Rays left fielder Carl Crawford is on pace for over 80 steals, most in a season since Rickey Henderson swiped 93 in 1988. Astros leadoff hitter Michael Bourn, the National League steals leader, is having the best all-around base-running season, as measured by Baseball Prospectus' equivalent base running runs. But who's faster?
For the record, the two tried to settle this once. It was a hot afternoon 15 years ago, at a baseball field at Smokey Jasper Park in Humble, Texas. Crawford and Bourn were teammates on the Mt. Zion Angels Little League team -- a perennial state champion, as you might expect. Bourn was the leadoff hitter; Crawford, a year older, hit third. They were close friends ("Carl came over to my house almost every day in the summers," Bourn said), but they also competed in everything: baseball, basketball, video games, ping-pong. One afternoon before practice they decided to settle who was the faster runner. "It was 70 yards," Bourn said. "We were neck and neck. I thought I had a chance. Then, the last 10 yards, he pulled away." Bourn added, "We haven't raced since."
The man who taught baseball's top two burners how to run the bases was Ray Bourn, Michael's father and the coach of the old Mt. Zion Angels. Ray first discovered Crawford when he was nine. "I was scouting the team that Carl's team was playing," Ray said. "His team wasn't that good, but I see this kid, and in his first at-bat he hits a single, steals second and scores. The next time he's up, he does the same thing. Finally, I'm leaving and heading back to my car when I see this kid walk up to the plate, so I tell myself, 'OK, let's see what he does this time.' He hits a single, steals second, and scores. I think to myself, I got to have this kid on my team."
Once, to prepare for a game against a hard thrower, Ray took his team to the local batting cage, where he was told by the attendant that he couldn't use the 85 mph machine. "He said the kids were too young," Bourn said, "but I said, give one of my kids a chance, and if he can't hit, then we'll go home." Little Carl, then 11, stepped into the cage, grabbed a bat, and smacked all 15 pitches he saw. Michael went next and hit 14 of 15 balls. "We got the cage for as long as we wanted," Ray said.
Ray Bourn still lives with his wife in Humble, where he watches his son play in nearby Houston. After an uneven first three seasons in the majors, Michael, who's having a career year at 26, has emerged as a vital table-setter for the surprising Astros. Ray also follows his old No. 3 hitter with a great deal of pride. "It was very clear early on Carl had tremendous talent," Ray said. "I just tried to keep pushing him." When Crawford was 13, his father thought Carl should quit baseball to focus on football. Ray visited the Crawford house in Houston's Fifth Ward. "I told Carl's father that would be a tremendous mistake," Ray said.
Crawford, of course, has bloomed into one of baseball's best all-around outfielders (that he hasn't won a Gold Glove is a true travesty) and is having the finest year of his oddly underrated career (according to baseball-reference.com, he is most statistically similar to Roberto Clemente at the same age). Still, Crawford every so often wonders what might have been on the football field: It's been 10 years now since he signed a letter of intent at Nebraska and was hailed as the next great Huskers quarterback. "I remember watching Tommie Frazier against Florida [in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl] running all over the field and thinking, 'Man, I want the chance to do that,' " he said. Crawford says he's always wanted that one chance: to take the ball under center, roll right behind the mammoth offensive line, fake the pitch to his running back, dance past a couple of defensive linemen, make that one safety miss in the open field, and dash 70 yards to the end zone. "That Nebraska offense, that was tailor-made for me," he said.
But here he is now, terrorizing teams on the basepaths, trying to lead the Rays to another October appearance. As for the great debate, Crawford says he's ready to settle the matter (again) with his old friend. "You can invite Michael, in fact, you can invite all the other guys in the discussion," he said. "We'll race before an All-Star game one of these years. I'll take my chances."