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The Passing of Carl Crawford: A Retrospective

December 17, 2010

Josh Spilker has been here before, writing about the Vandy pipeline that gushes onto Soldier Field, basketball vignettes, and SEC picks. He also is the proprietor of the indie music blog Deckfight and writes an indie lit. column for Impose magazine, but all that is neither here nor there because, right now, Josh just needs to contemplate what the loss of Carl Crawford to the Boston Red Sox means to him and his fellow Tampa Bay fans:

I'll admit, it was disconcerting. At first there was this moment of recognition, then a small leap in the heart, then it was resigned acquiescence. The Rays were becoming popular. When I wore my hat on an airplane, I started getting comments. Then I'd go up to the college in North Carolina where I lived and I'd see someone else wearing a Rays hat. His looked new, mine wasn't.

It's disconcerting how much Carl Crawford got, because in many ways, Carl's new contract is a team effort. If James Shields in '08 and David Price in '10 hadn't pitched the way they had, or if Evan Longoria had just become Grady Sizemore good and not lightning-in-a-bottle good, or if Joe Maddon didn't adopt and then neuter hipster fashions, then I don't think any of this Carl courtship would have happened.

Sure, teams desire to win and I remember giddily turning on the TV every Wednesday in the summer of '08 to find that the Rays were being featured yet again on national TV. I had to pause and watch it, every time. There was Carl...on TV. And B.J. And Carlos Pena, Bennie Zobrist, all the guys I had to root for from a distance, because I only got to go to two home games a year. I realized then that's what it meant to be a fan. A real fan. To see your team do well and for others to see your team do well, I always made fun of the people who dressed up like Dogs or whatever at the Dawg Pound or something and I still wouldn't do that, but I was starting to see fandom taken to its logical extreme. I was starting to understand sports.

And because of my limited fan experience, then, it is hard to see Carl go, perhaps not on the level of LeBron James defecting from the middle of Ohio, but basketball always seems like players are teaching the franchises something while in baseball it's kind of the opposite. The baseball franchise is meant to develop players. That's why there are so many different levels of farm teams. The players really are not their own at those levels, they are part of the franchise, and all anyone talks about (at least in the baseball movies) is just to crack the bigs where they will be forever grateful for the opportunity.

That's how Carl appeared to us, as he went from high school to the Charleston River Dogs, through Orlando and Durham on up to the big time at Tropicana Field, the greatest catwalk pinball machine ever invented. When he arrived in 2002, the team was in shambles. It would lose 55 games that year under Hal McRae, the worst year ever for a bad franchise. The top player was Randy Winn, but the top name was a broken down utility fielder named Greg Vaughn, a former top homerun hitter who became very former once he joined the Rays (which happened to be at the end of a steroids era). The leading pitcher was Joe Kennedy, the leading disappointment was Wilson Alvarez.

It was horrible. We spent our days wondering if guys with names like Damian Rolls or Andy Sheets deserved to start over guys with names like Brent Abernathy or Steve Cox. Those names don't sound like a baseball team, but like the local electricians' union who played bingo at the VA on Thursdays. Times were tough, times were bad.

This was the morass that Carl would endure, before reinforcements eventually arrived in the form of guys with better names like Rocco Baldelli and BJ Upton. Sure Fred McGriff was around and some guy named Jose Bautista, but one was at twilight and no one is certain what to make of that Haley's Comet performance of the last. Part of the team was fading, the other part never certain to emerge, but there was steady Carl notching crazy SB numbers like a man running the most efficient landfill in the country--none of it mattered, because it was all trash anyway.

Imagine that for 6, 7 years really. That was Carl's life.

Until it changed. Out of nowhere really, because we had heard we could put together a good team, that these guys were emerging, were becoming, but we couldn't tell the difference between PR speak and objective speak. But it did happen. And I still think Carl was as good or better then than he is now, that as he hits 29 he is sure to slow down, that he can't help but slow down, that his best days are probably behind him.

Maybe as Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays fans we had duped him into thinking he wasn't as good as he was, maybe nobody knew how good he was, maybe it really a national stage for people to notice something you do well every single day, that only a handful of other Americans do as well as everyday. Even in a small fish bowl there are hiding places.

But here's the truth--we didn't know how good he really was, because he was always just there. Just playing leftfield for us and no one had really cared about what we had before.

Which makes all this even more shocking--Tampa Bay has something else that other people want? We had never been the coveted, only the coveter. We knew what loss felt like for sure, but it was always loss because of our doing, our own inefficiencies--now someone has taken something of value from us. And we don't know what to do.

And after 2008, we got a sense that we couldn't keep him. Yes, it was the cash, maybe it was our enthusiasm, but I don't even think we offered him some type of offer---it was best for both sides not to even look at the playground money we'd be offering to the king's ransom of these large, baseball-obsessed towns. It was better for us all just to walk away, waving until we couldn't see one another any longer.

To help our minds, we all thought that Carl was going to the Angels. That yes, he wanted money but at least he wouldn't take it within his own division, so that he wouldn't rub it in our face on every return, that if he went to Anaheim it was on another coast, a whole nation away. It was the best solution for both of us. To see him end up on the Red Sox, a team that we had bested the past few years, a team that will come and see us 18 times a year, there's a little embarrassment there. We thought that Carl was on our side, besting the others as the favored underdogs; we didn't expect him to join them--after all, we were beating them, and you don't join the teams that you can beat; that's not the way the story goes.

Except of course the Red Sox had more than sayings, they had history and the money to back up history. We just have a sting ray tank and a giant moat and a stadium with no life around it. We don't have Yawkey Way only dilapidated antique shops leading up to the stadium. History in Tampa Bay always seems to be emerging or just passing, it can never just be present, just for a little while. Except Carl was---and the rest of us were emerging or passing. And now after a few seasons of good, we were coming into our own, Carl had taught us how to win, how to be excited. And now he's passing and we don't know what's left.

There will be recognition for what he was, but we won't recognize what he's become.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful piece of writing from a true Rays fan. Viva la Tampa Bay!

January 2, 2011 at 1:53 PM

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