SABR

Tim Crabtree

This article was written by Chip Mundy.

As a senior in high school, Tim Crabtree had planned the first portion of his adult life. Or so he thought. After graduating from Grass Lake (Michigan) High School in 1988, Crabtree was going to enter the Marines to prepare for a career in law enforcement. He had always envisioned himself in uniform and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Don, a police officer. But there was unfinished business.

The Grass Lake Warriors baseball team was in the state playoffs, and Crabtree was its strong-armed catcher. He was a solid player but not the star of the team. The most decorated players on the team were all-state infielder David Shafer and honorable mention all-state outfielder Chad Craddock. The team was loaded, and Crabtree was a perfect fit behind the plate. And his strong throwing arm was something to be seen. The trouble was, the college baseball scouts were not hanging around the tiny Class C-D Cascades Conference schools in Jackson County to see it.

Grass Lake was playing in the Class D state tournament – the class for the smallest high schools in Michigan – and won its quarterfinal game to earn a berth in the state semifinals in East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University. There, nearly in the shadows of the university, scouts noticed the big arm of the catcher from the little school. They had more than one opportunity to see him, as Grass Lake won the state semifinal to earn a spot in the Class D title game. The Warriors went on to win the championship game, and Michigan State coaches Tom Smith and Rob Ellis, acting after a Philadelphia Phillies scout tipped them off, were impressed enough to offer a scholarship to Crabtree.

“They liked how I hustled, backed up first base and said I had an excellent throwing arm,” Crabtree told the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot.

One problem: Crabtree already had signed up to join the Marines, and he was just a few days away from starting boot camp. His family and friends already had thrown him a going-away party. But he was able to get out of the commitment, and he accepted a full scholarship to play baseball at Michigan State. Call it fate, call it whatever, but having his high-school team advance to the state championship game and play in East Lansing was a life-changing event for Crabtree.

“If my high-school team loses in the district, I go into the Marines, and I probably end up in Afghanistan or somewhere like that,” he said. “And I never would have played baseball again.”

One also wonders about his family. Crabtree met his future wife, Joy, while attending Michigan State. They raised three children, Kylie, Averey and Jackson.

“I always think about Coach Smith giving me the opportunity to play baseball at Michigan State first of all and then turning me into a pitcher,” Crabtree said. “That was the biggest break of my life.”

Timothy Lyle Crabtree was born during the World Series, on October 13, 1969, in Jackson, Michigan. Three days after he was born, the New York Mets completed their amazing run to the championship by winning Game Five of the World Series. A year earlier, the Detroit Tigers – the team Crabtree would follow with a passion as a youngster – won their first World Series title in 23 years.

Crabtree’s mother, Eunice, tells of sitting in the upper-deck seating area in left field of Tiger Stadium with her son when he was a small boy. Like many other young boys, Crabtree told his mother that one day he would be playing in the big leagues. That thrilled her, a big baseball fan and an avid follower of the Tigers.

Crabtree’s growing-up days were a great time for a youngster growing up in Michigan to be a Tigers fan. His room was filled with posters of his favorite Tigers, but two were more prominent than others: Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson. When Crabtree was 14, the Tigers started the 1984 season with a 35-5 record and went on to defeat the San Diego Padres in the World Series with Parrish and Gibson playing big roles. A day after Crabtree’s 15th birthday, the Tigers won the Series in Game Five behind two home runs by Gibson and one by Parrish.

Crabtree grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football in Grass Lake, a school known for its strong athletic programs behind longtime coach Joe Bechtel, who coached baseball and football. The 1988 baseball championship game that helped steer Crabtree to Michigan State was the baseball program’s high point.

However, after two seasons at Michigan State, Crabtree had not hit well enough to earn regular playing time and was dropped to third-string catcher on the depth chart. Coach Tom Smith was still intrigued by Crabtree’s strong throwing arm, so the coaching staff decided he would give pitching a try. At first Crabtree was used as a closer, and he registered four saves in a month. Then he was moved into the rotation, and he finished his junior season with a 2.43 earned-run average in 72⅔ innings pitched– even though he had not pitched as much as one inning in high school. It was enough to get the attention of major-league scouts, and Smith said Crabtree was attracting more scouts than any Michigan State player since Kirk Gibson – one of Crabtree’s favorite players – 14 years earlier.

It all came as a huge surprise to Crabtree. “I remember a brisk Saturday afternoon, and I was scheduled to pitch the first game of a doubleheader,” he said. “When I got out to the mound, I could see what must have been 30 radar guns pointed right at me. That’s when it hit me that I had a chance to play professional baseball, and I threw a one-hitter that day.”

