Tampa Bay Rays: The Return of Carl Crawford

Eli Marger@Eli_MargerCorrespondent IJune 14, 2011

ST PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 07:  Carl Crawford #13 the Tampa Bay Rays waits in the dugout during Game 2 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field on October 7, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Oh, the memories.

When the speedy young outfielder we Rays fans once loved returns to the field he once loved, an incredible array of memories will surface.

Carl Crawford's return to Tampa Bay is a poignant reminder of how things have changed for the Rays.

Fans will undoubtedly get flashbacks of Crawford and his most memorable moments. Whether a grand slam to secure a sweep of the Cubs in 2008, one of his hundreds of stolen bases or his unforgettable over-the-wall catch in the 2009 All-Star Game, Crawford was truly electrifying as a Ray.

For some, it is a bitter return. He is hardly the prodigal son in this situation. Don't get me wrong—Crawford is the greatest Ray of all time and did more for the franchise than any other player. But he was never a true fan favorite.

While always being the best player on the team, he took second fiddle to Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria or David Price.

He was not the one to give a funny interview or interact with fans before games, but between the first and ninth inning, he did his job at the highest level. He was all business, right up until the very end.

Had Crawford spent the first portion of his career in Boston, New York or Chicago, there is no doubt he would have been long regarded as one of the best players in baseball. His unparalleled combination of a swift bat, swift feet and a slick glove makes him an absolutely invaluable asset to whomever is lucky enough to be his team.

For the Rays, it was a match made in heaven. Here was a team built on small ball and athleticism, and it had the cream of the crop in Crawford. He could have probably gone on to play in the NFL or NBA, but instead chose baseball. In the second round of the 1999 MLB draft, he fell right into the lap of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

But any realistic Rays fan knew what was going to happen. The time would come when Crawford would no longer be affordable, when the Rays would have to allow him to enter free agency. As the 2010 season drew to a close with Tampa Bay's hopes of winning a World Series as high as ever, there was some hope.

Maybe, just maybe, the Rays could pull one out and convince him to stay.

By the time Ian Kinsler hit a backbreaking three-run home run off Rafael Soriano in Game 5 of the ALDS, we all knew that the Carl Crawford era was over. We knew it the inning before, in what would be Crawford's final at-bat as a Ray. He received a standing ovation.

He should receive the same treatment Tuesday night as he returns to Tropicana Field for the first time. Of course, the tens of thousands of Red Sox fans that will populate the third-base line will give him a cheer. But so too should the Rays faithful.

At a cost of $121 million, enough to buy this year's team nearly three times over, the Red Sox have Carl Crawford for the foreseeable future. But nothing should take away from what he did for the Rays. Without him, there is no 2008 miracle season. Without him, there may never have been a winning season in Tampa Bay.

So now he arrives, the centerpiece of a terrific offseason for one of baseball's most storied franchises; here he is, a vital piece of baseball's best team. He is the same player he was for the Rays—just some different clothes.

Tuesday's game at Tropicana Field is really the first true signal that the Tampa Bay Rays are a franchise in transition. As they fight to stay afloat in the AL East, they witness a team built around eight-figure salaries of players who they cannot afford. When No. 13 comes up, Exhibit A of the business of baseball will be on display.

It will be a cruel but necessary reminder that the Rays are not a team built around keeping players. There will never be a Derek Jeter or Jason Varitek or Cal Ripken on the Rays.

A few years down the road, there will likely be a similar homecoming for David Price, B.J. Upton and possibly even Evan Longoria. It's something that will take some getting used to.

For now, Rays fans must take a big gulp of reality. No amount of preparation can get them ready for the return of the best player to ever wear their colors.

This isn't a situation of how it could have been, or how it should have been.

Instead, Tuesday night will bring upon us the moment that had to be.