Roger Craig’s Little Secret--the Pitch That Has Changed Baseball
Walt Alston left behind more than a good name and fine record when he died two years ago.
He also left something of a vacuum.
As the game’s strong, silent archetype, a combination John Wayne and Gary Cooper rolled into one, the Dodgers’ former manager was a commanding presence, baseball’s foremost symbol of esteem and respect.
Now that he’s gone, another man, Roger Craig, has come along to take his place.
In some ways, he has done it the same way Alston did. With his actions, his knowledge, his personal conduct and his treatment of others. He has also done it an entirely different way. With the split-fingered fastball.
I think it’s safe to say no one has had as much influence on pitchers in the past half dozen years as Craig, and if there’s any truth at all to the generally accepted belief that pitching is 75% of baseball, then the tall, spare, 56-year-old San Francisco Giants’ manager has to be responsible for the greatest present impact on the game.
Check the pitching staffs of all 26 major league clubs. You’ll find at least one pitcher on every club who throws the split-fingered fastball. Usually, you’ll come up with two, three, four or maybe even more.
If those who throw the pitch weren’t taught by Craig himself, then the chances are they learned from some other pitcher taught by Craig or one of that pitcher’s pupils.
“God bless Roger Craig,” says Mike Scott, Houston’s big right-hander.
Scott went to Craig to learn how to throw the split-fingered fastball in the winter of 1984, promptly turned his record around from 5-11 to 18-8 last year and currently leads the National League in strikeouts.
“Roger was great,” says the Astros’ 30-year-old fastballer. “We went over to Grossmont Junior College in San Diego and after watching me throw, he said my mechanics were fine.
“Then he said ‘today we’re going to talk about the pitch.’ He meant the split-fingered fastball and he gave me three things to remember. He said first I had to make sure I threw it over the top. Second, I had to throw it exactly like a fastball, and third, if I wanted to control the pitch better, I had to put my fingers closer together on the ball.”
Scott says he was surprised by how easy it was to throw the pitch. All he had to do was spread his forefinger and third finger apart on the ball.
“It’s really not very hard to learn,” says Craig. “When I was still pitching, guys like Elroy Face, Lindy McDaniel and Diego Segui threw the pitch and it was called a forkball. Some people say I discovered the split-fingered fastball. I don’t know if I did. I just discovered a better way to teach it.”
Craig taught several of the Padre pitchers how to throw the pitch when he managed San Diego in 1978 and 1979.
Sparky Anderson called Craig “the best pitching coach in baseball” after he helped the Tigers’ staff jump from 11th in the American League’s ERA standings in 1980 to first in 1982 and 1984.
Give Sparky credit. He said Craig would make some club an outstanding manager after he retired as Detroit’s pitching coach following the Tigers’ World Series victory two years ago. Craig is proving him 100% right with the Giants now.
He’s doing an exceptional job handling the kids.
When second-year shortstop Jose Uribe cost the Giants an extra-inning game by drifting too far across the bag and knocking an easy pop-up out of rookie second baseman Rob Thompson’s hands for what should have been the final out, Craig turned the disaster into a positive learning lesson.
“Don’t let it get you down,” he said to Uribe and Thompson. “We lost the ball game by being aggressive. We had both you guys fighting for the ball. I’ve seen ball games lost when nobody wanted the ball and it just fell to the ground. These little mistakes we’re making now will help us down the road. We’ll learn by these mistakes.”
Will Clark, the Giants’ good looking rookie first baseman, said he heard Uribe and Thompson calling for the ball and worried that it might be dropped.
“In that case, why didn’t you go over and catch it?” Craig needled Clark kiddingly, still trying to take some of the sting out.
Besides being an imposing presence and an able handler of men, Craig is like Alston in still another respect. His players know they can’t intimidate him. Physically or otherwise.
It was no different when he was a player himself.
Pitching for the Mets against the Giants in Candlestick Park in the early 60’s, Craig was ordered by Casey Stengel to loosen up some of the Giants because they had hit several homers the day before.
Craig moved Willie Mays back a few times and hit Orlando Cepeda in the ribs. When Mays and the Mets’ Elio Chacon got into it over a play at second, a free-for-all between the two teams developed and Craig and Cepeda made sure to seek one another out.
The fight that ensued between them was one of the best ever seen on a baseball field.
Roger Craig is still plenty good with his hands.
Ask him how to throw the split-fingered fastball sometime. He’ll get a ball and be more than glad to glad to show you.