Do Tampa Bay Rays fans cheer or boo Carl Crawford upon his return to Tropicana Field?

First, you cheer. Don't you?

You cheer for the man, and you cheer for the memories, and you cheer for the sweat and effort and years.

You cheer for the hits and all of the catches. You cheer because he became something special, and he allowed the franchise to do the same. You cheer because it is the classy thing to do, and he always was a classy player.

Tonight, you should cheer for Carl Crawford.

Once.

After that, you are on your own.

The natural tendency, of course, will be to boo on first sight. After all, Crawford will be in the wrong uniform, and a Boston Red Sox uniform at that. It might be easier if Crawford were with, say, the Angels or the Astros or the Dodgers.

But the Red Sox? The Rays have never swapped acrimony with any team as much as with the Red Sox. To Rays fans, that's a difficult piece of laundry to reconcile.

Besides, Crawford left. He took the money, and he shifted his loyalties, so how can he expect yours? Tonight, he will try to push the Rays further back in the race. This time, he will try to steal their doubles and rob them of their hits. This time, he is one of the bad guys.

It will be unusual to see Crawford on the wrong side of the passion of Rays fans. It is a safe bet that some fans will be willing to boo Crawford as soon as he gets off the team bus. After all, Carl doesn't live here anymore.

On the other hand, this is Crawford, the best player in the history of the Rays franchise. He gave this franchise nine seasons, and in five of them he hit .300 or better, and in four of them he was an All-Star. He gave fans 1,480 hits, and he stole 409 bases, and he was good enough that he outlasted the days of wretchedness.

"Looking back, I played as hard as I could," Crawford says. "I gave them everything I had. It was all about trying to turn things around, and I felt I helped to do that. I enjoyed my days there."

Was Crawford's contribution worth a cheer? Absolutely.

Tonight? We'll see. It would probably help Crawford's popularity if he walked onto the field wearing jeans and a Matt Joyce T-shirt. It would help if he announced he would buy Cracker Jack for all kids younger than 10. It would help if he were willing to join in the booing of the rest of the Red Sox players. At least, it would help some.

"I really don't know what the reaction will be," Crawford says softly into the phone. "That's what I'm waiting to see.

"I understand if they want to boo. I understand all the reasons. I wouldn't take it personally. There really isn't anything I can do but try to understand. If that's what makes them feel better, then go right ahead and boo.

"I'll be honest. No one likes being booed. I hope they're booing the uniform. I hope they're not booing me."

Crawford laughs, a brief, two-note laugh. Still, it is a familiar sound.

For nine seasons, he was as much a fixture in the Tropicana Field outfield as the squirting orange. He entered as a raw kid, and he played hard, and he stayed out of the headlines, and he was never one hiccup of trouble. No, he didn't want to bat leadoff, and no, he didn't want to play center. But there was rarely a night when the Rays' lineup wasn't better with him than without him.

And then he left.

Considering the $142 million contract over seven seasons, twice his salary, most of us would have done the same.

Look, there was no meanness here, and there was no spite. Crawford never had a problem with the franchise or with the area. He still speaks well of both. The truth of it is that Crawford simply outgrew the local franchise's finances. If you want to blame anyone, blame baseball's system that allows the rich to cherry-pick stars from the smaller markets.

It is always a delicate thing, when a former favorite comes back to town in strange colors. Fans get emotionally invested in their best players. Once, John Lynch came to town wearing Denver's colors, and once, Hardy Nickerson came back wearing Green Bay's colors, and once, Brad Richards came back wearing the sweater of the Dallas Stars. Tony Dungy and Lou Piniella and John Tortorella all coached on the other side.

And so the question remains:

Do you cheer? Do you jeer? Is the player unforgettable? Or is donning the Boston uniform unforgiveable?

Let's face it, it isn't as if Crawford hasn't heard a boo or two in his time. This year, for instance. From his own fans, to be precise.

Crawford got off to a miserable start with the Red Sox. After 58 at-bats, he was hitting only .127, not even a point for each million.

He was new, and he was struggling, and every article pointed out his paycheck, and the size of the crowd around his locker had grown, and suddenly, Crawford's career was under water. That's the thing about a big contract; it wasn't just the Green Monster that cast a shadow over Crawford.

"April was pretty much the worst month of my career," Crawford says. "I've had bad starts before, but this one eclipsed them all. I wanted to get off to a good start, but I was pressing, and the harder I tried, the worse it was.

"It was hard at times. You just deal with it. You definitely have times you bring it home with you. But everyone who knows me knows I'm a grinder."

Crawford was better in May, but as recently as May 22, he was still hitting .209. In the 19 games since, however, Crawford has hit .333 with 18 RBIs. The Red Sox have won 14 of those games, including the past nine.

In other words, there is a lot to boo besides Crawford.

In my mind, the perfect reception for Crawford is to cheer early. Give him a smattering of applause at first glance, maybe even as he is announced for his first at-bat. And if you feel the need, let him have it later.

The most passionate of you, of course, might decide to skip the first step.

Do Tampa Bay Rays fans cheer or boo Carl Crawford upon his return to Tropicana Field? 06/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 12:22am]

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