Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Legacy of Carl Crawford

Last Tuesday, on the same night he felt the collective sympathy of all male-kind, Carl Crawford celebrated the eighth anniversary of his major league debut.

Following his inconspicuous 1-for-4 debut on a 78-degree summer night in Toronto in 2002, Carl Crawford became an oddity in the dome of little talent. Through the years, he became our first home-grown star – the first selected to the all-star game for his merit, not just because someone had to be there in a Devil Rays cap.  He was the first Devil Ray to consistently lead the league in something positive – the only shining piece amongst Naimoli-funded scrap heaps until Scott Peterson claimed he could fix Victor Zambrano in five minutes. But whereas Scott Kazmir and his strikeouts put butts in the seats, Carl Crawford and his stolen bases never drew public enthusiasm. Perhaps because stolen bases are often the first prize of expansion teams searching for a quick buzz. Many a pitiful team has put a speedster on their roster in the hope he steals a base or two. Chuck Carr owes his Marlins career to this practice.

As time progressed and the franchise metamorphasized from perennial chum to a well-oiled machine that could play havoc with Empires and stymie the dominance of Nations, Crawford was forged into the leader of the new respectable Rays. He was the model of consistency, a piece to build a dream on.

Rarely however is a slap-hitting speedster the type of player to bring a team from worst to first. That title normally goes to cornerstone first basemen like Albert Pujols or once-in-a-generation moundsmen such as Stephen Strasburg. Keeping Crawford was the Sternberg Regime’s first declaration of unorthodoxy.

While the Rays exercised the Devil and began to win more often, Crawford began to lose whatever position he had as “franchise player”. His steady 60-watt stardom was rapidly eclipsed by the Hollywood looks and Jeter-esque poise of Evan Longoria. While Evan jumped off helicopters and talked to pretty girls on trolleys, Carl held down position number seven, just as he did in 2002.

Despite no longer being the mainstream face of the Rays, Crawford has continued to see his own career accomplishments grow. While taking the field with more teammates than anyone else in franchise history, he has become the team’s career leader in numerous categories, some due to his skill and others based strictly on his tenure.

In these last eight years, Carl Crawford’s impressive tenure has put him in elite company in the local sports community. By playing in approximately 58% of the Rays franchise games, Crawford has played a role in a more of his team’s games than legendary Tampa Bay Bucs cornerpiece Derrick Brooks (under 50%). Only Lightning mainstay Vinny Lecavalier has played in a larger percentage of his franchise’s total games (nearly 64%).

Unfortunately, Carl Crawford receives far less acclaim than Brooks, Lecavalier, Warrick Dunn, Marty St. Louis, Mike Alstott or others who sit in the pantheon of recent local legends.  This lack of fame can in part be attributed to his personality – a quiet mix of consistency and professionalism – but some of the fault must lie in his location of daily business.  Whereas the other aforementioned Tampa area sports stars played a majority of their games within Tampa city limits, where prominent powerbrokers sitting high in the SunTrust building can be reminded of their presence and corporate support is more accessible, Crawford almost anonymously plied his wares over the cultural chasm that is the Tampa Bay.

For many who do see him on a regular basis, Crawford’s consistency has numbed them of his accomplishments.  No longer the only shining diamond in a domed coal mine, he has become “Just Carl”.  A 3 for 5 day, with a triple and two stolen bases?  That’s “Just Carl”.  Same as it has been since the days before Google went public, before Martha Stewart went to jail, and before American troops tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Of course, there are also those who attempt to make Crawford’s lack of standing a reflection of his ethnicity or upbringing.  They point to his astrological neck tattoo as a symbol of his “street” persona.  They point to where he was raised, the Near Northside of Houston, not far from the “Fifth Ward” made famous by old-school rappers The Geto Boys, as proof that he cannot be a pillar of community.

Whereas casual racists attribute BJ Upton’s flaws to his race, those leaping to geographic and cultural conclusions in order to pin flaws on Crawford show nothing short of overt racism, fear of the unknown, or a sad journalistic tendency to grasp at straws.

The sad reality is that Crawford will never be more popular than he is now and as his career winds down his exploits will be less frequently celebrated. Despite carving a niche as one of the best leftfielders in today’s game, his skills are not quite those of an all-time great, a step or two below those of Rickey Henderson.  Unfortunately, he was the victim of being born 30 years too late and not playing during the 1980s, a time when his athleticism, speed, and defense would have been celebrated since his first day. Playing in the aughts meant Crawford had to wait for baseball’s steroid testing to eradicate a bastardized style of play that made him an anomaly. If he played during the 80s and not during the Bondsian Era, perhaps he would have competed with Henderson, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and other great speedsters who were born to run.

Perhaps one day, when all is said and done, Crawford finds a love similar to that given to Willie Wilson, one of the better supporting actors in the cast of long forgotten championship Royals teams, coincidentally also led by a famous third baseman.

Crawford is the perfect reflection of the Rays’ rise to respectability, quietly efficient and cost effective.  With the exception of a recent possibly ill-worded compliment of his former field general, he has made few waves in the Rays’ ocean.  He has been our prophet, foretelling days of greatness, and after his departure, whether following this season or sometime in the future, he will be the first homegrown Ray with his number retired.  On that day, we will raise his 13 to the rafters – a tribute to the steady consistency and professionalism of “Just Carl”.