CHICAGO — Before Evan Longoria, there was Carl Crawford.
You already knew that, but it seemed a good time to bring it up.
Before B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Jason Bartlett, there was Carl Crawford. Before Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman and Stuart Sternberg, there was Carl Crawford.
Before all the good times, there was Carl Crawford.
This thought occurred to me Saturday afternoon in the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field. For these days, every Ray seems to be someone else's darling. Reporters go to Cliff Floyd for perspective. They come to Longoria to measure greatness. They look to J.P. Howell for a good laugh.
And we all tend to forget Crawford is actually the unabridged version of this feel-good tale.
For he is the only one to know of the 106 losses in 2002, the American League East championship in 2008 and every season in between. Once upon a spring, he was in an outfield with Josh Hamilton. His name was written in a Grapefruit League lineup by original Tampa Bay manager Larry Rothschild, and by every Rays skipper since.
"I still think Carl is the face of this franchise," said Friedman, the team's executive vice president. "It's the amount of time he has been here, what he has accomplished on the field, what he brings to this team in every nuance of the game. He is surrounded by a lot of good players now but, to me, he is still the face of the franchise."
The problem is this season has overflowed with story lines. There was Longoria's arrival, and Rocco Baldelli's return. There was the starting rotation coming of age, and the bullpen coming back from the dead. There was Friedman becoming a genius, and Maddon becoming a guru.
And somewhere along the line, Crawford may have gotten a little lost in the shuffle.
"He's been around so long, I just think big things are expected of him," Upton said. "We all contribute and do our thing, but because of the numbers he puts up and the down seasons he's been through and what he's meant to this team, I just don't see how anyone could forget how important he is around here."
Oh, you knew he was here. You knew he was going to be in leftfield more often than not. It was something Rays fans had grown accustomed to and, for that reason, maybe took for granted.
Between 2004-07, the guy had been more dependable than taxes. He had 746 hits, which was better than all but a handful of All-Stars. He was eighth in the AL in runs, first in stolen bases and one of 11 players to hit above .300 during those four seasons. And, for his efforts, Crawford suffered through more losses than any player in the league.
And then, just when the Rays were emerging as an AL East power, Crawford, 27, took a step back.
Long before he had hand surgery in August, Crawford's body was wearing down. There was the sore knee earlier in the summer. The aching hamstrings. The tender wrist. He had averaged more than 600 at-bats from 2003-07, never spending a day on the disabled list, and then, overnight, his health went on holiday.
"It was difficult for me. I never suffered with injuries before and didn't know how to play that way," Crawford said. "I had different batting stances all year long. I couldn't get into a groove. This year snuck up on me."
Crawford's batting average dipped. He stopped stealing bases. His power numbers sagged. Any other season, it would have been big news, but the Rays were still winning. And when he missed six weeks with the hand injury, they survived without him. In some ways, that had to hurt most of all.
"That was extremely tough for me," he said. "After all these years, I had to sit back and watch and I wasn't even sure when I could come back. I was just trying to stay positive, and hoping the guys would get to the playoffs and I would have time to get back."
It wasn't the way he planned it, but the hand injury did have one benefit. During his time off the field, Crawford's legs got stronger. He practiced his batting stance in front of a mirror and did what he could to stay in shape.
When he was activated for Game 1 of the division series, Crawford had not had an at-bat in the big leagues in 53 days. Yet he has gone 3-for-8 and has driven in runs in both of Tampa Bay's victories.
"You can see the difference in how we look when he's out there now, even for a couple of games," Maddon said. "The thing about Carl you don't really understand is he is getting better. He is not a finished product yet."
He is no longer the only star in the clubhouse. He no longer leads the team in the most important offensive categories. He is not the center of attention.
But, for the first time this season, Crawford is healthy. And for the first time in his career, the Rays are winning.
"Right now, that's all I care about," Crawford said. "That's what I'm thinking about in the playoffs, that this is my chance to erase all the bad stuff I went through this season."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]