If this is goodbye, if this really is the end of the reign of King Carl Crawford, let it be without regret, without rancor and without the wringing of hands. If this is goodbye, if we really are down to the final few games of the final season of the finest player in Rays franchise history, let it be agreed that Crawford at least went out in the right way. If this is goodbye, there is really only one thing to feel and one thing to say. Grateful. And thanks. This is how an athlete should bid farewell, at the conclusion of the best season of his career, after squeezing every ounce of production from his soul, after treating every day of a season so important that he made fans forget about tomorrow.
In sports, goodbyes are hard. Too many times, they are a choice between loyalty and greed, between ego and economics. Too many times, they are cold and disingenuous. Too many times, they can break your heart.
When LeBron James left Cleveland, fans were so angry they burned his replica jerseys. Green Bay fans still haven't forgiven Brett Favre for the way he left. Some fans in Boston will never forgive Roger Clemens. Locally, there was the gnashing of teeth for the way John Lynch left the building, and Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.
Given the potential riches involved, however, who can blame Crawford for going?
Given the economics of the franchise, who can blame the Rays for not paying him to stay?
"I just didn't want to leave St. Petersburg with any hard feelings," Crawford says softly. "I didn't want it to be a bad situation where the organization is mad at me or the fans are mad at me. I wanted everyone to be happy, to understand the situation and move on."
Oh, it won't be that easy. It won't be like closing the cover of a favorite book and putting it back on the shelf. Crawford has played too long, and too well, for that to happen. It would be a little insulting if someone's feelings weren't ruffled a little.
For most of this season, as Crawford hit .307 and stole 47 bases and hit 19 homers and scored 110 runs and knocked in 90 more, fans have desperately tried to make the numbers work so he might stay. It doesn't make sense, however, for a team that has talked often about its need to slash payroll. With Crawford looking at a six- or seven-year deal worth $130 million or so, where is the money to come from? Does it make sense to pay one of every four dollars — minimum — to a leftfielder? Sadly, it does not.
Even now, as Crawford talks about his situation, as he repeats how much he would prefer to stay, he occasionally lapses into past tense. After these playoffs, if they last three games or if they last 19, it appears he will be a memory. A fine memory, but nevertheless, a memory.
"I loved playing in Tampa Bay," Crawford says. "Everything is so comfortable for me right now. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about the future. That's one reason it was easy not to think about it. Starting new is not a comfortable feeling. Everything is going to change, from where you live to where you buy groceries."
Also, where you play.
There are players who do not react well to the walk-away season of their contracts. There are those who cannot forget about where they might land or what they might be paid. Crawford? He admits his future would creep into his mind from time to time, late at night, but for the most part he kept those thoughts in a drawer in the back of his mind. He thought about that day's game, that day's pitcher, that day's possibilities.
What more could you ask of Crawford? He has grown up here, from the kid who showed up in 2002 to a man 29 years of age. Once, he admits, he was raw and fresh, an athlete learning to play baseball. Now, he is smarter, more accomplished. Once, he suffered the losing of baseball's most dysfunctional franchise. Now, he is an acknowledged star of a successful team.
"It helped that we were winning," Crawford says. "No one wants to go out badly. I wanted this season to be as good as possible. I got through it by knowing that today is today."
He is a straightforward man, Crawford, and his Texas drawl has never left him. There is no deceit to him, no hidden agenda. In some ways, he is still the kid who worked at his grandfather's restaurant — Burns Barbecue — back in Houston. His friends were off playing, and he would want to be with them. But at the end of the day, he wanted to be paid. And so he worked.
Now, it is time for him to be paid once again. Why not? How many of us walk away from a raise? How many of us would walk away from a winning lottery ticket?
You mention that a lot of fans seem to understand, that it feels different from when other stars walk away.
"I was never all that in Tampa Bay," Crawford says. "I was never a superstar around town. Not like Longo or Rocco or Hamilton. I don't think I was ever like that."
Oh, come on, Carl. You were the best player this franchise has had.
"Yeah, now," he says, laughing softly. "That started in like '08. When I first got here, we were losing so much. In '08, the year we went national, I was hurt. Last season was really a coming-out party for me. I don't think a lot of people were that into me early.
"I never brought a lot of attention to myself. I never lashed out at anyone. I just tried to be like a regular person. I tried to be as normal as possible. I never went out much. I'd have friends say, 'Why don't you do anything?' But we were losing for five years straight. I wasn't going out. If you're losing every game, I don't want to show my face. I was embarrassed. I don't want to be recognized."
So Crawford kept his eyes level, and he kept working, and he grew out of the sludge. Around him, the losing seemed to devour other players. Not him. Crawford was still the kid who hauled wood at the restaurant. He has gotten every hit he could have, scored every run, chased down every ball. The Rays could not have gotten more for their money.
"I think I've done everything I could," he says.
Oh, he had his peculiarities. He would not play centerfield. He would not bat leadoff.
Once, he says, when Tom Foley was the Rays' farm director, Crawford says Foley told him that he was a leftfielder, that Rocco Baldelli was a better centerfielder. And that was that. Crawford was a leftfielder.
"Foley says he never told me that," Crawford says. "But you don't forget when a man tells you that to your face. He crushed me. After that, I said, 'I'm never playing centerfield again.' "
As for batting leadoff?
"I just thought I (stank) at it, to be honest with you," Crawford says. "Lou (Piniella) put me second. Maybe I could have gotten better at it, but I just wasn't comfortable. It didn't have anything to do with stats. I just don't think I'm a good leadoff hitter."
He had a blast here, Crawford says. He loved living here. He loved playing here.
Even now, he talks about keeping a place in town for the offseason.
"This is the place where my career started," Crawford says. "The Rays gave me an opportunity to play baseball, and they gave me every chance to succeed. I'll always appreciate that. I never had any problems around the city. I have nothing negative to say about the area. I just wish we could have been a winner early on. That was tough. That was so tough I can't put it into words."
He is almost out of time. He is almost out of town. His time with the Rays is down to a few games, maybe a few swings. Hopefully, a few more memories.
"All that's left is a World Series," he says. "I think that's possible."
If this is goodbye, what better way to say it?