ST. PETERSBURG — The base was stolen, the crowd was cheering, the teammate was offering congratulations. And the fastest man on the field was slow to pick up on the significance of it all.
Carl Crawford had his back to the Tropicana Field scoreboard after stealing second base in the eighth inning Sunday and had no idea it was flashing a message that he had just tied a modern major-league record with six stolen bases in a game.
So he wondered why the fans down the first-base line were offering a standing ovation as he came off the field at the end of the inning, and he paid no attention when B.J. Upton gave him a quick, congratulatory greeting in front of the Rays dugout.
It wasn't until the game had been completed and Crawford was doing a television interview with Todd Kalas that he learned he had accomplished something only three other men had done in the past 109 years.
And his first thought?
"I wish I had known during the game," Crawford said. "I probably would have broken it. At least I would have tried."
What Crawford did Sunday was not just historic; it might also hasten a change in perceptions. In decline in recent seasons, the stolen base seems to be making a comeback in 2009. And the Rays are doing more than any other team to make it chic again.
Tampa Bay has a major-league-leading 40 stolen bases through 26 games and is on pace to attempt 287. That's more than any American League team has attempted since the Brewers were in the league in 1992.
Why now? And why the Rays?
Some of it is circumstances; some of it is design. With pitchers learning to deliver the ball to the plate more quickly after the stolen base explosion in the 1980s, and with home runs becoming a bigger part of the game in the '90s, the stolen base lost some of its allure. From 1980 to 1987, there were six seasons when a player stole 100 bases or more. There have been none since '87.
Advanced statistical analysis also suggested the stolen base was an inefficient way to produce offense, and it became less and less prevalent. Stolen bases were down about 25 percent from the early 1980s to last season.
But drug testing appears to have dulled baseball's home run habit, and the stolen base is looking pretty attractive again. Particularly to a team such as the Rays with quite a few fast players and a manager willing to buck trends.
"I know the sabermetrics, in regard to how ineffective base-stealing actually is, but I disagree because I don't think you can evaluate the importance of it just based on if you're successful or not," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's about the mind-set. It's about what you do to the other team, it's about the better pitch you get as a hitter at a specific moment, it's about the pressure applied on the defense, it's about the error that you create, it's about the extra bases you take. There are so many other ways to look at it.
"It is really generalizing one little bucket way too easily, and I never really agreed with that component of the numerical world."
The key, of course, is efficiency. The last AL team to attempt more than 200 steals was the Angels in 2006. They were successful on 148 of 205 attempts, a ratio of 72.1 percent. The Rays have been successful 86.9 percent of the time this season.
"Unless you maintain a certain success rate, then it starts to eat into the value," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's all about high-percentage plays. There are risks with everything you do, but you want to keep the percentages in your favor."
The Red Sox did not seem overly impressed with Crawford's record Sunday, suggesting his six steals did not have a direct impact on the game's outcome. They may be right about that, but it doesn't mean the stolen base was insignificant.
With the Rays clinging to a 4-3 lead in the eighth, Jason Bartlett stole third base. It wasn't a typical move because he was already in scoring position and he wasn't going to score on a sacrifice with two outs. But, when Crawford beat out an infield hit, Bartlett scored a valuable insurance run.
"The guy who was pitching (Ramon Ramirez) throws a lot of breaking pitches, split-fingers or changeups, so my strategy was to get on third and hope he threw one in the dirt," Bartlett said. "Or, maybe, because I was on third, he would stick to fastballs, which is going to help the hitter out."
Crawford, who has yet to be thrown out this season, leads the AL with 17 steals. If he gets one more without being caught, he will become the AL's all-time leader in stolen-base percentage for players with at least 300 steals. Crawford is at 83.28 and Willie Wilson is at 83.29.
Turns out, Crawford's larcenous ways are already spreading. After the game, the Rays grounds crew confiscated second base and had it authenticated by Major League Baseball. Crawford missed a chance to celebrate Sunday, but he will presumably have another opportunity when the base is handed over to him.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.