ST. PETERSBURG -- The 2004 baseball season began and ended the same way for Carl Crawford -- playing in Japan -- but he emerged from the year with a different approach to the game.

Crawford blossomed as a person and as a baseball player in 2004. He was an All-Star, playing before family and friends in Houston. He led the American League in stolen bases for the second year in a row. He hit .300 for most of the year and was selected the team's MVP.

Much of the credit for Crawford's breakout season was due to his offseason dedication and then yearlong focus to improve and succeed.

Right after the regular season ended, Crawford joined a group of MLB All-Stars for an eight-game tour of Japan. He hit .346, stole four bases and tied for the team lead in runs scored. But more importantly, he said he learned how to elevate his game another notch.

"I had a good time over there," Crawford said. "I've never been around a bunch of guys who are as intense as I am all the time during a game. I like being around people like that.

"I was impressed by all the guys and the way they prepared themselves. Once the game started, they were into the game the whole time. They noticed everything that happened on the field. I've never seen that before."

Crawford enjoyed getting on base in front of boppers like David Ortiz, Hank Blalock and Manny Ramirez.

"I played as hard as I could," Crawford said. "I hope I impressed some folks."

Off the field, Crawford, 23, just tried to blend in.

"It was pretty basic, I went with the flow," Crawford said. "I hung out with everybody and made some friends."

Crawford has long admired the play of Vernon Wells and had a chance to befriend the Blue Jays' center fielder.

"He was quiet but confident," Crawford said. "I talked to Vernon about a lot of things -- how to play balls off the wall, how to turn and throw."

   Carl Crawford  /   LF
Born: 08/05/81
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 220 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L

After taking tips from Wells during one game, Crawford used the technique and threw a runner out at second base in the next game.

"It was a great experience," Crawford said. "I hope I get to go back with them."

Unlike the Rays' season opener against the Yankees in late March, not all the games were in Tokyo. The MLB All-Stars traveled between cities by bullet train. But they were not packed in the speeding cars as Japanese workers usually are.

"It was real cozy, I think we were in first class," Crawford said. "I slept a lot."

But he added that the trips between games threw the MLB players off their routine.

"It was difficult," Crawford said. "We are used to traveling at night. But over there you travel during the day, like in the minor leagues. It's the same day as the game. It started to wear on us by the end."

A little timid about getting out and trying new things, Crawford did not eat much on his first trip to Japan. But with the All-Stars, he got his fill.

"We ate at a few Japanese restaurants," Crawford said. "We had a lot of Kobe beef and white rice. But we ate better this time. We had bigger portions. It was real comfortable this time around."

Crawford also discovered that he is popular in Japan. There were fans in the stands with signs with his name and picture on it. And there was a highlight film of some of his work played on scoreboards at the ballparks.

"It was real nice," Crawford said. "They are really into baseball over there."

Since returning to America, Crawford has focused on getting ready for this season at his new home in Phoenix.

"I'm getting in the best shape I can to do the best I can next season," Crawford said.

He wants to win another stolen base title and has some other things he wants to add to his repertoire.

"I'm going to bunt a little bit more," Crawford said. "I think I'm going to be a little more loose and relaxed at the plate. You might see me hit for a little more power, try to hit balls off the wall.

"And I was disappointed I didn't finish at .300 last year, so I am going to try to hit .300 next year. I can't wait to get started."