FORT MYERS, Fla. — Carl Crawford leads off first base, watches the pitcher’s motion, then takes off at just the right moment for an easy steal of second.
And, then, maybe third.
He’s one of the best at swiping bases, especially against Boston. And now, to the great relief of manager Terry Francona, he can do it for the Red Sox.
“He looks awful good in our uniform,” Francona said Friday. “When he walked in today, I said, ‘It’s amazing how you can hate somebody so much in a different uni and then fall in love with him when they’re in your uni.’”
Crawford stole at least 46 bases in seven of his last eight seasons with Tampa Bay. He had 47 last year then agreed to a $142 million, seven-year contract with Boston as a free agent.
His 62 stolen bases against the Red Sox are the most he’s had against any team. They’ve thrown him out just four times. Against Jason Varitek, now Boston’s backup catcher, he’s 35 for 36. That includes his 6-for-6 performance against Varitek on May 3, 2009, tying the major league high for steals in a game since 1900.
Crawford laughed heartily when it was suggested that his stolen base totals might suffer now that he can’t take advantage of the Red Sox.
“I try to get as many as I can every year,” the four-time AL stolen base champion said. “That’s my goal, to try to come out and put pressure on the other team and steal as many bags and try to get into scoring position.”
That pressure also will come from his new teammate, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who has two of the four highest stolen base totals in Red Sox history — 50 in 2008 and a team-record 70 in 2009 before swiping just seven last year when broken ribs limited him to 18 games.
“He’s the guy that I think of as kind of like myself,” Crawford said. “We can run together. I want him to do as good as he can because I think the better he does, it’s going to help everybody out.”
With either of them on first, pitchers have a tough choice: fire a fastball over the plate to keep them from getting a good jump — but perhaps surrendering a homer — or letting them steal and focus on retiring the batter with a good pitch.
That was Francona’s dilemma when he looked out of the Boston dugout and saw Crawford at first.
“We came to the conclusion that if he got on base four times he was going to get stolen bases,” Francona said. “You can spend so much time trying not to give up a stolen base that you end up giving up three runs.”
Francona hasn’t said where Crawford and Ellsbury will bat in the lineup.
“Either back to back or separated,” Ellsbury said, “definitely makes it tough on opposing pitchers.”
For decades, the Red Sox were known as a bunch of plodders — plenty of power but little speed.
From 1936 through 1993, a span of 58 years, they stole more than 80 bases just four times.
“It’s not something that this franchise has been known for,” general manager Theo Epstein said. “I think we’ve tried to get away from the righthanded, power-hitting, pull-hitting base clogger as a core element of the club.
“We have some good right-handed hitters, but we’re really looking for players who can help us on both sides of the ball, players who can run the bases well, are well-rounded. We’ve been trying to get more athletic for years.”
Their 120 steals in 2008 were the most since they had 129 in 1916. In 2009, with Ellsbury’s 70, they stole 126. But with Ellsbury sidelined, that dropped to 68 last year.
If he and Crawford stay healthy, they figure to swipe more than 129 this year.
But the new left fielder brings much more than just speed that intimidates pitchers.
An outstanding defensive player throughout his career, Crawford won his first Gold Glove last year in left field. He hit .307 last year, the fifth time in six seasons he surpassed .300. And he’s hit at least 11 triples in five of the past seven seasons, with a high of an AL-best 13 last year.
The short left-field wall in Fenway Park might turn potential triples into doubles, but Crawford won’t concede that.
“I’m going to take off running so fast that if the guy plays around just a little bit, I’m going to still try to go for three,” he said. “I like to get triples.”
But if he has to stop at first, he could be standing at third later in the inning.
That happened in the fifth inning of his six-stolen base game when he singled and stole second and third. He also stole second in the first and continued to third on Varitek’s throwing error. Two more stolen bases came after he beat out infield singles.
When Crawford was in Boston in December for his introductory news conference, he talked with Varitek.
“We just kind of gave each other a hug, kind of buried the hatchet a little bit,” Crawford said, “and I let him know, I’m on your side now, so you don’t have to worry about all that anymore.”
He also apologized Friday for not mentioning his years in Tampa Bay at that news conference when he struggled to speak with a sore throat.
“If I made a few people upset, I’m sorry about it,” Crawford said. “Everybody knows I loved Tampa when I was there. I had a good time there. It’s just (that) at the press conference I was overwhelmed by cameras. I’d never been in this kind of situation before and it just slipped my mind. So to the people in Tampa and the front office, I apologize and I’m sorry about that.”
Now that he’s with Boston he doesn’t expect problems adjusting to the team’s large media following and passionate fans — both missing with Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Crawford said. “So I just have to find a way to get used to it.”