Henning: Roger Craig made an imprint beyond his time with 1984 Tigers

Detroit News

In a far-upper-left corner of a cramped clubhouse at Tiger Stadium that summer of 1984, they would huddle and kibitz in front of their lockers prior to that night’s game: Alex Grammas, who was manager Sparky Anderson’s third-base coach, and Dick Tracewski, who coached first base.

Not far from batting guru Vada Pinson’s niche, the Tigers’ pitching tutor was quartered — tall, cowboy-faced Roger Craig.

Craig was something of the group’s tribal chief during that Hollywood script of a year in 1984. His aura might have been a product of his size (6-foot-4), or, more likely, it was because he had pitched for so many years for World Series clubs and for teams of distinction, even if the distinction was losing 24 games in 1962, which was his fate when he was a starter for the New York Mets during their hapless infancy.

But, whatever made Craig a man of such stature that even Anderson — with his robust ego — listened and even deferred to him, nothing put Craig’s imprint on Detroit baseball history quite like 1984 and his influence on the Tigers’ last world-championship team.

Craig died Sunday at age 93 at his longtime home in San Diego County, Calif.

His pitching professorship in Detroit baseball lore was tied more to the split-finger fastball, and to then-ace Jack Morris’ prowess with it. But, it was Craig’s psychological flair that in ’84 might have most boosted a talented Tigers team and staff Craig had helped groom during his five seasons with the Tigers, which began in 1980.

“For me, he was a very mental-orientated coach,” said Dan Petry, the Tigers-telecast fixture who was a starter on all the Tigers teams Craig coached, as he reflected Monday on Craig’s legacy. “He didn’t spend a whole lot of time on mechanics.

“Certainly, if I felt a little out of whack and say, ‘I’m kind of feeling this or that,’ that’s when he would get involved and work on some things. But, for me, it was more the mental side of game preparation, of those days leading up to a start.”

Craig’s time in Detroit was sandwiched between baseball venues, and even eras, of grandeur that on a national scale made his Tigers stint just another segment from a stunning career.

He pitched in three World Series for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1950s and was a starter in their final game before the team moved to Los Angeles at the end of the 1957 season. He threw the first pitch in Mets history, in 1962, the year he lost 24 games, and then pitched for the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, 25 years before he managed the Giants in the 1989 World Series.

But, it was his time with Anderson, with Morris, with Petry, with Milt Wilcox, with Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez (“Señor Smoke”) that made Craig a historic coaching presence in Detroit.

That he happened to inherit pitchers on the level of Morris and Petry was Craig’s good fortune. It didn’t diminish a pitching coach’s talents.

“I mean, he started in 1980, so it wasn’t like he took over a polished staff,” Petry said. “He still had to do a lot of finishing and developing.”

Morris was an athlete with fingers and hands and skills primed for throwing Craig’s pet split-finger pitch. It, in Morris’ hands, was a diving fastball hurled with a grip that in earlier years had more been the province of junk-ballers like Elroy Face.

Morris turned it into a kind of assault weapon that could vanquish hitters.

“I know he (Craig) tried to get everybody to throw it, but I never really could master it,” said Petry, who in 1984 threw 233.1 innings, with an 18-8 record, and a 3.24 ERA. “I don’t know if my hands or fingers were long enough for it.

“I never had a good or decent change-up, so I’d try to use it (the grip — straddling the baseball with two fingers, away from the seams). Now, if you could make it move like Jack, or Milt, or (reliever) Juan Berenguer, it functions as a good change-up, and that’s what I tried to do with it. But, I really didn’t have success with it.”

The pitching coach’s wiles in psychology were still there waiting to rescue a pitcher with any anxieties.

“You’d be warming up before that night’s start, might be feeling awful, nothing would be working, and you’d be like, ‘Oh no,’” Petry remembered. “And just before you’d take the mound, Roger would say, ‘Dan, you’ve got great stuff tonight — shutout stuff.’

“So, you’d take the mound figuring, ‘Hey, he’s the pitching coach and knows,’ and it would be this big motivator that could get you over the hump.”

Ironically, it wasn’t always sweet hosannas Craig was sharing with pitchers — or with Anderson.

During the ’84 dream season, Morris had become irked with media and wasn’t talking. It was a bit of a tantrum that Craig said made the Tigers’ ace more like a “big baby.”

He and Morris got past the rift, as Morris did with the media, all before that autumn’s playoff and World Series champagne flowed.

He could also talk back to Anderson. And get away with it — no small feat with the famed “my way or the highway” skipper.

“The best way to say this is, Roger was not always gonna say what Sparky wanted to hear,” Petry said. “He was gonna tell Sparky how he felt — and he would stand up to Sparky.

“There were times, you’d be sitting on the bench and Sparky would bad-mouth somebody and Roger would stop him right in his tracks and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute — how about that last game?’ Or, ‘How about that time when …’

“Roger was not afraid to tell Sparky just how he felt. And I think Sparky liked that.”

There were limits, of course. Especially when the real Tigers boss was general manager Jim Campbell, who was infamously tight with team finances.

Craig wanted a raise after the ’84 season — a bigger bump than Campbell thought prudent.

Craig “retired” and returned to his ranch in San Diego.

Before the end of the year, the Giants called. They needed a skipper with Craig’s potential to counsel and nurture.

Four years later, another World Series came Craig’s way, even if the Giants were toppled by the A’s.

Craig had learned by then that baseball, a game alien to forgiveness, tended to disappoint and deflate more often than it elevated or exhilarated.

But, he had his good times, including some moments in Detroit. They, doubtless, were as fixed in Craig’s memory as Craig is in Tigers lore.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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