Growing up in Houston, two boys got hooked on the game — one from inner-city Fifth Ward and one from middle-class Humble — while playing for a coach who had quit baseball during the time of integration.
The three needed each other.
Ray Bourn lived vicariously through the boys who pursued baseball careers he’ll never know. Crawford got the father figure he didn’t have from his own dad, who was “around” but not under the same roof. And Michael Bourn got the benefit of both.
Bourn was both pushed by his father and pulled by his desire to keep up with Crawford, who pursued the game without anyone in his family pushing him at all.
“He just did it because he wanted to,” said Bourn, who makes his Braves debut at Turner Field on Friday night.
Ray Bourn loved baseball growing up in Monroe. Unlike many family members who loved the Dodgers, he fell for the Milwaukee Braves, his uncle’s favorite team.
He sat on the front porch in 1959 after Milwaukee lost to the Dodgers 6-5 in 12 innings in the second game of a two-game playoff for the National League pennant, and he cried like a baby. He was 10.
“I said, ‘When I get old enough, I’m going to join the Milwaukee Braves and help beat the Dodgers to get to a World Series,’” Ray said.
He excelled in high school and got an invitation to try out at Northeast Louisiana State College, now Louisiana-Monroe. The school was entering its second year of racial integration in 1967 and first for its sports teams.
A fellow African-American went out for practice and told Bourn he was greeted icily by white teammates.
“He got no reception whatsoever,” Bourn said. “They wouldn’t even warm up with him.”
Bourn decided not to play. It was one of his greatest regrets.
“I told Mike, ‘The worst thing you can go through is not knowing,’” Bourn said. “I knew I could play college ball, but to go further than that?”
Ray Bourn recognized talent in 9-year-old Crawford the first time he saw him play.
Bourn was counting pitches by a left-handed pitcher for the Blue Jays, an upcoming opponent in the district tournament, when a left-handed kid in a mismatched uniform from the Salvation Army team went off. Double. Double. Single.
Bourn coached Crawford for the next six years and all but took him into his family. Bourn drove his green van into the city, where Crawford lived in a two-bedroom house with his mother and younger brother, to pick him up for practice.
Sometimes Carl and his brother would pack clothes and stay with the Bourns for a week. Carl was like another son. He even got to drive the Bourns’ car when he turned 16.
“Carl used to like when my dad came and picked him up,” Michael Bourn said. “He used to tell me ‘I couldn’t wait to see that green van coming around.’”
Crawford got a scholarship offer to play quarterback at Nebraska. UCLA wanted him as a guard, and he decided to enter the baseball draft.
He debuted for the Tampa Bay Rays at age 20 while Michael Bourn was still at the University of Houston. He drove down from the Cape Cod League to see Crawford play his third big-league game in Boston.
“I was like ‘This is crazy, man,’” Bourn said. “But he made it up that quick, he learned, he adapted to everything. One thing I admire about him is his confidence. And he is always looking to try to get better. He never just settled for what he had. He pushed himself.”
Last December when Crawford signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox, his first call was to Ray Bourn.
Michael Bourn decided to quit baseball his sophomore year at Nimitz High. His basketball team made the playoffs and by the time he got out to baseball, it was almost time for district play. His coach said he would put Bourn on the sophomore team.
Basketball was his first love then anyway. “That’s where the crowd was,” he said.
Bourn told his dad he wanted to quit. Surprisingly, his dad didn’t try to stop him. He knew decisions that mattered were the ones you made for yourself.
A week later, Bourn was on the sophomore team.
“I could tell he didn’t want me to do it,” Bourn said. “I could hear it in his voice.”
His dad was the first one Bourn called the morning of July 31 when he found out he was traded to the Braves. He was disappointed to be leaving his hometown Astros and relieved to be coming to a contender, but the worst part was over — not knowing.
Ray Bourn was disappointed some, too. Since he retired as a petrochemical operator, he had seen his son play every game at Minute Maid Park. Then he thought of Milwaukee.
“Lo and behold my son is playing for this team,” said Ray, in Atlanta for the 10-game homestand.
Bourn has hit .308 with a .364 on-base percentage and three stolen bases with the Braves. They’re 6-3 with him patrolling center field.
He seems to have fit in just by following the encouragement he got in a text message after the trade from Crawford: “Do you.”