Crawford rides talent, dedication into Rays Hall of Fame

August 27th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Coming out of high school in his hometown of Houston,  had signed a letter of intent to play college football for Nebraska. The three-sport star also attracted interest as an option quarterback from USC and Florida, among others, and UCLA’s basketball program recruited him to play point guard.

All these years later, Crawford still says he never thought he would have wound up playing professional baseball -- much less wind up in the Hall of Fame of a Major League Baseball team, like he did Saturday afternoon.

Crawford became the third and final member of the inaugural class in the Rays Hall of Fame during a pregame ceremony before Tampa Bay hosted the Yankees at Tropicana Field, joining Wade Boggs and the late Don Zimmer. It was a fitting honor for the franchise’s first homegrown star.

“Feels good,” Crawford said afterward, still wearing the Rays Hall of Fame jacket he accepted from principal owner Stuart Sternberg during the ceremony. “It was cool. I appreciate the Rays organization for putting this together for me and for all my family in town, and it was great.”

Drafted by Tampa Bay with the first pick in the second round of the 1999 Draft, Crawford sped through the Minors and made his Major League debut at 20 years old on July 20, 2002. So began one of the longest and best careers in franchise history, spanning from the last losing years of the Devil Rays through the Rays’ 2008 turnaround and into their American League East championship seasons in ‘08 and ‘10.

As Sternberg told Crawford during his induction ceremony, “You were really the linchpin between the Devil Rays and the Rays.”

Revered by his teammates for his remarkable work ethic, Crawford was a force at the plate, in the outfield and especially on the bases during his nine seasons with the Rays. The four-time All-Star ranks second in franchise history with 35.6 WAR, behind only Evan Longoria, according to Baseball Reference. 

“A very special career. Incredibly talented player,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who played with and against Crawford. “Maybe as athletic as any person that I've ever played with or seen on the field.”

The 2009 All-Star Game MVP and a 2010 Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award winner, Crawford still sits atop the franchise’s leaderboard in hits (1,480), triples (105), stolen bases (409) and batting average (.296) and is second behind Longoria in runs (765) and RBIs (592).

“Dynamic player,” former Rays executive Andrew Friedman, now the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said earlier this season. “The impact he had in all facets of the game was profound.”

The left-handed-hitting left fielder holds Tampa Bay’s single-season records for steals (60 in 2009), triples (19 in ‘04) and runs (110 in ‘10), and he owns a share of the Major League record with six stolen bases in one game, accomplished against the Red Sox on May 3, 2009.

Crawford, now 42, laughed at the memory of that game on Saturday, saying he could have broken the record -- if only he’d realized he was one steal away. Crawford also looked back fondly on other memories in Tampa Bay, none more meaningful than the moment the Rays clinched a trip to the World Series by beating the Red Sox in the 2008 AL Championship Series.

His impact was felt even after he left to sign with Boston as a free agent. The wall in the left-field corner at Tropicana Field is noticeably lower than in right, a change the Rays made so that Crawford would have more chances to rob home runs. (“It’s Carl’s wall,” Sternberg said Saturday.) If not for that tweak, Longoria’s famous walk-off homer to end Game 162 in 2011 likely wouldn’t have cleared the fence.

The Rays honored Crawford with video messages from his former Rays teammates, including Longoria, Cash, Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Rocco Baldelli and James Shields, who called Crawford “one of my favorite teammates of all time.” Longtime teammate B.J. Upton was also in attendance at Tropicana Field.

Crawford admitted he got “choked up just a little bit” watching his former teammates speak on the right-field scoreboard as he sat alongside Sternberg, broadcaster Dewayne Staats and three of his four children: daughter Ari and sons Leo and Justin, a prospect in the Phillies system who caught his dad’s ceremonial first pitch.

“It was just like home, like a second home. I was 17 years old when I got drafted and came here to Tampa for the first time,” Crawford said. “Felt like I grew up here, learned a lot of stuff here, so it definitely had a special place in my heart.”

Now, Crawford has a special place in club history.