TV market couldn’t compete already — there’s no reason the Giants shouldn’t make a run at Greinke in the annual range of $30 million. As they’ve privately acknowledged, Greinke, who just turned 32, could have a Greg Maddux-type career into his 40s because he’s much more a craftsman than a blowtorch artist like Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw. The Giants, who’ve won three championships in six years by being smarter than the Dodgers, should be commended for a philosophy that has worked gloriously.
“We’ve got to be smart about it,” Baer told Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area, “because we don’t want to wake up in 2018 and say now our hands are tied because we did the $30 million deal to make us feel good in 2016.”
But Greinke is the exception. When he’s there, you must grab him, even if the Matt Cain and Barry Zito megadeals didn’t work out.
Otherwise, you’re going to waste your maturing Core Four of Crawford, Posey, Bumgarner and Brandon Belt, who is discussing a new deal — which should end rumors of interest in free-agent slugger Chris Davis.
“I’ll be here for the next six years,” Crawford said, “so I plan on at least three World Series rings again because it will be three more even years.”
2016 is an even year. Zack Greinke might make it another triumphant one.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.