As a junior Crabtree received the team’s Most Improved Player Award and tied for the Robin Roberts Pitcher of the Year Award. He was 8-2 with a 2.45 ERA in his first season as a pitcher since his Little League days, and that was an attraction to scouts, who liked the fact that his arm did not have much wear and tear on it from pitching.

“I have the maturity of a 22-year-old with the arm of an 18-year-old,” he said a week before the 1992 amateur draft.

Crabtree decided to bypass his senior year at Michigan State and become eligible for the draft, and he was taken in the second round by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the second player from Michigan to be chosen in the 1992 draft; the first was a shortstop from Kalamazoo Central High School named Derek Jeter, who was taken by the New York Yankees in the first round.

As his agent, Doug Baldwin, negotiated his first professional contract, Crabtree received some advice from one of his favorite players: Gibson, a former Michigan State star who also had Baldwin as an agent. “Kirk said it’s not going to be easy, but if I made it to the big leagues it would be worth it,” Crabtree said when he signed in 1992.

Although the Blue Jays envisioned Crabtree as a relief pitcher, they wanted to use him as a starter in the minors so he would get enough innings to build up his arm strength. He did well in his first professional season, going 6-3 with a 1.57 ERA in 12 starts for St. Catharines of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. He was promoted to Knoxville of the Double-A Southern League at the end of the season and went 0-2 with an impressive 0.95 ERA. He was named to the New York-Penn League’s postseason all-star squad after leading the league in ERA, and Baseball America listed him as the fifth best prospect in the league.

After Crabtree went 9-14 as a starter for Knoxville in 1993, the Blue Jays promoted him to Triple-A Syracuse (International League) in 1994 and converted him back to a reliever. He had a 4.17 ERA in 1994, but that came after a 1-5 start and a 6.26 ERA that had Crabtree questioning his future in the game.

“People romanticize this lifestyle, but I don’t really enjoy it that much,” Crabtree told Hank Davis, author of Small-Town Heroes, a book about minor-league players published in 1997. “I want to get to the big leagues, where money will compensate for the lifestyle because I don’t even believe the big-league lifestyle is all that great. You’re on the road a lot. You’re away from your family, your friends, your hometown for six, seven months a year. You’re traveling all over, living out of a suitcase. That’s not for me. I’d miss my wife. I’d want to settle down, have a home, have some kids, watch then grow up, be a regular fatherly influence.”

In 1995 Crabtree got off to another tough start, but that didn’t matter to the Blue Jays, who called him up to the major leagues for the first time on June 22. Toronto was preparing for a three-game series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. “I never really pictured it this way,” Crabtree said the night he was promoted. “I pictured pitching in front of 55,000 fans in the SkyDome, not getting called up on the road. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it all, but I imagine I will be. There’s going to be an obvious adrenaline flow there. I mean, this is it. … the Babe … the ‘house that he built.’ ”

Other than his hometown Tiger Stadium, Crabtree could not envision a better place on the road to make his major-league debut than Yankee Stadium. A strapping 6-foot-4 right-hander, he wasn’t the nervous type, but he wanted to get in a major-league game as soon as possible. He didn’t have to wait long. He made his bow on June 23, the night after he was called up. Just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, the New Jersey Devils were completing a sweep of Crabtree’s hometown Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup. And the pitching matchup at Yankee Stadium was spectacular: Jack McDowell, winner of the American League Cy Young Award two years earlier, was starting for New York against the Blue Jays’ David Cone, the reigning Cy Young winner. (About a month later the Blue Jays traded Cone to the Yankees.)

The stellar pitching matchup made it seem unlikely that Crabtree would leave the bullpen. But the Yankees hit Cone hard. In the eighth inning, with the Yankees leading 6-2- and runners on first and second with two out, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston called for Crabtree to make his major-league debut, in relief of Ricardo Jordan, another rookie making his debut that night.

Crabtree was too focused to hear Yankees public-address announcer Bob Shepard tell the crowd, “Now pitching … for the Tor-on-to Blue Jays, Tim Crabtree.” The rookie was more concerned about how he was going to deal with the fact that maybe his all-time favorite player was his batterymate. Lance Parrish, 39, the former Tigers catcher whose poster adorned the walls of Crabtree’s childhood bedroom, was catching for Toronto in his 19th and final major-league season.

“My heart was pounding through my chest, but in a good way,” Crabtree said. Parrish went out to the mound for a quick chat before Crabtree threw his first pitch. “He just asked me what pitches I like to throw and let me know what the signals were going to be,” Crabtree said.

