It’s 7 p.m. in the banquet room of a Hampton Inn on the University of Missouri campus in February, and a few hundred people are scarfing down BBQ wings and waiting for Royals All-Star reliever Aaron Crow to speak.
One of the best pitchers the Mizzou baseball program ever had, Crow was drafted twice in the first round before eventually signing with the Royals in 2009 and shooting through their farm system. Three years later he’s a major-league All-Star, returning to campus to be the keynote speaker at the program’s annual preseason dinner.
Many people in the crowd, including me, are expecting the shutdown setup man – who sports a career 2.94 ERA – to come to the podium beaming with some mix of proud nostalgia and accomplishment. We’re expecting a speech on what athletes usually make speeches about – platitudes like hard work and determination – and we’re excited to hear it. These aren’t revolutionary ideas, we know, but athletes are paid to play, not think. We’ve heard all that stuff before, so we’re really here not for what Crow has to say, but to see him say it.
But we still expect him to say something.
7:15 rolls around and Eric Blumberg, a television reporter serving as the night’s emcee, announces the guest of honor. On the mound, Crow’s breaking ball is arguably his best pitch; he likes to drop the hammer . On this night he lets his battery mate do the honors.
“I know it says Aaron is supposed to be speaking tonight,” Blumberg says. “But he feels more comfortable with me just asking some questions. Right, Aaron?”
“Yeah,” Crow responds, his eyes panning the crowd. It’s hard to tell if he’s nervous or just whatever. “That’s cool.”
The interview is comically immature, with Blumberg asking more questions about Crow’s little league career and the Missouri-Kansas basketball game later that night than his experiences in professional baseball (Crow’s responses: “I was kind of always better than everybody else. Couldn’t hit though,” and “I asked the coaches if they can hook me up with free tickets.”)
I’m disappointed at first, but after spending some time with Crow later that night a few miles south of the Hampton in rural Columbia, I realize he was exactly right about the interview. It was cool.
And he would know. Talking to Crow is like playing pinball with an unlimited amount of quarters. You rattle around on one topic, scoring points and laughs, not really knowing where you’re going, until for some reason the ball falls and misses the paddles completely. No worries though, you get another try. And another. He is The Dude minus the hair and beer belly, a vessel of nonchalantness.
In between stories of life on the road, buddying up with first baseman Eric Hosmer and tweeting at starter Bruce Chen, Crow finally gets nostalgic. He stops for a second and takes a looks around. One of Missouri’s freshman catchers, who caught a Crow bullpen earlier in the day, walks up to him gleaming with pride. “It was an honor to catch you today,” he says. “Thanks man,” Crow responds. He’s still distracted, looking out into the Missouri night. “I used to live right there, man,” he says finally. “Right there. Urgh, what I’d do to be back here.”
His legend on campus – stories of a 13-0 junior season striking out 10.65 batters per nine – is much more intimidating than his presence; Kansas City lists him at 6’3, but at least two inches of that are the result of a hair flip worthy of a Baseball Tonight seat. His grin is goofy. Without the full-blown facial hair, you would never know he’s 25.
Crow is a boy doing a man’s job, responsible for trying to help rebuild a long-dormant franchise and strike out Albert Pujols a couple times along the way. He hypes up Kansas City’s young core, saying Hosmer is going to be the best player in baseball in two years. Everyone is excited for the season to start because of the group they have, he says.
Well now the season has started. After taking two of three from Anaheim to open 2012, the Royals have looked awful, dropping two of three from the lowly A’s and getting swept by division-rival Cleveland. Crow was thought to be in contention for a fourth or fifth starters spot in Spring Training, but when closer Joakim Soria went down with an elbow injury, manager Ned Yost moved him back to the bullpen. The Royals depth chart lists Crow as second of three closers, but end-of-game duties have been designated to Johnathan Broxton, the 300-pound former Dodger with a history of arm trouble and who hasn’t been good since 2009. His meltdown against paperweight Oakland showed just how effective he can still be.
Kansas City would be smart to make Crow the closer or throw him in the starting rotation. He’s a top young arm with three plus pitches, including a fastball that gets up to 98. Ned Yost called Crow a “bullpen guy” in March, telling mlb.com, “He’s more valuable, more important to us on an everyday basis in the ‘pen.” It’s baffling to think why he would regulate such electric stuff to toil in the middle innings when Royal starters boasted a 4.82 ERA last year and are led by the softest-tossing lefty this side of Jaime Moyer. In the closer’s role Soria was so unreliable in 2011 that he lost his job temporarily. Broxton could barely lift his arm all summer.
The Royals are wasting Crow on match-ups and blowouts when they could be getting real value from their former first round pick. But hey, whatever they decide to do with him, I’m sure he won’t mind.