The Rays put stealing back in style

The base was stolen, the crowd was cheering, the teammate was offering congratulations. And the fastest man on the field was slow to pick up on the significance of it all.

Carl Crawford had his back to the Tropicana Field scoreboard after stealing second base in the eighth inning Sunday and had no idea it was flashing a message that he had just tied a modern major league record with six stolen bases in a game.

So he wondered why the fans down the first-base line were offering a standing ovation as he came off the field at the end of the inning, and he paid no attention when B.J. Upton congratulated him in front of the Rays dugout.

It wasn't until the game had been completed and Crawford was doing a television interview with Todd Kalas that he learned he had accomplished something only three other men had done in the past 109 years.

And his first thought?

"I wish I had known during the game," Crawford said. "I probably would have broken it. At least I would have tried."

What Crawford did Sunday was not just historic; it might also hasten a change in perceptions. In decline in recent seasons, the stolen base seems to be making a comeback in 2009. And the Rays are doing more than any other team to make it chic.

Tampa Bay has a major league-leading 40 stolen bases through 26 games and is on pace to attempt 287. That's more than any American League team has attempted since the Brewers were in the league in 1992.

Why now? And why the Rays?

Some of it is circumstances; some of it is design. With pitchers learning to deliver the ball more quickly after the stolen base explosion in the 1980s, and with home runs becoming a bigger part of the game in the '90s, the stolen base lost some of its allure. From 1980 to 1987, there were six seasons when a player stole 100 bases or more. There hasn't been one since '87.

Statistical analysis also suggested the stolen base was an inefficient way to produce offense, and it became less and less prevalent. Stolen bases were down about 25 percent from the early 1980s to last season.

But drug testing appears to have dulled the home run habit. So the stolen base is looking pretty attractive again, particularly to a team such as the Rays with quite a few fast players and a manager willing to buck trends.

"I know the SABR-metrics, in regard to how ineffective base-stealing actually is, but I disagree because I don't think you can evaluate the importance of it just based on if you're successful or not," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's about the mind-set. It's about what you do to the other team; it's about the better pitch you get as a hitter at a specific moment; it's about the pressure applied on the defense; it's about the error that you create; it's about the extra bases you take. There are so many other ways to look at it."