From UCLA to MLB, Crawford feels Jackie connection

From UCLA to MLB, Crawford feels Jackie connection

CHICAGO -- When Brandon Crawford and his UCLA teammates practiced or played a home game, they knew that the name of their field conveyed significance that transcended baseball.

Jackie Robinson Stadium.

Crawford, the San Francisco Giants shortstop who revels in all aspects of his sport, recalled the pride the Bruins would derive from knowing that one of their predecessors was one of the grandest men ever to lace up a pair of spikes. Robinson, the first African-American to reach the Major Leagues, attended UCLA from 1939-41.

"We'd go to the field every day and we saw the name," Crawford said. "It's kind of cool to be able to recognize him every time we go onto the field."

Monday is Jackie Robinson Day, which happens to be a scheduled off-day for the Giants. The reigning World Series champions and National League West leaders begin a three-game series Tuesday at Milwaukee. But though the Giants are idle, Crawford remembered the special feeling of playing on Jackie Robinson Day as a UCLA Bruin.

"It would be a little more special for us than other teams, I feel like, because he went to our school," Crawford said. "Not everybody can say that."

It's possible to speculate that another collegiate athlete as multitalented as Robinson may never again walk the face of this earth. Baseball, which Robinson excelled at as a professional, was probably his fourth-best sport at UCLA. In football, he led the nation with a 21-yard punt return average in 1940 and paced the Bruins in rushing, passing, scoring and total offense. He was a rugged forward in basketball, leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring for two seasons. Robinson also won a national collegiate long jump title with a leap of 24 feet, 10 1/4 inches.

In baseball, he batted .097 for the Bruins in 1940.

But when Branch Rickey was searching for the right man to break baseball's color line, the architect of the Brooklyn Dodgers strongly considered the poise and skill that Robinson displayed while excelling athletically at such a high-profile college -- regardless of the sport. Since Robinson had drawn national attention to himself for his athletic exploits, Rickey correctly figured that Robinson had become somewhat tempered by the exposure.

Robinson played ceaselessly to win. Crawford, who played for UCLA from 2006-08, intended to uphold that standard.

"You always want to play the game the right way, especially with the big names that have come before us," Crawford said. "You want to live up to the expectations of being a baseball player at UCLA."

UCLA's list of baseball alumni is long and accomplished. It includes players who excelled in the Majors such as Todd Zeile, Jeff Conine, Eric Karros, Troy Glaus, Dave Roberts and Chase Utley. But only Robinson is immortalized with a statue and a mural at the entrance concourse to the ballpark that bears his name.

While at UCLA, Crawford occasionally visited the University's athletic Hall of Fame, where he'd admire mementos of Robinson and numerous other athletes.

"Our athletic Hall of Fame is pretty cool," Crawford said. "We've had a lot of big-name athletes come through there. Just being able to walk through there once in a while is pretty neat."

And when Crawford stops to ponder how lucky he is to play for the Giants, the team he grew up rooting for, he also pays homage to Robinson, who was the quintessence of big league desire. In Crawford's words, Robinson symbolizes the opportunity of "living out a dream." Thus, Robinson's enduring significance for him is obvious.

Robinson's story, said Crawford, "connects to me in a way."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.