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Carl Crawford too busy winning game for Tampa Bay Rays to reminisce

ST. PETERSBURG — For months, we have talked about Carl Crawford's future.

About the dwindling number of days he still has ahead of him in Tampa Bay. About whether it is better to let him leave after the season as a free agent or to look for a trade this summer before his contract runs out.

We have pictured the Yankees throwing stacks of money at him. We have wondered whether Houston might make a run at a hometown guy in the prime of his career. We have plotted the arrival of Desmond Jennings and the potential savings in salaries between the two.

Honestly, we have speculated far more than necessary.

For, as of now, Carl Crawford is still around.

And that has always been a good thing in Tampa Bay.

Crawford brought home Tampa Bay's first victory of 2010 on Tuesday evening at Tropicana Field when he drove a bases-loaded double to rightfield with one out in the ninth to drive in two runs on opening day.

"He's coming up to the plate right there, and I'm thinking this is just perfect," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Based on everything going on and how motivated he is, and a tough left-handed pitcher out there, I felt good about it. I knew there was going to be a good at-bat."

If this is to be farewell, then apparently Crawford is planning to go out in style.

"That was awesome," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Obviously with all the talk and all of that, opening day at home, behind all game, you get a couple of guys that get on base for you, the other manager intentionally walks a guy to get to you, yeah, I had an idea."

Think of it this way:

Crawford was once the opening day starter in leftfield with Chris Singleton beside him in centerfield.

That's how long Crawford has been a fixture in Tampa Bay. His first opening day was in 2003, also Lou Piniella's debut as manager. The Rays trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning that day when Crawford hit a three-run walkoff homer.

Think of it this way:

Crawford was once the opening day starter in left with Joey Gathright beside him in center.

When the Rays had the worst record in baseball two years in a row, Crawford was one of the few players worth watching. He is one of the last remaining witnesses to Hal McRae's tortuous final season as Rays manager.

Think of it this way:

Crawford was once the opening day starter in left with Elijah Dukes beside him in center.

In recent weeks, Crawford has at least acknowledged the possibility that his future in Tampa Bay is in doubt. It is not that he is eager to leave, but he has been waiting to test the free agent market as a 28-year-old, three-time All-Star.

But now that opening day has arrived, Crawford said his focus has shifted from the future to the present. Speculate all you wish, Crawford is no longer playing along.

He arrived at the ballpark with the same mind-set of every opener in the past. He did not linger to soak in the pregame festivities, and he did not grow nostalgic with the thought that this might be his last April in Tampa Bay.

"I didn't think about it at all. I was so into the game and another season, my mind was so far away from that," Crawford said. "In spring training I was willing to talk to guys about it, but once the season starts, it's off my mind. I can't do anything about it.

"Now, it's all about the team and playing ball."

For the longest time, few have done it better in Tampa Bay.

Which is why it was interesting that Baltimore manager Dave Trembley chose to intentionally walk Jason Bartlett to get to Crawford in the ninth. From a purist perspective, it was the smart move. It set up a force at the plate and a potential double play. It also brought a left-handed hitter to the plate to face left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez.

"The competitive nature in you always says if they're going to walk a guy to get to you, that you should at least make it hard on them," Crawford said. "But I didn't find it disrespectful at all because that's the way he wanted to manage the game."

The key, Maddon said, was Crawford taking the first pitch for a ball. That put Gonzalez in a hole with the bases loaded and forced him to come after Crawford with a fastball on the next pitch. Crawford drilled it to right.

He knew it was a hit the moment the ball left his bat, but Crawford said he wasn't sure whether it would get Kelly Shoppach home from second base. Once he saw Shoppach slide across the plate, Crawford rounded second and headed toward the celebration.

His night was going so well, Crawford even avoided the shaving cream pie to the face. As he was doing an on-field interview with Todd Kalas, Crawford ducked out of the way just as Dioner Navarro swung the pie.

His future in Tampa Bay might still be in doubt, but Crawford continues to create memories along the way.

"I think he wants to stick around for several years to come. I want to believe that," Maddon said. "I know that's an unusual statement based on society, and how this whole thing works. But I want to believe that he wants to stay here."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Carl Crawford too busy winning game for Tampa Bay Rays to reminisce 04/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 1:00am]
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