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ROGER CRAIG : After 36 Years in Baseball, It’s Time to Get Away

Times Staff Writer

Up in the clear mountain air on a 41-acre spread somewhere between Julian and Warner Springs, a dream awaits Roger Craig: a 3,000-square foot log cabin with all the amenities, plus ample space for cattle and Missouri Foxtrotters.

The vehicle of choice to manage this little empire is a tractor, which has enormous appeal to Craig, who has spent countless hours in airplanes and buses.

At an elevation of 3,700 feet, Craig will be assured of observing the passage of the seasons once the house is completed later this year. And at a distance of 75 miles from the nearest major league ballpark, he will be close enough to feel loosely connected but removed enough to be his own boss.

For a man with four World Series rings and little more to accomplish in the realm of baseball, retirement has many rewards, but it will not mean a retreat from the sweat of manual labor.

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“I’ll be working harder than I ever did in baseball,” Craig said. “I’m not going up there just to hunt, fish and slowly die.”

As he spoke, Craig, 54, was sitting on an exercise bike at a sports medicine clinic in Mission Valley. He was pedaling at a moderate speed in an attempt to rehabilitate his right knee from arthroscopic surgery performed a month earlier. It was the last of a series of old baseball wounds to be carved back to normality, and at relatively little cost in terms of pain.

Later in the day, he planned to drive to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for a ballgame, only his second of the season and the first since opening day, when he was at Tiger Stadium in Detroit to receive a memento from the 1984 World Series--a diamond-studded championship ring.

After 36 years in baseball, as player, coach and manager, Craig is watching the game from the stands.

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Craig has all but severed his ties to the game. His only responsibilities in his new job with the Tigers are spending a few weeks working with minor league pitchers and scouting National League teams for the Tigers in the event the team returns to the World Series.

Most of the scouting can be done in San Diego, which eliminates the bothersome travel that was part of the reason Craig left the game after 3 1/2 decades.

This is, as he said, his first chance since 1950 to be a normal person.

To get a feel for the longevity of his career, consider that Craig signed his first baseball contract in 1950, the year the Philadelphia Phillies’ Whiz Kids lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in four games. The Series’ most valuable player was Jerry Coleman, now the voice of the Padres and the man who succeeded Craig as manager of the Padres when Craig was fired after the 1979 season.

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Baseball, perhaps more than any other game, is replete with unexpected little twists such as the Coleman-Craig relationship. The men were almost reunited this year. The Padres had offered Craig a job similar to the one he accepted with the Tigers. On the day he was going to take the San Diego position, Detroit called, and he said yes out of loyalty, having spent the past five seasons savoring the wit of Sparky Anderson and the mood swings of Jack Morris.

“I was pretty good at rolling with the punches,” Craig said, reflecting on his years as a manager and pitching coach. “I was never a negative guy. I could talk to a 19-year-old kid or a 40-year-old veteran.”

Craig certainly likes Anderson, the Detroit manager who announced this spring that he would like to break Connie Mack’s record for games won by a manager.

“When I went to him at the All-Star Game last year,” Craig said, “and told him I was going to retire after the season, he said, ‘Roger, I really envy you. I would like to retire, too, but I just have too much more to accomplish.’ ”

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Craig, too, has things he wants to accomplish, but they have nothing to do with baseball. Foremost is helping his four children buy homes or condominiums in the San Diego area. He would only consider a full-time return to baseball if he got an interesting and lucrative offer as a manager.

With more than 20 years’ service in the big leagues, Craig gets a pension that would allow him the freedom to be selective in considering any offers, if they ever come.

He never made more than $30,000 as a player, but that seemed like a princely sum to a guy who had worked in tobacco barns for $5 a week while he was growing up in Durham, N.C.

Craig went into baseball after breaking off a career in college basketball. He spent one year as a guard at North Carolina State under Coach Everett Case, who was the principal force in shaping the Atlantic Coast Conference into one of the nation’s premier basketball leagues.

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Craig’s first love, however, always was baseball, and he could not say no when offered a $6,000 contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. He was dispatched as a 6-foot 4-inch, 160-pound pitcher to a Class D minor league team, Valdosta, in southern Georgia. The heat and humidity were so severe that the players wore shorts. After service in the Korean War, Craig returned to baseball and made it to the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955. A highlight was pitching a three-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds in Ebbets Field. He also won a game in the World Series, the only Series the Dodgers won during their years in Brooklyn.

Craig, who was then a 24-year-old rookie, remembers a column written by the late Red Smith which referred to him as “the kid from the red clay hills of North Carolina.”

It was an unforgettable experience for New York baseball fans in general, and for Craig in particular.

“That was one of the greatest clubs in baseball history,” Craig said. “I was in awe of the players on our team, like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. I remember sitting in the clubhouse after the final game and seeing Campy and Snider with tears in their eyes.”

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Craig went on to collect three more World Series rings, with the 1959 Dodgers, the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the ’84 Tigers.

His best years were 1956, when he posted a 12-11 record, and 1959, when he was 11-5. His career record, 74-98, was tarnished by two seasons with the fledgling New York Mets, 1962 and ’63, when he suffered through 10-24 and 5-22 campaigns.

The ’55 Brooklyn club was immortalized in Roger Kahn’s book “The Boys of Summer.” It was a team with everything--pitching, power and defense--and Craig ranks it ahead of last year’s Detroit team, which had little opposition after a historic 35-5 start and finished with a 4-1 wipeout of the Padres in the Series.

The 1955 and 1959 Dodgers will get together for an old-timers’ game this Sunday, which will mean a trip from San Diego to Los Angeles for Craig.

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Then it will be time to get to work on the ranch in the mountains, where a new life is waiting.


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