LOS ANGELES — Carl Crawford is happy, relatively healthy, playing well on a winning team and, most important, having fun again.
That is nothing at all like the two previous seasons, when the leftfielder was mostly miserable with the Red Sox. It's more like his final years in Tampa Bay, a somewhat fitting evolution with his old Rays mates coming to Dodger Stadium tonight.
"I can't really put into words how I'm feeling right now, just being in a new place. Things are a lot better for me now, so I'm a little more at ease than I was the last few years," Crawford said over the phone.
"I just think it was changing the environment. The culture out there (in Boston) was a little bit different. It was something I wasn't really used to. I didn't take too well to everything out there. Here it's a little bit more relaxed. It's a lot similar to Tampa. I can go out and just focus on playing baseball, and that's one of the main things I just wanted to get back to; focus on baseball, and that's it."
Both Crawford and reliever J.P. Howell have found homes with the Dodgers, enjoying their run to the top of the National League West standings and anticipating the weekend series between two of the game's hottest teams.
As much as they are looking forward to renewing acquaintances, they also look back now with a perspective of how good they had it with the Rays, a conversation Crawford had recently with former teammate B.J. Upton, who is struggling in his first season in Atlanta.
"I tell guys all the time, there's not a place in baseball that's like that, and we definitely had to figure that out the hard way," said Crawford, 32, who left the Rays via free agency after the 2010 season and was traded out of Boston last August. "They have a lot of fun over there and that's part of why they win a lot. I just personally don't think there's any other place like that in baseball. It's pretty close here. We have a lot of fun here. But … the looseness over there, I don't think you'll find that anywhere else."
Even, Crawford said, if he didn't know it at the time.
"Stuff that you think is silly at the time, once you leave you realize that's the kind of stuff that helps teams win and bring you closer and all that kind of stuff," he said. "What may look silly to other people is actually what's good for those guys. It was a special place."
This is Howell's first season away from the Rays after leaving as a free agent, so the separation anxiety isn't as extreme. He still keeps in touch regularly with several of his former teammates and pitching coach Jim Hickey, and follows along when he can on the Internet and TV. And while Crawford has played 15 games against the Rays (hitting .224 with no RBIs), Howell has to go through that first-time awkwardness.
"It definitely will be a little weird," said Howell, 30, who spent six seasons in Tampa Bay. "I love those guys. They were really my first home, my first family. Lots of good memories, a playoff run, a World Series run. It'll definitely be weird at first, so I can't wait to get the first one out of the way so it'll become normal."
Their former teammates are excited to see them, reflecting on the impact both Crawford, a four-time All-Star outfielder during his nine years in Tampa Bay, and Howell, a high-leverage left-hander and occasional closer, had on the transformation from losing Devil Rays to winning Rays.
"I'm very happy for Carl to be doing well," manager Joe Maddon said. "Tell me who worked harder and really on a nightly basis put out a better effort than he did."
Howell, known affectionately as "Pizzle," was as valuable for his gutsy and clutch pitching as his unique clubhouse presence. "We all love Pizzle," Rays pitcher David Price said. "That dude is one of the best teammates we've all had."
For three days, anyway, they'll all be happy together.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]y.com.