Around this time 10 years ago, I made my first-ever trip to Memphis for baseball. The Triple-A Iowa Cubs were playing a series there against the Memphis Redbirds, so I made my maiden voyage to AutoZone Park – a “must see” on the minor league ballpark circuit.
I went up to the press box to grab a quick pregame meal and game notes, and I showed my official credentials to the press box attendant.
She took a look at my ID card and said, “So you’re with the Chicago Cubs, hmmm …”
I did the eye roll, since I figured abuse was coming for being a Cubs employee in St. Louis Cardinals country. But then she finished the rest of her statement.
“If you really work for the Cubs, tell me who Crawdaddy is.”
Crawdaddy’s name is Jim Crawford, but he’s only known as Crawdaddy for the rest of this story. In baseball circles, if I said Jim or Crawford, people wouldn’t know who he was. Heck, about the only thing you might call him other than Crawdaddy is Mr. Crawdaddy.
For those of you who don’t know him, Crawdaddy is one of the characters of the game – a longtime baseball scout and a great human being. He retired this year after an amazingly long run as a high school coach, a college coach, a minor league coach and as a scout. Since his own playing days at the University of Southern Mississippi, he spent well over 50 years in the game.
But that’s just bio-type talk. That doesn’t tell you who Crawdaddy is.
First, let me try and place an image of him in your head. Straw hat on his head … big wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth the size of a baseball. He’ll probably tell you the Hollywood stereotype you’re now imagining would resemble Tom Cruise.
Crawdaddy is a lot of things, but stereotype is not one of them.
He’s one of the old-time baseball lifers who treated the players he brought into the game like family.
“Crawdaddy is a special man. He’s the last of a dying breed,” said Ryan Theriot, who was selected by the Cubs in the third round of the 2001 draft – and was recommended and signed by Crawdaddy. “Analytics, numbers crushers … they’re pushing out guys like Crawdaddy. His value isn’t just X’s and O’s … his value is so much different. People will never understand that until they’ve been in his shoes – and seen what he’s seen. As a player, to be able to appreciate the knowledge he shares about the little things that would have gone unnoticed … that knowledge helps you get there.
“I was telling this story the other day, because the SEC Tournament is going on. A catcher for LSU, Jordan Romero, is leading the team in homers. I used to babysit him – which shows you how old I am. He was my neighbor growing up. He’s a junior, so he’ll probably get drafted. He’s been struggling a little bit, and he called me to talk about it.
“I said, ‘Jordan, let me tell you what the scout who drafted me told me before the SEC Tournament. He told me that (then-Cubs president) Andy MacPhail – I didn’t know who he was – and (then-Cubs director of player development) Oneri Fleita – who I also didn’t know who he was – were coming to watch me play. That made me nervous. And then Crawdaddy said, ‘Ryan, I don’t care if you make five errors and go 0-for-30. I want you to run on-and-off the field. I want you to run as hard as you can to every base. I want you to run like a deer as fast as you can everywhere you go. They’re not looking at what you do after you get a hit. They’re going to be looking at what you do after you fail.’ That made a lot of sense to me. I never really heard that before. I thought scouts were just looking for the flashy stuff. He explained it to me … ‘What are you going to do when you fail? Because you’re going to fail. It’s going to happen.’ It was a good message, and that was Crawdaddy. Those things go unnoticed. You can’t put a value to that knowledge that he gave me right there. There’s no matrix that you can throw that into and analyze it. That doesn’t exist.”
Crawdaddy didn’t actually discover Theriot. It was the other way around – thanks to Ryan’s grandfather, Ray Theriot.
“I can remember talking to Crawdaddy in middle school,” Ryan said. “My grandfather actually directed Crawdaddy to our Little League game -- on a field behind the high school field where he was scouting a few guys in Baton Rouge. My grandfather went up to him and said, ‘Hey, you look like a scout. If you want to see a real player, he’s over there on this other field. And Crawdaddy kind of laughed. But that’s how our relationship started – when I was just a young guy, 12 or 13 years old.
“Crawdaddy was a presence in my professional life the entire time. Obviously, scouting was what he was there to do. But he was more than that. He was a mentor and a guy that I could ask questions to. I wasn’t the only one. He made the whole process, which is very unnerving, much more comfortable.”
Crawdaddy started following him “for real” once Theriot reached the college level. As he did with all the players he was following, it was his job to get to know the player … to figure out his mental makeup … to learn how to push his buttons. As part of that, he learned about the player’s family. He stayed in touch after the draft. He brought a human element to the whole process that people just don’t know about.
Take Theriot, for example. As part of the telling of his story, Crawdaddy – without provocation – headed straight to family and keeping up with the infielder during a rough patch.
“I liked him as a freshman at LSU,” Crawdaddy said, “and I got to know him really well over the next couple of years. I got to know his grandfather really well. I got to know his mother and daddy. I just liked the way he played. He played hard. He had the ability to play multiple positions on a ball club. He had the speed to play centerfield. He was sure-handed.
