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ST. PETERSBURG — Before the season even began, it was widely understood that 2010 would be Carl Crawford’s last year with the Rays. They exercised his $10 million club option in November 2009, leaving the club’s star left fielder a year away from free agency. Tampa Bay was a perfect fit, but Crawford was bound for a bigger payday and a larger market.

As it turned out, Crawford’s final season with the Rays was also his best.

Although his career trajectory took a dramatic turn after he signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the rival Red Sox the following winter, Crawford — making his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot this year — made it hard for the Rays and their fans to say goodbye. He put all his skills on display as the Rays won their second American League East championship.

Understanding what Crawford’s farewell campaign meant at the time requires some knowledge of his history with the franchise. Appreciating what Crawford did, though, requires only a look back at his numbers and accomplishments.

He batted .307, the second-best average of his career. He launched 19 home runs, scored 110 runs and drove in 90 — all personal bests — to go along with 30 doubles and an AL-leading 13 triples. He stole 47 bases, one of seven seasons with at least 46 steals. His .851 OPS was a career-high mark, and his 7.0 Wins Above Replacement total, per Baseball Reference, was two full wins better than his second-best output in 2009.

In July, the 28-year-old Crawford was named the AL’s starting left fielder in the All-Star Game — his fourth Midsummer Classic nod with the Rays. In the late innings of AL Division Series Game 2, fans at Tropicana Field chanted his name. After the Rays’ season ended, he earned his only Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards while finishing seventh, one spot behind teammate Evan Longoria, in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s AL MVP voting.

“He’s simply one of the most gifted athletes in baseball — or in any sport,” former Rays teammate James Shields told The Tampa Tribune in 2010. “He makes the hard plays look easy. He makes the impossible plays look possible.”

By the end of Crawford’s tenure in Tampa Bay, Longoria was establishing himself as the nationally recognized face of the Rays and the best player the club had ever had. But Crawford endeared himself to the Rays and their fans for many reasons. For one thing, he was their first homegrown star.

Crawford’s name is still all over the Rays’ record books. He remains their all-time leader in hits (1,480), triples (105), stolen bases (409), batting average (.296) and sacrifice hits (31) while ranking second behind Longoria in bWAR (35.6), games played (1,235), runs scored (765), RBIs (592), extra-base hits (424) and total bases (2,217).

Crawford came up through the organization after being selected by Tampa Bay out of high school in the second round of the 1999 Draft. He chose baseball rather than pursuing opportunities to play quarterback at Nebraska or point guard at UCLA. Crawford made his debut for the Devil Rays in 2002, belted a walk-off homer at Tropicana Field on Opening Day in ’03 and earned his first All-Star selection the following year.

He was there through the last of the lean years, wearing the Devil Rays’ green uniforms as the best player on some weak teams. He was there when owner Stu Sternberg, top baseball executive Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon came aboard. He was still there when the team dropped its “Devil” and pulled off a worst-to-first turnaround in 2008 that ended with the Rays’ first trip to the World Series.

“It seemed far away. I didn’t ever think I’d get to this point, but just kept at it,” Crawford told reporters in July 2010. “Here we are now. I’m glad I went through those early days to get to now. You don’t take it for granted. You feel more proud.”

While Crawford had a knack for jaw-dropping, breath-taking plays — diving and leaping for balls in left field, zipping out of the batter’s box after lashing line drives into the gaps, dashing and sliding around the bases — his underappreciated value came in his consistency. Coaches and teammates raved about his work ethic. He played through everything, appeared in more than 150 games in six of his eight full seasons with the Rays and took the field for fewer than 143 games only once.

Crawford created plenty of memorable moments during his time with Tampa Bay, including his Opening Day walk-off in ’03, his six-steal game against the Red Sox on May 3, 2009, and the home run-robbing catch that helped him earn MVP honors in the 2009 All-Star Game. He was even better in his final season with the Rays in 2010.

Crawford’s last hurrah began with a walk-off two-run double against the Orioles on Opening Day and continued as he hit .337 through the end of April. He finished strong, too, batting .360 (with a .989 OPS) over the regular season’s final month. He had eight four-hit games. He drove in five runs during a win in Toronto on June 2 and homered twice during a victory over Cleveland on July 8.

And Crawford once again led a legitimate small-market contender to the top of a tough division and back into the postseason, which made it easy to forget about the life-changing, career-altering offseason drawing nearer every day.

With the Rays, Crawford went out at the top of his game.

“Maybe it’s the last dance and all, but the fact that we’ve been winning really, really helps,” Crawford told the Tribune late in the 2010 season. “When you lose all the time, and I’ve been there, you start thinking about yourself. I didn’t like playing like that, being selfish. This winning has made it really easy not to think about myself until after the season.”

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