With Cards, Crawford keeps a jersey number with significance

March 4th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

JUPITER, Fla. -- Before Brandon Crawford was allowed to tug on his first MLB jersey and the No. 35 some 13 years ago, the blossoming shortstop was hit with some weighty expectations that he had to agree to uphold as long as his MLB career lasted.

Legendary former San Francisco Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy, a fixture of that organization for more than 50 years, admired Crawford’s gritty, workmanlike style of play as a Minor Leaguer on the rise.

For Crawford’s first and only MLB number, Murphy picked No. 35 because those were the digits Chris Speier and Rich Aurilia had worn in Giants orange and black. Speier was hardly a superstar during his 10 years with the Giants, but he was a consummate pro and a shortstop tougher than an old catcher’s mitt. Much of the same praise was used to describe Aurilia, who got the most out of his talent while manning shortstop in San Francisco for 1,292 games – most of them while wearing the No. 35.

Crawford, a native of Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Giants Country, had already heard the stories of Speier and he idolized Aurilia when he helped the Giants reach the 2002 World Series. Murphy made Crawford promise that he would always bring honor to the No. 35 and wear it with pride.

“To me, it was a greatest compliment that I got that number,” Crawford recalled last week while standing near a Cardinals No. 35 jersey.

Crawford is no longer a Giant, but he is still No. 35, and he still wants to bring pride to the only number he’s ever worn at the MLB level. During his 13 seasons with the Giants, he became arguably the greatest shortstop in franchise history by being a part of two World Series winners, earning four Gold Gloves and making three All-Star teams. San Francisco moved on from the 37-year-old Crawford this offseason following an injury-compromised 2023, but he is eager to show he still has plenty of game left in him with the Cardinals.

Upon signing with the Redbirds, Crawford said he received “about a thousand” text messages from former teammates and foes. Three came from Shawon Dunston, Royce Clayton and Ryan Theriot, shortstops who played for the Cardinals and Giants in their careers. Their universal message: Crawford is going to love St. Louis because that city’s passion for baseball fits his own personality.

While Crawford is likely beyond the seventh-inning stretch of his career, he is eager to be a part of a comeback story in St. Louis. He is -- along with former NLCS rivals Matt Carpenter and Lance Lynn -- with the Cardinals to try and help them distance themselves from a dismal 2023. Similarly, Crawford saw his own effectiveness plunge offensively and defensively last year. The formerly slick-fielding shortstop had -14 defensive runs saved in 2023, which was 140th among 142 qualified shortstops, per Fielding Bible.

The reason for the falloff, Crawford said, was that a body that had been so sturdy for years betrayed him. He played at least 140 games for eight straight years from 2012-19 and appeared in 138 games as recently as 2021, when he hit 24 home runs and finished fourth in NL MVP voting.

In 2023, a right calf strain, left knee inflammation, a left forearm strain and a right hamstring strain leveled him.

“I came into spring and felt all right for a week and then the knee started bothering me and I shut it down for two weeks,” he said. “I tried to find the rhythm in the last three or four games of spring and then it was Gerrit Cole [on Opening Day].

“I finally started feeling good and then I had the calf strain. I don’t even remember the order [of the injuries] because there were so many.”

Crawford thinks playing less while mentoring and backing up rookie Masyn Winn will allow him to be more productive for the Cards. He got No. 35 back last week when Minor Leaguer José Fermín willingly gave it up. Crawford wants to do whatever he can to once again to honor the No. 35 he first tugged on in 2011.

“Playing every day is hard, especially for the amount of time that I’ve done it because I put a lot of miles on my legs and arm,” he said. “But I think in the role that I am going to be in here, helping Masyn out anyway I can and back him up when he needs a day [off], I think that will keep my body fresh. Typically, when that happens, I play a lot better.”