“I know when he was in the minor leagues, he was sort of struggling. Bobby Dickerson was his manager in Double-A. Theriot said, ‘I’m not getting a chance to play.’ I told him, ‘When you play, make your manager want to play you tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Quit crying, and get to work.’ And he did. Theriot really had a work ethic – and became a pretty good ball player. And he wound up with two championship rings – one with the Cardinals and one with the Giants. He was just a hard-nosed good ball player.”
Crawdaddy felt a responsibility to all of the players he signed for professional baseball. It wasn’t just “sign your name here and have a good life.” His words might sound hard nose, but it was his way of saying “I’m there for you if you need me.”
“I stayed in touch with all of them,” he said. “My favorite thing … I’d talk to them when they were on the road. I’d call them at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning and tell them, ‘Get your butt out of bed.’ One of the first things I’d tell them, ‘You ain’t playing hard enough’ – and start a conversation that way. I knew their wives, their family. I would call them to say hello. I would call people in their family to say hello.
“I always followed up with them when they were playing. I’d ask them if they had any personal problems they needed to talk about or stuff like that. And ‘How’s Your Mother, How’s Your Father?’ Or with Theriot, ‘How’s your Grandfather?’
“Staying in touch … that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
After spending time as the baseball coach at his alma mater – Vigor High School near Mobile, Ala. – Crawdaddy joined the University of South Alabama coaching staff as an assistant coach. In his second year there, athletic director Mel Lucas brought in Eddie Stanky to run the baseball program.
Stanky was already a legend when he arrived on campus. He was a three-time All-Star during an 11-year major league career. He was one of the first Brooklyn Dodgers to publicly defend Jackie Robinson. And he came to South Alabama with seven years of major league managerial experience.
Crawdaddy figured Stanky had someone in mind to be his assistant coach, so he offered to walk away. Stanky told Crawdaddy that he wanted to give him a year, and then they’d talk about whether a change should take place. They never had that talk. The two spent 18 years together.
Crawdaddy couldn’t have asked for a better baseball mind to hang around.
“He was way ahead of a lot of people,” Crawdaddy said. “In 1969, we were doing depth perception tests on our players. He wanted to know what a player would be like on Friday night in the SEC against the best pitching. With runners on second base and one out, he’d want to know RBI ratios. With two out and runners in scoring position, what was their percentage of getting them home? Tommy John was one of his favorite players who played for him with the White Sox. He would put up the box scores and he would circle it in red – showing that Tommy had zero walks or one walk. And he was interested in ground balls. His running game was better than anybody’s in the big leagues today.
“Stanky was a great person. He was hard-nosed. If he was playing against his mother – if he had to take her out at second base on a double play – he would. He was by far ahead of a lot of people in baseball today. He was far advanced for his time.”
Thanks to Stanky and some of the people in Stanky’s circle – like Pee Wee Reese, George Kissell and Harry Walker – Crawdaddy learned some of the most important traits of the scouting world.
“I learned a lot just sitting and listening what these guys talked about,” he said. “Coach Stanky taught me two important things to look for that I took into scouting: Work ethic and mental makeup. I would explain to a kid after they signed … You were a big fish in the pond when you were at LSU or Podunk High School. But now, you were just another fish in the pond when you got into pro ball. And you had to work – and work extra hard – to be there.”
Work ethic and mental makeup go directly to what makes Crawdaddy special. As a scout, it was his job to know everything there was to know about the athlete. And to get to know the player meant … well … get to know the player.
“One of the first things I’d do with all the players – and their mothers would have a fit – I’d want to go see their bedroom,” he said. “Most of that was done in the winter. You get a lot of information that way. You visit them in their home. When I was talking about going into their bedroom, my concern was looking at pictures they had on their wall. Did they have football players or baseball players? It gave me an idea of what his personal makeup habits were. Did he make his bed for his momma? Did he just toss stuff on the floor?
“I would take the families out to eat. It became very personal with the players you signed. You wanted them to do well. You wanted them to be a person that anybody with the Cubs would want to have as a friend.”
As a scout, you can do a lot of legwork and just not see the rewards. For instance, you can project a player to be selected in the fourth round. If the team two slots before you picks that player, the scout was correct – but didn’t get his guy.
“You’ve only got a one-in-30 chance of drafting a player with the way the draft is,” Crawdaddy said. “You had most of them right in the draft. You just didn’t get them because of where your team picked in the draft. So it’s all about just knowing the people in your area.
“All of it was fun. I had a great time.”
When the press box attendant in Memphis jokingly asked me to tell her who Crawdaddy was, I laughed.
Crawdaddy had warned me about her a few days before, telling me to give him a call if she gave me any grief. He then ended the conversation with his patented “This is Crawdaddy, over and out.”
His career was full of listening, learning and observing – and giving correct scouting reports.
Crawdaddy may be retired now, and he may not travel as much as he used to, but – as he’s told me many times – he’s still above ground. I’m going to make sure checking on him is part of my regular routine.
As Theriot neatly summed it up, “It’s been a long life on the road for that little man. That dude’s had some miles under his feet, for sure.”