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Once upon a time, the Hall of Fame was in Carl Crawford’s future

John Romano | The leftfielder was among the game’s top stars when he left Tampa Bay in 2011, but his career was never the same.
Hard to believe, after making four All-Star teams, stealing more than 400 bases and collecting more than 1,500 hits before turning 30, that Carl Crawford's career fell off so sharply that he did not get a single vote for the Hall of Fame this week.
Hard to believe, after making four All-Star teams, stealing more than 400 bases and collecting more than 1,500 hits before turning 30, that Carl Crawford's career fell off so sharply that he did not get a single vote for the Hall of Fame this week. [ Times (2008) ]
Published Jan. 27

ST. PETERSBURG — A decade before he ever showed up on a ballot, Carl Crawford was a Hall of Famer.

At least that’s how it seemed to a lot of people who watched him play for those early Devil Rays teams. He had the talent, he had the intangibles, he had the stats. It felt like Cooperstown and a retired jersey were just a few more line drives, stolen bases and shy smiles away.

And that’s why, in retrospect, this week’s Hall of Fame announcement seemed so remarkable.

When the 394 electors turned in their ballots, Crawford had not received a single vote. Not one. A.J. Pierzynski got two votes. Jonathan Papelbon got five, and so did Justin Morneau. All in all, 249 votes were cast for eight different players who had a lower career WAR than Crawford.

Yet, it didn’t feel like an injustice at all.

It just felt sad.

Okay, maybe sad is the wrong word. It’s not as if Crawford’s career ended abruptly due to a single, tragic injury. And it’s not as if he hasn’t gone on to a successful career as a music industry label owner, once signing Megan Thee Stallion among other artists.

It’s just that Crawford was Tampa Bay’s first bona fide baseball star and it’s unfortunate that his legacy will never quite reflect the thrills and pride that he brought to an oft-ridiculed franchise.

If you weren’t around at that time, it’s hard to explain Crawford’s immense appeal. He had this wonderful childlike innocence and humility that somehow never clashed with his more streetwise persona. And watching him on the field was like perpetually anticipating a triple in the gap.

You think that’s a stretch? Yeah, well Crawford was a fixture at a time when the Rays were running through players like an American Idol audition. While he was the opening day starter in leftfield for eight consecutive seasons, the Rays had eight different players start the opener in rightfield.

The jump to the Red Sox didn't pan out for Carl Crawford after leaving Tampa Bay.
The jump to the Red Sox didn't pan out for Carl Crawford after leaving Tampa Bay. [ WINSLOW TOWNSON | Associated Press (2012) ]

He is tied with David Price with the most All-Star appearances in Tampa Bay history with four, and he was the 2009 All-Star Game MVP. He won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and he led the American League in stolen bases and triples four times each.

Still skeptical? For the first 10 years of his career, the only player in the big leagues with more hits than Crawford was Albert Pujols. When he got his 1,500th hit, he joined Hall of Famers Eddie Collins and Ty Cobb as the only players with 1,500 hits, 400 steals and 100 triples before turning 30.

Yes, Crawford was on a path toward 3,000 hits and all the accolades that milestone suggests.

So what happened? He left Tampa Bay. And it really appears to be that simple.

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While there were rumors the low-revenue Rays might trade Crawford before his contract ran out, the team held on to him with the hope that he would sign a long-term deal. Instead, he signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox before the 2011 season.

And after a decade in Tampa Bay’s low-key surroundings, Crawford was ill-suited for a high-profile role in a high-pressure environment. He got off to a slow start in Boston in 2011, endured a ton of criticism and later had wrist and elbow operations. By the end of 2012, his time in the Hub was already at an end.

The Red Sox dealt him to the Dodgers in what amounted to a salary dump. Upon leaving Boston, Crawford described the environment as “toxic” and mused about the mistake he might have made in signing that contract. Crawford went on to have a few bright moments in Los Angeles, but he never returned to being the player he once had been. When his contract ended, he retired.

Crawford had 1,559 hits before turning 30, but had only 372 more the rest of his career.

So, no, there was no reason for anyone to include Crawford on the 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. And since he received no votes, he will be removed from the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot and will likely never receive Hall of Fame consideration again.

You can say Crawford made his own bed by chasing dollar signs in Boston, and I would not disagree. But I’d also argue, given the circumstances, that a lot of us would do the same thing.

In the end, there’s no reason to feel sorry for someone who made north of $170 million by the time they were 35. Crawford has also had some legal issues in his hometown in Houston in recent years, and that doesn’t make empathy any easier to come by.

So perhaps it is fitting that his legacy is put on a shelf without celebration or indulgence. Instead, Crawford’s time in Tampa Bay is best left to all of our memories. Heaven knows, he gave us enough.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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