The batter was shortstop Tony Fernandez, who singled to left field. Danny Tartabull, who had been on second base, tried to score but was thrown out at the plate by outfielder Joe Carter. And Crabtree’s night was done with an unusual pitching line: One batter faced, one hit allowed, one-third of an inning pitched. He celebrated an hour later by walking the streets of New York City and finding an open deli where he celebrated with a fruit punch and a tube of Pringle’s potato chips. Crabtree was finally a major-league pitcher, in the process becoming the first graduate of a Jackson County, Michigan, high school to play the big leagues since Benny Frey in 1936. (Two others, Rick Wise and Jim Lewis, were born in Jackson and made the majors but did not graduate from high schools in Jackson County.)

There were no promises of a long stay in the majors for Crabtree because Toronto had three right-handed relief pitchers, Duane Ward, Mike Timlin, and Darren Hall. The Toronto area media was mixed on Crabtree’s immediate future with the team. “He has almost no chance at staying up,” Steve Milton of the Hamilton Spectator wrote. “He would have to dominate hitters to stay up. Tim’s big problem is that all the other players are out of options, so it would be easier for the Blue Jays to send him down rather than someone else.”

Television broadcaster Tommy Hutton had a different viewpoint. “It would be easy from this standpoint to say that he will be one of the guys to go down, but – and the big but is the way the bullpen has had some problems – if he can show that he can throw strikes and get people out, his chances improve,” Hutton said. “You just can’t automatically count him out.”

In the event, Crabtree did well enough to remain in the majors and finished his rookie season 0-2 with a 3.09 ERA in 32 innings. And there was that night in August when he returned to Michigan as a major-league pitcher for the first time and performed at Tiger Stadium with his parents and other family members and friends in attendance. With the Blue Jays leading 7-4, Crabtree pitched a scoreless eighth inning, allowing just a single to Chad Curtis. He struck out Ron Tingley, got Scott Fletcher on a fly to center, and retired Travis Fryman and a pop to first. “That was kind of a rush, to punch out the first batter I faced at Tiger Stadium,” Crabtree said of striking out Tingley. “I thought I would be nervous, but I really wasn’t. I really felt poised out there, and it helped that we put a couple of runs on the board.”

His other highlight came when he faced Cal Ripken, Jr., who was about 30 games shy of Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive games played. “I just didn’t want to hit him,” said Crabtree, who retired Ripken on a groundout. “I just wanted to stay away from him. I didn’t come inside on him or anything, and I think every pitcher had a fear of hitting him. But getting Cal out, that was pretty neat.”

With his major-league debut and hometown return behind him, Crabtree was ready to get on with his career in Toronto. He threw a hard slider and a fastball that reached the upper 90s. When he took something off the fastball, it would sink.

The 1996 season was Crabtree’s best statistically. He was 5-3 with a 2.54 ERA with 57 strikeouts and 22 walks in 67⅓ innings. He picked up his first major-league win on April 30 with two hitless, scoreless innings of relief against the Milwaukee Brewers, and his first major-league save came nearly two months later when he closed out a 6-5 victory over the Seattle Mariners with two perfect innings.

Arm problems popped up in 1997. Crabtree’s ERA was 4.00 on May 27 when he entered a game against the Texas Rangers. He allowed seven runs in two innings, and three days later he allowed six runs in 1⅔ innings. Crabtree landed on the disabled list with inflammation in his right elbow and an 8.46 ERA. and he ended up having surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. He missed two months, returning in early August. He appeared in 16 more games and lowered his ERA to 7.08 with a 3-3 record.

In spring training of 1998 Crabtree was traded to the Texas Rangers for catcher Kevin Brown. “Getting traded was a traumatic experience,” Crabtree said. “It was like being told that somebody doesn’t want you anymore.” But Crabtree found a permanent home for his growing family in Colleyville, a suburban town in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And wearing uniform No. 23 in honor of Kirk Gibson, he played a key role as a setup man. He posted a 6-1 record with a 3.59 ERA in 1998 and went 5-1 with a 3.46 ERA and a team-high 68 appearances in 1999. In that season Crabtree set a team record for most consecutive scoreless appearances when he did not allow a run in 16 consecutive games (a stretch of 13⅔ innings) from April 23 to May 31.

Those were historic seasons for the Rangers, who won back-to-back division titles and appeared in the postseason for the first time. Crabtree, who was being mentored by Rangers closer John Wetteland, was one of the few bright spots for the Rangers in the 1998 Division Series, in which the team was swept by the Yankees. Crabtree appeared in two of the three games and allowed just one hit and no runs in four innings. The Yankees swept the Rangers again in 1999. Crabtree pitched in two games and allowed two runs (one earned) in 1⅔ innings.

