BY MATT LaWELL
DUNEDIN, Florida | Year after year, Michael Crouse remained in Dunedin. So many of his teammates shipped out to Lansing or Manchester or Las Vegas, bound for a new city, a new team, a new league, a new experience. And he just continued to work three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.
And he loved it.
Crouse is the starting rightfielder for the Dunedin Blue Jays, a young player with a developing swing, an incredible presence on the base paths and a family history filled with sports. Toronto drafted him out of a British Columbia high school in the 16th round four summers ago, impressed by raw tools and sheer athleticism. He was the son of a pro football player — Ray Crouse, who played one season with the Green Bay Packers and three more in the CFL — so he played football as a kid. He played soccer, too, and ran track, then added basketball and volleyball during high school. He never specialized in a sport until that day in 2008 when he signed his name on a contract.
Because of his lack of experience, the Blue Jays started his development slowly with a handful of games in the Gulf Coast League shortly after the 2008 draft. The next April, at the end of spring training, he hung around Dunedin for extended spring training, then another season in the GCL. In 2010, he spent more time in extended spring training and the GCL. Same thing in 2011.
“You don’t want to overdo yourself because you’re there every day. So you get your work in, you’re smart about it and do it the next day. You build up, you condition yourself." — Dunedin outfielder Michael Crouse
“Those times during extended were great,” he says. “I was allowed to get a lot of repetitions, allowed to work on my game and become a lot better.”
Crouse worked every day in the batting cage, with his hitting coach, out on the field for batting practice. He never counted his swings, never tried to reach any sort of benchmark for the day, but he estimates he cut somewhere between 100 and 150 good swings every day. Whenever his swing started to break down, he knew he was finished.
“You don’t want to overdo yourself,” he says, “because you’re there every day. So you get your work in, you’re smart about it and do it the next day. You build up, you condition yourself."
So far, at least, all the extra work has translated to improved numbers on the field and a continued climb toward Toronto. In 2008, he hit .133 in a small sample size of GCL games. In 2009, back in the GCL, he hit .218, but averaged about a run, a walk and a stolen base every other game. In 2010, his last in the GCL, his average jumped to .333 and he finally received a promotion to Lansing in the Low-A Midwest League.
And he batted .216 and struck out too much.
Last season, he hit .261 in Lansing, a good enough number for a player who didn’t turn 21 until after the season. In 101 games, he hit 14 home runs and 26 doubles, scored 73 runs and drove in 55 more, and stole 38 bases, fifth in the league. He still struck out too much, 113 times in all, but he finally received a call to go back to Dunedin — this time to play in the Florida State League.
“The more you’re in the game, you start to understand what it takes in order to be successful,” Crouse says 10 games into his first season in the FSL. His average still hangs in the low .200s, but he has scored seven runs already, driven in five, stolen five bases. His strikeouts are still high, one every game, but he has walked seven times, too. He is a 21-year-old work in progress.
“You’re not worried about High-A or Double-A,” he says. “You’re working on a swing that plays in the big leagues.”
Time for minor league trivia. Among the 11 cities in the Florida State League, Dunedin is the second-smallest in terms of population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. What is the only FSL city with fewer people? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Dunedin catcher Jack Murphy hit his second home run of the season and the bullpen managed to hang on to help the Blue Jays outlast the Daytona Cubs, 8-7, for the series sweep. Neither starting pitcher worked past the fourth inning. No worries, though. The Dunedin bullpen allowed two earned runs in five innings of work — both on a ninth-inning home run by Daytona first baseman Greg Rohan that cut the lead to one. Daytona allowed just one earned run in 5 1-3 innings of relief work. The Blue Jays have swept two of their first four series and won eight of their last nine.
The Dunedin Blue Jays tend to avoid the wild promotions typical of so many other minor league teams. A big part of that is because the team is owned and operated by the Toronto Blue Jays, who want a certain level of decorum in their spring training home. Also, team officials think their crowds might not, um, appreciate something like a centennial memorial of the Titanic as much as residents and tourists in Fort Myers. Still, the team has managed to schedule some promotions that should be fun, if nothing else — like Gas Price Tickets Night, where all tickets cost as much as a gallon of gasoline, and an attempt to set the Guinness world record for most people simultaneously blowing their gum into a bubble (which is a surprisingly low number).
Want the answer? Viera, home of the Brevard County Manatees, checks in at 17,398 residents combined between Viera East and Viera West. About 47 percent of that population could fit in Space Coast Stadium at the same time. Dunedin counted 35,691 residents two years ago during the U.S. Census.
And in random statistical news, the game started one minute later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter flied out to right and a recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the stadium speakers in a crisp 1 minute, 12.7 seconds. (For whatever reason, we thought we would hear “O Canada,” which really is a beautiful national anthem. But the Dunedin Blue Jays have nothing to do with Canada other than their Major League affiliate, which isn’t enough, apparently, to play two anthems before games.) Also, we ate a couple of hot dogs, a dollar bag of popcorn and a pretzel filled with cream cheese. How have we each lost four pounds?
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