As of Sunday, Major League Baseball’s free agent market is open for business.  The most coveted member of this year’s free agent class is Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays (for now).  It is believed he could command over $20 million a year in the open market.  

Stories are already circulating about how the big market GMs are swarming like vultures around Crawford, Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth, Rafael Soriano and the other prized free agents of 2010.  It is surely only a matter of time now until all of these talents put pen to paper and sign with the richest clubs in baseball.

As a Rays fan, this is the moment that I have feared for years.  It’s the most frequent taunt a fan of a small market team receives:

“________ (your star player) will look great in pinstripes one day.”

Maybe its a testament to the organization’s lack of great players through the majority of its history, but this scenario had fortunately not played itself out previously.  The closest thing to losing one of the team’s stars to a bigger market team was the trade of Scott Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels in 2009.   Kazmir, up to that point in time had been regarded as the premier pitcher in franchise history.  However, the trade to dump Kazmir’s large salary and acquire highly-regarded prospect Sean Rodriguez is now viewed as an overwhelming victory, as Kazmir had struggled in 2008 and 2009 with the Rays and has continued to struggle during his tenure with the Angels.

Whether its pinstripes, Red Sox white and red, or the colors of the Los Angeles Angels, it is virtually certain that Crawford is going to be wearing another uniform next year. And for the fans of the Rays, it’s going to sting.  Badly.  

Rays fans have grown to love Crawford.  For my money, he’s the most exciting player in baseball.   Nobody else in the game is as electric on the base path as he is, and nobody plays left field like him.   He is a tireless worker and has continually improved every single year as a hitter.   We have watched him make the transition from a leadoff man to a run producer and from a young, quiet kid into a respected clubhouse leader.

Crawford has been the most meaningful player in Rays history.  He is the Rays all-time leader in games played as well as its leader in 15 other offensive categories.

Before the Rays first achieved success in 2008, he was a shining star on some very bad teams.  From 2002 (Crawford’s first season) through 2007, the team finished in last place every year but one (fourth place finish in 2004).  Despite his status as one of the game’s emerging stars and being elected to the All-Star team in 2004, Crawford was excited to sign a long-term deal with the Rays in 2005.  It kept him under club control through 2010.

Since resigning Crawford, he has been everything the Rays hoped for and much more. He has made three more all-star teams, been MVP of one, and was awarded his first gold glove on Tuesday.  

He just turned 29 in August and is already closing in on 1500 hits.  Just entering his prime, Crawford is well on pace to reach 3000 hits, one of the few remaining rites of passage into the Hall of Fame.

As the face of a small market franchise that has been bullied by the Yankees and Red Sox on an unfair playing field for nearly a decade now, it’s hard to imagine that Crawford would join either of these division rivals.  Then again, I will never in my lifetime truly understand the difference between making $10 million a year and $20 million a year.  I usually don’t like it when fans condemn athletes for getting raises.  It’s all relative, and who can say that they wouldn’t go work for their worst enemy if they are willing to double your salary.

I’m watching with my fingers crossed that Crawford will end up in an Angels jersey, or a Dodgers one, or in one of any big market team less repulsive than the Yankees or Red Sox.  I will always cheer for him and be happy for his accomplishments.  But I really don’t want to watch him scorch the Rays on the field 18 times a year and hear some loudmouth Yankees or Sox fan gloat as if they have done absolutely anything to deserve him.

Losing your best players is a sad reality that all fans of small market clubs live with.   And it will be one that the Rays will face again in coming years with David Price, Evan Longoria, and many other members of their talented, young roster.

This is the most devastating loss in Rays history, and Carl Crawford will be sorely missed.  We will miss him next year when tough balls that he would have caught routinely will fall into the gap and bounce to the wall for doubles and triples.  We will miss him when he has his first 25-30 home run season….for somebody else.

However, none of this can take away the appreciation and gratitude Rays fans have for Crawford’s 12 years of service to the Rays organization.  He is the best player we’ve ever had.  

Thanks for the memories, Carl.  Just please, please go anywhere but Boston or New York.

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