When the Rangers traded slugger Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers after the 1999 season, Crabtree’s hometown newspaper, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, asked Crabtree for comment, and the pitcher stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest. “He’s Detroit’s problem now,” Crabtree said. “He’s not ours anymore. He’s a great player, but I really think he leaves a lot on the table.” The Detroit News picked up on the story and soon it was front-page news, and it resulted in a confrontation when the Tigers visited Arlington to play the Rangers in July of the next season. Crabtree threw a chest-high, inside fastball to Gonzalez, who gestured at Crabtree and took a few steps toward the mound before Tigers catcher Bill Haselman restrained Gonzalez. “When the Rangers traded me, he talked in the papers,” Gonzalez told the Associated Press. “I don’t talk like that. I talk man to man. He was sending a message to me by throwing me close.” But Crabtree said the pitch was no more than him pitching Gonzalez inside to keep Gonzalez from unleashing his power.

Crabtree continued his role in the Rangers’ bullpen in 2000, teaming with Jeff Zimmerman as key setup men for Wetteland. But for the first time other than in his injury-plagued season of 1997, Crabtree was ineffective. He appeared in 68 games with a 2-7 record and a 5.15 ERA. After the season Wetteland announced his retirement, and the Rangers turned to Crabtree to be their closer.

Crabtree was getting attention for his off-the-field work, too. He hosted a charity golf tournament and along with his wife, Joy, was involved in raising funds for children’s groups that focus on child abuse and autism, winning praise from. The Sporting News among others.

It seemed like perfect timing for Crabtree, who signed a $1.3 million contract for 2001 and was eligible to be a free agent after the season. If he had a big season as the closer for the Rangers, he could be in line for a big contract as a free agent after the season. He picked up saves in four of his first five appearances, but the day after his fourth save he landed on the disabled list with herniated discs in his back. In his first game back he came in to close out a game at Tiger Stadium with the Rangers leading by a run in the ninth inning. He blew the save when the winning run scored on an error by third baseman Ken Caminiti. Crabtree blew another save against the Indians a week later, and Zimmerman replaced him as the Rangers’ closer.

Crabtree regained his effectiveness, and in ten games in a one-month span, he had a 3.09 ERA. Then, on June 25, in a game at Anaheim, misfortune struck. “I pitched an inning and two-thirds and threw a lot of pitches,” Crabtree said. “Then I felt something sort of separate in the back of my shoulder, sort of like an overextension of my arm. It didn’t hurt, though, and I got through the inning, but in the next three days I couldn’t hardly throw a ball.” He had torn his rotator cuff. Still, he stayed in the game and got out of the inning, but it turned out to be his last major-league appearance.

Fate, which had been so kind to Crabtree earlier, had dealt him a blow. Texas general manager Doug Melvin was fired after the season, and the new regime passed on Crabtree, whose hopes for a big contract via free agency turned into a minor-league deal in 2002 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who released him in the summer. Then he tried a comeback with the Milwaukee Brewers (where Melvin had landed as general manager) with no success, and he even came back to Texas for a comeback attempt that failed. In a final comeback attempt, he signed with the Tigers as a nonroster invitee on December 6, 2005. He didn’t make it out of spring training and retired, but he did get to wear the uniform of the Tigers – his favorite team as a youngster – for a short period.

In his four-plus years of trying to get back to the majors, Crabtree appeared in just 27 games with five teams: Vero Beach (Class A Florida State League), Huntsville (Double-A Southern League), Arizona Rangers (Arizona Rookie League), Frisco (Double-A Texas League) and Oklahoma (Triple-A Pacific Coast League). He was 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA with Frisco in 2005, but could never fully overcome his arm problems.

Even though he was a starter in the latter half of his junior season at Michigan State and a starter for the early part of his career in the minors, Crabtree threw more than three innings in a major-league game only twice, and he never reached five innings in any game.

Though Crabtree left Michigan State before graduating, through an internship with the Chicago Police Department he was able to earn his bachelor’s degree in social science with an emphasis on criminal justice. After he retired from baseball, he used his degree to get a job as a police officer at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, a position he still held in 2012. “I always had law enforcement in my back pocket,” he said. Crabtree also was briefly a salesman for Akadema, which sells baseball gloves and other sports equipment.

Crabtree also became a part of the Rangers Alumni Legacy program, which stresses community involvement. He didn’t hide his enthusiasm when the Rangers finally made it to the World Series in 2010. He attended Game Three of the 2010 World Series. “It was such an electric feeling, even as a fan,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been out there as a player. I’ll tell you, if they had asked me to go out and throw an inning, I would have done it, even if it meant I threw my arm out.”

 

Sources

In preparing this biography, the author relied primarily on clippings from Crabtree’s file at the Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot. (Many of the articles were written by the author.) Also helpful were Retrosheet.org; Baseball-Reference.com; TheBaseballCube.com, the 2006 Detroit Tigers media guide, and Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball, by Hank Davis (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997).

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