Sunday was a day of firsts for Carl Crawford. First home run as a Red Sox. First smile as a Red Sox.
OK, the second might have been an exaggeration, but displays of performance-induced joy have been few and far between since he started playing real games in a Red Sox uniform.
Turning Crawford's frown upside down has been a painstaking process. To get an idea about how torturous the early season path has been for the outfielder, understand that despite coming away with two hits, including a two-run homer, his statistical pat on the back was now having the fourth-worst OPS out of 187 eligible players instead of being at the bottom of the list the day before.
"I've been feeling a little better," Crawford told reporters after the Red Sox' 7-0 win over the Angels in Anaheim. "I'm not out of the woods yet, I'm still in the grind mode. The good thing is, things are starting to feel a little better."
So, now that we have perhaps the most telling sign that Crawford has begun his climb back to the standard put in place by a 10-season big league career, deciphering what exactly led to the biggest slump of the 29-year-old's career has become a more practical exercise.
And, while Crawford has never suggested it, one potential answer to the question is this: Switching organizations for the first time is a bit more difficult than even the most-prepared professional athlete might realize.
The reasons for the slump could be more complex than just the newness of Crawford's situation, but history suggests it can be a powerful element of the equation. Few understand this better than Don Kalkstein, the former mental performance coach with the Red Sox who now is employed by the Dallas Mavericks.
The longtime sports psychologist wasn't about to speak to Crawford's struggles specifically, but he is intimately familiar with the scenario the left fielder finds himself in.
"I think what is interesting is that the game doesn't change, but the surroundings do, and that is something that plays an important role in the package of performance," said Kalkstein, who still will do some consulting work with the Red Sox after the NBA season.
"You're talking about comfort levels now. You're talking about a player knowing their way around different items and different things. Where there's comfort there's an ability to let your skill take over. That takes time. That takes time to get a feel for where everything is, where you fit in. Those little things, for me, they do play a role. Some guys can do it a lot faster than other guys, but I definitely believe it goes under the radar."
Crawford was drafted by Tampa Bay. He played in the minor leagues for Tampa Bay. His only major league team up until this season was Tampa Bay.
Now he finds himself a Red Sox. The pitchers' approaches haven't changed, and neither has Crawford's talent. The surroundings, however, have offered the four-time All-Star a new kind of curveball.
"Everybody wants to make an impression, whether it's in a new organization or in a new job," Kalkstein explained. "Making an impression and letting the people who are writing the checks think they were so glad they did that. Often guys try and do too much, hence the word 'pressing.' It doesn't' have to do with the market, but more of an intrinsic thing that they want the organization know they got a great package and they want to show them that.
"It's very similar to things I would say to players who come up to the big leagues for the first time. We often see an overwhelming amount of players who play in the big leagues for the very first time -- and I'm not going to use the word struggle, because I don't believe in it -- press. I see them press. The thing I tell them to do is not play any different than they did in Double-A because that's why we want them here. We know they can perform. Yet, it's very difficult for them to believe in that."
If the change has contributed to Crawford's slow start, he wouldn't be alone in having to battle such an obstacle.
Another example of the condition might have been found across the Angels Stadium diamond, where first-year Angel Vernon Wells resided. Like Crawford, Wells had only played in one organization, the Blue Jays, up until he was traded to LA this past offseason. The three-time All-Star, a career .278 hitter who is coming off a season in which he hit .273 with 31 home runs, has never experienced an April like the one he's currently enduring.
Wells is just two spots better than Crawford when it comes to OPS (.471), and he dropped below his Red Sox counterpart when it comes to batting average (.169).
"My experience has been that the player who has been traded a couple of different times, whether it's a minor league trade or a major league trade, he has learned one thing and he's learned it over time, and that is that he doesn't have to come in and be a different type of player," Kalkstein said. "He doesn't have to get the approval of a new organization that he's worth whatever the trade was or the cash considerations. That's the big difference.
"Those guys who go through their second and third time going to another organization, the time is decreased immensely due to their understanding that it is an organization that wants them and they are going to be the guy that they are."
There are other examples of players having trouble acclimating, and it's not just limited to going from one big league team to another. The dynamic is also prevalent often times when a minor leaguer is called up to the majors for the first time.
One of the best examples? Dustin Pedroia.
After hitting .191 in 31 games as a late-season call-up in 2006, the second baseman continued to struggle in his first month as a Sox starter the following season, hitting .182 in April. Fortunately for Pedroia, however, both teammate Alex Cora (.400 during the stretch) and the team (16-8, first place after the first month) bought the rookie some time while he figured it all out.
"There was a lynch mob out for the kid, but he kept hanging in there, the organization continued to support him, obviously [Terry Francona] was a huge supporter," Kalkstein recalled. "It didn't happen overnight, but it happened over time. There was comfort built in and Dustin decided to say to himself, 'I'm going to do what I do,' and it all worked out."
It is the parallel between a rookie and a high-priced free agent, such as Crawford, which supports Kalkstein's theory that money isn't the root of the pressure.
Crawford will make $142 million over the next seven years. He has been the chief source of concern among Red Sox fans throughout the team's early season hiccups. But, according to the Mavericks director of sports psychology, it is the acceptance of the player's teammates which offers the most importance.
"When people talking about players living up to their contracts, I disagree with that," Kalkstein said. "My experience in 17 years of working with these types of players, these guys are self-motivated, they're wired differently and they're competitors. One of the things a lot of people don't understand is these guys love to compete and they love to be successful. We all want to get paid a lot of money and be paid what we're worth, but dollars and cents doesn't drive a guy any more when he's 0-for-16 than when he's 12-for-16.
"For me it's more a teammate thing. They want to show their teammates. They want to let them know that they are there to help them and do what they can, so they rush themselves. They try and collect four hits every night instead of just putting quality swings on. For me, it's a direct relationship that they want to prove it to their teammates. That's what my experience has been."
Sunday, Crawford proved a lot.