There are still some moments, Carl Crawford admits, when things just don't feel proper, when he is "still trying to deal with the fact that I'm a Red Sox and not a Ray anymore." And there will be times, like the first glimpse in Thursday's exhibition, when he just doesn't look right, especially in that dark Boston blue and red. "Out of place," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Like a Crawford out of water."
Eventually, it all will seem normal, as Crawford got the big deal (seven years, $142 million) he sought after nine years with the Rays. What he doesn't want — his "my heart is in Boston" line at the Fenway Park news conference aside — is a bad reputation for signing in December with the rival Red Sox.
"I had a great time in Tampa; hopefully I won't be considered the villain, as some people try to make me out to be," Crawford said. "I had a lot of fun times here. I love the fans here. And those are still my boys in the other clubhouse."
Crawford said before the game that he expected it to be odd facing his old mates, but afterward, at least in a spring exhibition, that it really wasn't. "It didn't feel too weird," he said.
The Rays, though, couldn't say the same. "Yeah, it was different," shortstop Reid Brignac said. "Even talking to him before the game was weird." Though Evan Longoria, who has refrained from talking much about the players who left, said, "It's more strange for me seeing Manny (Ramirez) and Johnny (Damon) in our clubhouse."
The first of this year's 22 potential reunions was, relatively, uneventful, Crawford getting a mixed reaction from the sold-out Charlotte Sports Park crowd that had a large Boston bent anyway.
Crawford went 1-for-3, beating out an infield single his third at-bat but then getting thrown out at second on a great play by Brignac, his closest friend among the Rays. And he reminded the Rays of what they'll miss most, robbing Sam Fuld of a hit in leftfield with a running, diving catch of a sinking liner. "We got really spoiled with that," Maddon admitted.
Crawford was a foundation player for the Rays, but as much as his absence will be noted on the bases and in leftfield ("He probably saved every pitcher on our team one point on their ERA every year," starter James Shields said) his larger impact actually may have been in the clubhouse.
"It was the way he led without being vocal," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Just from sitting around him and everything that he does, you could learn a lot."
"There's a guy that brings it every day," Maddon said. "That's the best way to describe it with him."
In addition to the leadership and the fellowship (for example, he stayed in contact over the winter with Brignac and outfield prospect Desmond Jennings to keep them motivated about seizing their opportunity), Crawford brought something else.
"He is fun-ny," Upton said. "There was something every day we sat and talked about and laughed about."
"You know how he's an underrated outfielder?" Shields said. "He's an underrated comedian."
Crawford laughed that laugh when asked and said he didn't know what the Rays would miss most. He did say that what he was most proud of during his Tampa Bay tenure — more than his four All-Star appearances, three team MVP awards, his stolen base titles or his Gold Glove — was being part of the Rays' rise to prominence after so many years on the bottom.
"That was the one thing I was afraid of, that you knew they were going to probably start winning at some point, but I didn't know if I was going to be a part of it," he said. "So to be a part of it, that was one of the major things I was proud of."
Now that doesn't sound like such a bad guy, does it?