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Belt, Crawford look back on decade together, what's to come

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Just about everything about the Giants has changed over the past three years, but if you get to the ballpark a few minutes early and look down to the outfield grass, you'll see one of the organization's funniest traditions, one that is entering a second decade. 

Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford will line up with the rest of the starters to play catch, extending further and further out and occasionally mixing in a breaking ball or imitation of a teammate. They'll get their arms loose just as all big leaguers do, but as the rest of the Giants head to the dugout for the first pitch, Belt and Crawford will remain, getting closer and closer and firing throws at each other's gloves until the gap starts to get uncomfortably small. 

Thirty feet, then 20, then 10, and even closer some nights. They'll keep whipping throws at each other with smiles on their faces until the ball skips past a glove. Neither remembers how it started. Both admit it's probably not the greatest idea. 

"I just feel like we get our egos out there and we just try to see who's willing to stay in there and fire the ball," Belt said. "We're playing a little game of chicken. Who's going to be the last one standing?"

"Yeah, I don't remember how we started that but I feel like it's gotten more dangerous over the years," Crawford said. 

 

The two are in agreement on another aspect of the warm-up game. One of them has the edge in the all-time standings, with an important caveat. 

"Belt knows exactly where the line is and always seems to cross it," Crawford said. "So yeah, he may 'win' more often but it's because he takes it too far."

"Now ... when we get close enough, I might try to throw it a little bit off-center so that he'll miss it, and he doesn't do that to me all the time, so I kinda cheat a little bit," Belt admitted. "But I definitely win more than he does."

When the game of chicken resumes Thursday night in Seattle, it'll be the 11th season together in the big leagues for Belt and Crawford, but that run might be nearing an end for two homegrown stars who will forever be intertwined. 

Belt is a native Texan who demolished the minor leagues after being taken in the fifth round in 2009 and surprisingly won an opening day job in 2011. Crawford is the lifelong Giants fan who was taken in the fourth round a summer earlier and rode a silky smooth glove to the big leagues, arriving two months after Belt.

Together, they became the Brandons.

They became two-time World Series champions. They were named All-Stars. They anchored the club's marketing campaigns. They have been neighbors in the clubhouse all along and lived a couple miles apart during the season. They have watched each other become fathers, Crawford to four young kids and Belt to two. What they have never been is free agents, but both are scheduled to hit the open market for the first time in November, with uncertainty about what's next. This could be their final season as teammates.

That the Brandons are even at this point is somewhat remarkable. Both were high draft picks, but longevity with one club is rare in today's game. Crawford faced early questions about his bat, but it caught up in a big way, and in 2015 -- a few days after he won the first of three straight Gold Gloves -- the Giants rewarded him with a six-year contract. Belt was in trade rumors early in his career and faced backlash from some fans for his body language, but two different front offices have appreciated his world-class eye at the plate and elite glove. Five months after Crawford's deal, Belt signed his own contract extension.

That locked in a partnership and friendship that began in the spring of 2010, when the two met in Arizona. Belt remembers Crawford having a shaved head. Crawford remembers Belt being "even more lanky and awkward-looking than he is now." The two met again later in the season in Double-A Richmond after Belt earned a quick promotion by hitting .383 in A-ball. 

"He was absolutely destroying High-A so I told him to just keep doing whatever was working for him and not to worry about the more advanced pitching in Double-A," Crawford said. "He was called up to Triple-A in like three weeks, so I like to think that he really took my advice to heart and I'm the reason for his success."

 

They started together in the big leagues for the first time on May 29, 2011, Belt hitting sixth and Crawford seventh. That was the first of 843 starts together, a run that has allowed both Brandons to climb the all-time leaderboards for a franchise littered with past Hall of Famers. 

Crawford, 34, is about to start his 10th consecutive opening day, a feat matched in Giants history by only Willie Mays, Barry Bonds and Robby Thompson. He is 53 games away from breaking the franchise record for games as a shortstop and ranks fifth in San Francisco Giants history in games played, 10th in doubles, 12th in hits and 13th in RBI. 

