PHOENIX — As Carl Crawford rehabilitates his surgically repaired elbow at the Dodgers’ spring-training facility, he’s quietly trying to fix something else.
One of only a handful of position players to already report to camp, Crawford is slowly rebuilding his psyche, which he said was battered in what he described as a “toxic” environment in Boston.
Reflecting on his two miserable seasons with the Red Sox, Crawford said, “I knew with the struggles I was having, it would never get better for me. I just didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It puts you in kind of a depression stage. You just don’t see a way out.”
The Dodgers offered him one last summer, when they took on more than $100 million Crawford was owed over the next five seasons in order to persuade the Red Sox to part with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
The unexpected trade marked the start of the former All-Star outfielder’s recovery, physically and mentally. “I’m in a place now where I feel a lot better about myself,” he said. “I just feel like the player I once was.”
Can he be that player again?
“I hope so,” he said. “I’d like to think that. We’ll see when I get out there.”
A standout defender in left field who could hit for average and steal bases, Crawford was the face of the fast-rising Tampa Bay Rays, who selected him in the second round of the 1999 draft. He had what was arguably his best season in 2010, when he won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards to set up a massive free-agent payday.
In December of that year, Crawford signed a seven-year, $142-million contract with the Red Sox. But what he thought would mark the peak of his career turned into a pit.
“Toughest two years of my career, by far,” Crawford said. “From the outside, you watch guys playing over there and you think you can go and play. But you realize, once you get there, it’s a little tougher than you expected.”
Particularly if a player doesn’t perform.
Crawford had the worst season of his career in 2011, batting a career-low .255 in 130 games. A four-time American League stolen base champion, he stole only 18 bases, drawing the wrath of fans and the media.
He underwent a wrist operation the following January, which forced him to start the 2012 season on the disabled list. While rehabilitating his wrist, he injured his elbow, which sidelined him until July. He was activated in July, played for a month, then shut down again, this time to undergo reconstructive elbow surgery.
The domino effect crushed him.
“It was just everything,” he said. “Me not playing well. Me being in an unfamiliar area in an environment that was toxic. Just all those things combined. You start to say, ‘Is this ever going to end?’”
Asked if he regretted signing with the Red Sox, Crawford replied, “A lot of times I did. You hear a lot of talk about how I just wanted money. At some point, you just wondered if you made the right decision.”
The contract made Crawford feel like a prisoner. Because of the money he was owed, Crawford figured no team would trade for him. But two days after he underwent his operation, Crawford was sent to the suddenly wealthy Dodgers, along with Gonzalez, pitcher Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto.
Crawford spent the remainder of last season rehabilitating in his hometown of Houston. He met many of his new teammates for the first time Tuesday.
Crawford acknowledged that he would face inflated expectations with the Dodgers too. But he sensed it wouldn’t be the same.
“I’m still getting a feel for it, but just walking in it feels different,” he said.
Crawford remains optimistic he will be ready for opening day, though he anticipates his throwing arm won’t be at full strength.
“Physically, my body feels good,” he said. “I’m still doing therapy with the elbow. Now, it all depends on what they want to see out of me. I think I can hit the cutoff man by opening day. But I don’t know if that’s when they’ll want me to come back. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.”
He sounded upbeat as he talked about the upcoming season. Though he has batted second most of his career, he said he would be open to hitting leadoff. A four-time AL leader in triples, he thinks Dodger Stadium’s dimensions could play to his offensive strengths.
Manager Don Mattingly is cautiously optimistic Crawford can regain his old form. If he does, he could transform the Dodgers’ lineup.
“Making the change out here is hopefully something that will be good for him,” Mattingly said.