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Crisp picture should be clearer this year

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He switch hits, steals a ton of bases, and messed up his finger diving headfirst into a bag.

Eleven years later, Lou Frazier holds out his right hand, and his pinkie still acts as if it doesn't want any part of the rest of his hand.

"Compound fracture," he said. "Bone popped out. It's still not quite right.

"It took me longer to get back than it took Coco [Crisp] to come back. That just shows the kind of guy he is, and how much he wanted to come back. He played through an injury that takes some time -- months, maybe a year -- to heal completely.

"Mine was a pinkie. I could take my finger off the bat. His was an index finger. It's going to overlap. When he hits, there's a lot of pressure from the top hand rolling over on that finger. It hurts."

Frazier is the Red Sox minor league outfield and base-running instructor. He's 42, but when he was a kid, he was one of the fastest players in pro ball. Drafted in the first round in 1986 by Houston, Frazier stole 75 bases in the Single A Sally League in 1987, then trumped that a year later by swiping 87 in the Florida State League.

Even at age 33, he stole 42 bases in 1998, and that was after having quit baseball for a time. When he was with Montreal, manager Felipe Alou called him the best fourth outfielder in baseball. But he never became much more than a spare part; Sox fans with sharp memories may remember Frazier charging Eric Gunderson in a brawl in 1996, when he played for Texas.

The story of how Sox center fielder Crisp came to call him "Dad" begins in Cleveland in 2003, when Frazier was summoned from the minors as a coach in September to work with base-runners. The Indians had a rookie center fielder named Coco Crisp.

"He was a puppy," Frazier said. "I got to know him pretty good. He's very quiet, and a hard worker."

Frazier had hoped to return to the Indians the following spring, but when that didn't happen, he took a job with the Sox. He stayed in touch with Crisp, though, was delighted when the Sox traded for him last winter, then suffered with him through a trying first season in Boston.

Crisp sustained a non-displaced fracture of his left index finger in Baltimore diving headfirst into third base in the team's fifth game of the season, this after having a terrific spring. He missed 41 games, came back at the end of May, but while making a number of highlight-reel catches, he never came close to providing the production the Sox had hoped for at the top of the lineup.

His leadoff on-base average of .293 was the worst in the American League, and while the man he replaced, the wildly popular Johnny Damon, headed to a return trip to the playoffs with the Yankees, Crisp headed for the operating table. With the bone not having healed properly, he underwent surgery Sept. 26.

"It was tough," said Frazier. "With the media in Boston, putting up the numbers he put up, while trying to replace a guy like Johnny Damon. When you hear it all the time, you can't help but think about it. You start struggling a little bit, you put pressure on yourself."

Crisp had downplayed the Damon angle all summer, but it almost came as a relief for the organization to finally acknowledge that Crisp's finger condition had much to do with his inability to hit, especially to drive a fastball.

Around Christmas, Crisp said, he underwent another procedure to have a pin removed from the finger.

It wasn't much more than a week or so later, he said, that he started hitting from the left side, then he began taking some hacks from the right side in the middle of the month. He arrived here yesterday, on the day position players were scheduled to report, saying that he had full range of motion and strength back in the finger, but admitted that while there was no pain, he still feels some stiffness. He hopes that will be gone by Opening Day.

Frazier was there to greet Crisp yesterday in the clubhouse, amused, like many of his teammates, to see he'd given up the shaved-head look for a head of thick, black curls. A lot more hair, Crisp said, than his newborn son, Caden Covelli, has.

"My baby's got a little cul-de-sac," Crisp said, describing the spot on his son's head where the hair has yet to grow in. "He looks like an old fart.

"Me, I just got lazy."

Crisp is 27, still a pup as far as Frazier is concerned. His second season with the Sox, Frazier predicts, should reveal more of the player the Sox thought they were acquiring last year.

"I'm looking forward to a big season from him," Frazier said. "I think he's going to go out there and prove people wrong. As an organization, as a friend, as a coach, we all want that for him."

It's already certain that Crisp's second season will have a different look. He has been displaced as leadoff man by Julio Lugo.

Crisp said he doesn't mind giving up the top spot; the same thing happened in Cleveland, when he ceded the leadoff role to Grady Sizemore and batted in the No. 2 hole. He talked yesterday as if he expected to do the same this year, but manager Terry Francona this winter promoted the idea of Lugo leading off and Kevin Youkilis batting in the No. 2 spot, with Crisp batting in the bottom third of the order.

Nothing is set, Francona said yesterday. He plans to meet one-on-one today with the position players, just as he did with the pitchers.

There's an upside to hitting lower in the order. Crisp, who stole 22 bases in limited play last season, would get more chances to run than he did when David Ortiz or Manny Ramírez was at the plate.

"With the Red Sox, we just don't steal bases," Frazier said. "But he's capable of stealing 40 or 50 bases. It's just got to be the right time.

"New year, new attitude. Last year, he played hurt. This year, it'll be a good year."