"It's kind of crazy to think about, really," Crawford said. "Obviously the dream was to play for the Giants and I think that's pretty well-documented, but you never think about playing 10 consecutive opening days or having the franchise record for games played at shortstop. You never think about stuff like that. It just seemed so far-fetched. It's kind of crazy to even try to wrap your head around."

Belt, 32, may start his 10th opener on Thursday. He enters the season ranked sixth in the organization's San Francisco era in walks, seventh in doubles and 15th in homers. Despite some awful injury luck, he also enters needing just 102 appearances at first to pass Will Clark and J.T. Snow and move into third all-time in games played by a Giants first baseman.

Those numbers are no surprise to the man who ran the Brandons out there all those years. The left-handed bats were important, but more than anything, Bruce Bochy wanted the two leading the defensive charge every night.

"That was the comforting part with these two, the defense they gave you on a nightly basis," he said during a recent phone call. "They're so consistent. Crawford has the Gold Gloves and Belt, he probably should have some Gold Gloves as good as he's been over there. That's what you got every night. In the early go with Craw, that was his strength, and we really needed his defense. But he ended up being one of our best clutch hitters and a pretty good hitter. 

"With Belt, you're thinking offense with him with the numbers he put up in the minor leagues. He comes up and you're thinking he's going to be hitting in the heart of the order and that's why you need him out there, but the defense was just as important for us. That's what they really had in common."

The longevity has been matched by plenty of high points. Asked for his favorite Crawford moment, Belt instead picked an entire first half. Crawford was an MVP candidate early in 2018 and was voted in as All-Star starter after a scorching stretch in which he batted .439 over a six-week span and matched that on defense. Belt remembers taking his position and having opposing first base coaches lean over and say, "Man, he's the best player in baseball right now."

 

"That was fun for me to watch because that was kind of what everybody always thought he could do," Belt said. "We see him out there playing shortstop every day and we kind of take him for granted a little bit. He makes all these great plays all the time and it becomes expected and mundane. Whenever someone else gets out there, you kind of realize how special he is and how much range he has compared to other people."

Asked the same question about Belt, Crawford at first points to defense. 

"My favorite Belt moments are when he picks a bad throw of mine out of the dirt," he said. "But there have been a bunch of those, so I'll pick something else. I'll never forget his 18th inning homer in D.C. in Game 2 of the NLDS. Nobody on either team really did anything offensively for like nine innings, so it was just like a huge exhale for us once he hit it."

Appropriately, Crawford was on deck for Belt's most famous moment as a big leaguer. 

"It's funny to look back at and watch how we just high-fived each other like it was any other homer," he said. "But both of us were going crazy inside."

That blast was a highlight of the Giants' third run to a title, but it's been seven years since that point, and change has come quickly. The Brandons and Buster Posey are the only Giants left from the championship era, and all could be gone after this season, or shortly thereafter. 

RELATED: Looking back at Posey's record-breaking deal

When the Giants signed Crawford and Belt to lucrative extensions, they were hopeful both could be productive into their thirties. There have been blips, but both bounced back in a big way last season. Neither looks anywhere close to done. 

"I would love to finish my career with the Giants, but I don't know if I'll necessarily be ready to finish my career after this season," Crawford said. "If there's interest on the Giants' side after this season, I would definitely love to finish my career in San Francisco, but we're still a season away. We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

Belt doesn't have the same lifelong ties to the Bay Area, but it has become a second home. Of the three potential homegrown free agents, he is the youngest and the most dangerous at the plate. He said he has thought a little about free agency, but he's not stressing yet.

"I just think that free agency stuff is going to take care of itself," he said. "Now, I think if you ask most people, they would love to spend their entire career with one team. I've loved every minute, every second of being in the Giants organization and I wouldn't trade that for the world. 

 

"If it's in the cards, I would love to stay here. If it's not, I'll just move on and I'll play somewhere else. I really feel like I'm coming into my best years as a baseball player. I think wherever I am that's going to show up."

That confidence about his first taste of free agency comes from feeling better about his game than ever before, Belt said, and he feels Crawford has plenty in the tank, too. Both are hoping to show that this season, but no matter how it plays out on the field, they plan to savor the time together in the clubhouse and the dugout, and of course, they'll continue to enjoy all those games of chicken. 

"It's something I want to relish," Belt said. "Because who knows what's going to happen next year."

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