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Is Crawford's return to Trop just another game?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 04:48 PM

Beloved former safety John Lynch, wearing the uniform of the Denver Broncos, couldn't sleep the night before his 2004 return against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.

Popular former center Brad Richards, wearing the sweater of the Dallas Stars, fought back tears while watching a video tribute during his 2009 return against the Lightning at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Which brings us to Tuesday night.

Now batting, No. 13, left fielder, Carl Crawford.

For most of the past nine baseball seasons, that was a familiar, comforting sound at Tropicana Field. This time, it's different. Crawford, a four-time All-Star and the best player in Rays' franchise history, returns for a three-game series with his new team, the Boston Red Sox.

Lynch, drawing upon his homecoming experience, says it won't be normal.

Richards, recalling his coming-home memories, says it won't be just another game.

It probably won't possess the vitriol of the early NBA season, when celebrated Miami Heat free-agent acquisition LeBron James visited his old home in Cleveland, where a city had united against their once-favored son. It may not include the hurt and betrayal felt in Boston, where former Red Sox hero Johnny Damon returned to Fenway Park in 2006 with his new team, the hated New York Yankees.

The homemade signs were everywhere:

Traitor.

Benedict Damon.

"Most of the places in the American League are places where I used to play, so nothing bothers me at this point,'' said Damon, in his first season with the Rays, who also has played for the Royals, Athletics, Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers. "I've been all over the place. This is Carl's first time back to a place where he basically grew up.

"I mean, that's naturally going to be a story.''

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These sports homecoming stories can be different, though.

Last season, it became obvious that the small-market Rays couldn't afford to keep Crawford, a free agent who nonetheless stunned many Tampa Bay fans by choosing an American League East rival, signing a seven-year, $142-million deal with Boston.

The difference with Lynch? In 2004, the Bucs cut him after 11 distinguished seasons of service and five Pro Bowl appearances. They believed the player's best days were behind him.

He signed with Denver and immediately circled the calendar for an Oct. 3 against the Bucs in Tampa.

"Just seeing John Lynch walk onto the field in a Broncos' uniform seemed a little surreal,'' former Bucs linebacker Ryan Nece said. "Believe me, we knew that John was going to bring it that day.''

With many fans wearing Bucs' No. 47 jerseys – and at least one supporter creating a half-Bronco, half-Buc shirt – Lynch was introduced to a thunderous ovation.

"That meant a tremendous amount to me,'' Lynch said. "You spend a long time in the community, you almost become an ambassador, and you just hope because you're on another team that people don't forget that.

"When I was introduced and the crowd went crazy for a visiting player, that was something. It was really one of the favorite moments of my career.''

Lynch played effectively and the Broncos won, 16-13. His best moment might have been dumping Mike Alstott for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1.

"You have guys leaving an organization all the time and landing with different teams, and you want them to have success except when they play you,'' former Bucs linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "John Lynch was a leader in our secondary. It was difficult to see him a different uniform.''

"When you're working out in the offseason and you want to quit, you keep pushing because you think, 'Those guys believe I'm done,' said Lynch, who retired from the NFL in 2008. "There are emotions, but you can't let emotions get the best of you.''

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Emotions were prevalent in Jan. 19, 2009, when Richards returned to Tampa, less than one year after he was sent to Dallas in a multi-player, payroll-reducing swap just hours before the NHL trading deadline.

Richards was back on his former home ice, where he received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2004.

"I was anxious and nervous,'' said Richards, who will be on the move again July 1 when he becomes a free-agent. "You go to that rink for the first time as a visitor and use the other locker room. It wasn't too far away from (winning) the Stanley Cup, so you're mind is racing with all kind of thoughts and memories.''

Richards said he got choked up before the first period, when the Lightning showed a video tribute to his seasons in Tampa Bay.

After that, the game was on.

Vinny Lecavalier, Richards' former teammate and close friend, scored with a short-handed goal just 1:33 into the game. Then Richards answered on the power play only 20 seconds later. He heard applause and cheers.

"You wonder what it will be like,'' Richards said. "Getting recognition from the fans is nice. You start building it up about a week before. I remember we lost (4-2). I was kind of glad it was over.

"I didn't want to leave (the Lightning) in the first place. When you get asked to leave, you want to beat your old team and do well. You kind of want to show them what they got rid of. It's emotional, no doubt about it.''

That's what's ahead for Carl Crawford on Tuesday night. A reunion with familiar faces, swirling emotions, maybe mixed reactions. It will be punctuated by a single moment.

Now batting, No. 13, left fielder, Carl Crawford.

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