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Whatever 'it' is, Crawford still has it

ST. PETERSBURG

His used to be the brightest star at Tropicana Field. Of course, that wasn’t saying much back when the best reason to show up was to see someone dressed in road grays.

Carl Crawford was the stolen base king, creator of triples, the speedster in left field who could run down anything.

He was considered one of the best young players in the game. A rising star on a national level. A two-time All-Star.

The fans in left field at Yankee Stadium routinely asked Crawford about his contract status.

The folks in Boston assured Crawford he could handle the Green Monstah 81 times a year.

Come here, play with us, they all said.

When it came to Rays who could play, Carl Crawford was it.

Then came Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria.

And Gold Glove and rookie of the year awards. Upton moves to center field and channels Willie Mays. Crawford battled through an injury-filled 2008 and becomes somewhat of an afterthought at Tropicana Field.

Longoria and Peña carry the offense. How good will this offense be when Upton gets hot?

Crawford praised Longoria after Longoria’s grand slam beat the Red Sox on Friday night. Crawford said the kid had that “it factor.”

Then Crawford goes out and steals six bases Sunday afternoon, something Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock and Maury Wills never did. Neither did Ty Cobb.

Crawford joined just three other players in baseball’s modern era to steal six times in one game, and the modern era stretches back to 1900.

Guess what? Crawford still has it.

“Absolutely, he does,” Peña said before Monday’s game with the visiting Orioles.

After Sunday’s record-tying performance against the Red Sox, Peña told Crawford he was one of the greatest baseball players he’d ever seen.

“And I truly meant that,” Peña said. “I really do.”

Crawford has been with the Rays since 2002, so we tend to think of him as old, but he’s only 27. He’s younger than Peña, who turns 31 this month. He doesn’t hit long home runs very often. He doesn’t turn his back and outrace fly balls to the wall. He hasn’t won a Gold Glove, though he should have.

Crawford just does what he’s always done, which is catch almost everything hit his way and run the bases like few have ever done.

“In my opinion, he’s one of the premier players in the major leagues,” Longoria said.

Crawford’s style is unorthodox, Longoria said. He bats with his hands apart. He doesn’t take big leads at first base. He doesn’t always get good jumps. But he is rarely thrown out.

Crawford doesn’t seek the attention of the media, but he is thoughtful and honest with his answers. And he sometimes giggles. How many premier athletes giggle?

He wants to be the best. The best left fielder. The best base stealer. The best at hitting triples.

“I love that about him,” Peña said. “I think he knows how good he is, but he does not allow himself to stray from his ways.”

Crawford was the Rays’ first superstar. Thankfully, he now has company. And sometimes those other stars burn brighter, sometimes they are flashier. But they don’t burn better.

Sometimes, Crawford reminds us of that.

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