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04/01/05 4:11 PM ET

Crawford gives Devil Rays stability

Tampa Bay follows a plan that worked in Cleveland

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays know their present. All they have to do is pick up a newspaper or a remote control to realize where they stand in their division. It's Red Sox this, Yankees that. No one is beating any drums for the Devil Rays' opener against the Blue Jays.

Well, as of early Friday afternoon, the Rays also know their future. It is bright and stable, because it includes Carl Crawford.

We knew Crawford was fast. We didn't realize he was this fast, able to go from zero to 2010 in a flash. Only a couple of years removed from his first big league game, the outfielder won't have to worry about his next contract until the next decade.

The Devil Rays are making nice progress, too. They have been in existence only seven years, and here they are giving contracts of nearly that length to 23-year-old youngsters still not even eligible for arbitration. Naturally, the six-year deal given Crawford is the longest in team history.

Rocco Baldelli, the other 23-year-old outfielder, could be next. First, the Devil Rays, understandably, want to see what he's got after the backyard mishap that blew out his left knee.

Where foresight is involved, there is no such thing as an isolated outbreak of smarts. Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar has just taken his first step toward the Cleveland Model, which John Hart used in the early '90s to transform the Indians from ... well, the Devil Rays of their day, into an annual force.

Hart signed the Tribe's core of young players -- Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar Jr., Charles Nagy among others -- to long-term contracts, buying out their arbitration and early free agency years.

Crawford and the Devil Rays agreed to a similar trade-off.

And how ironic for manager Lou Piniella to hail the pre-Opening Day news by saying, "It gives Carl security."

Because it does the exact same thing for the Devil Rays. And for their fans, who don't have to worry about making emotional investments in a player who may soon be gone.

Crawford will stick around to lead the welcoming committee as the rest of the Devil Rays' future trickles in. B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Joey Gathright -- by the time the gang's all here, Tampa Bay could be a new force on the Eastern bloc.

"It's going to be fun to be part of the growth that's going on here," Crawford said. "Because we're going to win. And it's great knowing that I'm going to be a part of it.

"We have a great nucleus of players on the Major League roster, and other players in the system."

No organization has too many like Crawford, who in his first two seasons has put up some amazing numbers in the relative obscurity of central Florida. With bat and legs, he has kindled memories of some of MLB's dusty names.

Crawford has copped the American League stolen base title both times; the only younger ones to reign as back-to-back thief kings were Ben Chapman, in 1931-32, and Tim Raines (1981-82) and Rickey Henderson (1980-81).

Crawford has reached 175 hits and 50 steals in each of his two seasons; only six others ever reached those levels in their first two seasons, beginning with Eddie Collins in 1909-1910.

Crawford's 59 steals and 19 triples last season have been matched in the same season by only two players, and one of them was Ty Cobb.

All right, you get the idea. The guy is special. And the guy will be a Tampa Bay Devil Ray until your high school sophomore daughter's graduation -- from college.

"We expect that he will be a cornerstone of our future successes," LaMar said. "[This] reinforces our goal to sign, develop and retain our most talented, young players."

Said Crawford, "This is one of the happiest days of my life."

So everybody was happy. Including beneficiaries of the Rays of Hope Foundation, to which Crawford has pledged a donation of up to $400,000.

Everybody, that is, except the current forces in the AL East, those teams who are the objects of everyone's obsession as Sunday night's opener nears. Their futures became just a little more worrisome while the Devil Rays were cementing their foundation.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.