ANAHEIM, Calif. — Watch him closely now. Soon, he may be gone.
For almost a decade, this has been the way the rest of the American League has looked at Carl Crawford. Every second, it seems, he is inching farther away from his base, teasing the pitcher, daring him to keep him where he is. Every pitch, he is reminding everyone to pay attention to him because, otherwise, he might just run away.
These days, that is also the way Tampa Bay looks at Crawford.
Soon, he might take off. And as much as the Rays may want to hold him close, there might be nothing they can do about it.
Think of these as the final, fantastic strides of Crawford, the best by-golly Ray of them all. With every catch he makes, with every base he steals, it looks harder and harder for the Rays to hang onto him. Crawford has never been better — hitting .321, including .419 over his past 20 games — and yet he has never been closer to the door.
So what is left for Crawford in Tampa Bay? Another 300 at-bats? Another 325? Another 95 hits? Another 100? Another 25 stolen bases? Another 30?
Enjoy him while you can, Tampa Bay.
As a lot of opposing first basemen can tell you, he doesn't always hang around for very long.
• • •
For now, Crawford is stationary. He sits at a table in a large room at the Anaheim Marriott at an All-Star news conference. At various points, he seems confident, relaxed, amused.
He talked about how he doesn't mind hitting ninth. He failed a trivia test about the '96 All-Star Game. (He was in high school, for crying out loud.) He told a Japanese camera crew that he loves watching Ichiro play. He suggested the All-Star Game add a 60-yard dash to the home run derby. He says Terrence Howard should play him in any movie made of his life.
America, it seems, has finally discovered Crawford. In his early years, his team was so horrible that no one paid attention. In 2008, the team was better, but Crawford was injured. And so Crawford has spent the majority of his career as Tampa Bay's secret.
Now that has changed. The Rays are good, and Crawford, 28, is good, and he seems to get recognized by a lot of people in a lot of places. It seems fair to suggest that this is the very best time to be Carl Crawford, the defending MVP of the All-Star Game.
"This is the most national attention I've ever had," Crawford said. "Finally, people can see what I can do.
"It's cool. It's always nice to get recognition for a thing you've worked so hard to do. For people to say this or that, it gives you a satisfaction inside."
Soon, those people are sure to include a lot of opposing general managers who are willing to play stack-the-money to obtain Crawford. What can he ask for? Fifteen million a year? $17 million? More? And with the Rays announcing they will reduce their payroll to the $60 million range, does it make sense for them to pay one out of every four dollars to a leftfielder? Unless, of course, someone approves a new stadium with enough money left over for Crawford's salary.
"I try not to think about it too much," Crawford said. "I try to block it out by focusing on the game that day. And we're winning. If we were losing, it might be harder. But you go to the field thinking about how you're going to win that day. If I let my mind drift, it would open up a whole different way of thinking, and that wouldn't help us. Besides, I still hope to end up in Tampa Bay."
But if the Rays reduce their payroll …
"If we win the World Series, you never know what can happen," Crawford said. "You have to think about the most positive things."
If the Rays win the World Series, you tell him, the fans might built a fence around Tampa Bay so Crawford cannot leave.
"Then let's win the World Series," Crawford said, grinning.
Ah, but what if it doesn't happen. What if Crawford were to leave? How would he be remembered then?
"I hope people would remember me as playing hard all the time," Crawford said. "That's what I do. I play it hard, I play it right, and I try to have respect for the game. That's pretty much it. I've never had antics on the field where people say, 'He's trying to call attention to himself.' People know me as strapping it on and playing as hard as I can."
There are worse legacies, you say.
"Yeah, but I don't want mine to be that."
It wouldn't be. Crawford has played too hard for too long for anyone to blame him for taking a higher-paying job. After all, he is the player who outlasted the misery. Others may have given in to the failure or been ground down by it, but not Crawford.
"If he does leave," teammate Evan Longoria said, "Carl should be remembered for being, at this point, the best player the franchise has ever seen. It gives me chills to say this, and I don't want to put a title him, but he's a potential Hall of Fame player. I've seen a lot from him. He's a special, special player. He's a once-in-a-generation player. You'll have to wait 25 years to see a player like him.
"If he isn't the most physically gifted player in the league, he's one of them."
• • •
When Longoria came to the Rays, he said Crawford was one of the only names he knew on the team.
"So I knew he was a good player," Longoria said, "but I had no idea what he really was."
Who is he? He's the guy who makes the improbable catches in left. He's the guy turning a double into a triple. He's a guy who can fall down on his way around third and still score. He's a guy who can steal a base, or get a hit, or make a play to win a game.
He is also the guy who is having his finest season at the most profitable time. Say this much for Crawford: If this really is his going-out-of-business sale with the Rays, he's doing it the right way.
"If you're as into this game as I am, you keep learning," Crawford said. "Some people are surprised I'm having this kind of a year, but I should be playing like this."
For now, how he plays is the important thing.
Soon, it will be where he plays.