RIP to Rocky Craig, an outfielder with a six-year career in the minor leagues in the 1970s with the Royals, Astros and Padres organizations. He died on March 14 at the age of 72, after a recurrence of lung cancer. A friend and former teammate let me know of his passing and requested a remembrance of his life. So this is the story of a talented ballplayer who had a few good years in the minors, caused a few rainstorms and made a lot of friends,. More than that, it’s the story of someone who made the most of his greatest resource — his time — even while he was going through his own health battles.
Rockne Eugene Craig was born in San Diego on January 2, 1950. Despite being named after a legendary football coach, Craig turned to baseball instead. He was the team captain and an All-California Interscholastic Federation selection while playing ball at Madison High School in San Diego. He then went to San Diego Mesa Community College and later went to the University of California-Irvine. He racked up good batting totals wherever he played. He hit .427 and .350 at Mesa and then .375 at Irvine in the spring of 1970. He was part of Irvine’s first-ever baseball team and helped get the program off to a great start. The Anteaters had a 33-12 record in their first season and beat the NCAA College World Series champ USC.
“It was because of [Irvine coach Gary] Adams,” Craig said of his decision to move to a brand-new baseball program. “He’s quite a guy. He talked up the baseball program at Irvine and I went to Irvine, all on his word. And everything he said was true.”
Craig also focused on his education, majoring in comparative cultures and social science. “It helps you understand what’s going on in the world a little bit better. I’d like to coach baseball eventually, but Irvine doesn’t have a physical education major, so I’m taking this course.”
Craig wasn’t drafted in the summer of 1970, so he went to the Basin League, a summer league in the Dakotas. He played for the Rapid City Chiefs, which was also coached by Adams. Craig honed his fine defensive abilities in center field and his base-stealing abilities, though shin splints and sore knees slowed him down.
The Kansas City Royals signed Craig as a non-drafted free agent in the summer of 1971, and he reported to Billings of the Rookie-Level Pioneer League. He only played in about half the team’s games because of a thigh injury, but he had an excellent .327/.482/.467 slash line in 35 games. He stole 10 bases, scored 28 runs and had 8 doubles, 2 triples and a home run among his 35 hits.
Craig joined the Class-A Waterloo Royals in 1972 and put together a 23-game hitting streak early in the season. He hit .281 with 7 homers and 22 stolen bases in 24 attempts. He finished the year with San Jose of the California League, and while he didn’t hit quite as well there, he still moved up to Double-A Jacksonville in 1973. Craig led the Southern League in batting for the first half of the season before tailing off to a .282/.349/.381 slash line. He had 18 doubles and 7 home runs, and while his stolen base totals fell to just 7, he scored 61 runs.
Craig, if he was to be believed, helped his teams in other ways. He said he was one-quarter Cheyenne and a rainmaker — he once picked up a Native American hitchhiker, took him to the Cheyenne River Reservation and learned how to make rain from a tribal elder. On days when Jacksonville had too many injured players, he would perform a pregame ritual and cause a rainout. Infielder Dale Phillips was a believer, having seen Craig in action in Waterloo the previous season.
“One day he went through his ritual in the middle of the afternoon and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But Rocky said we weren’t going to play, that we had too many injuries. By game time there were tornado warnings. We didn’t play,” Phillips recalled.
“I made it rain once in spring training and five times during the season last year in Jacksonville,” Craig said in a 1974 interview. “We had a bunch of guys on the injured list, and I had stitches in my hand at one time, so I told the general manager I’d give the team three days off. It rained Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
Unfortunately for Craig, he couldn’t save himself from injury in ’74 while playing for Triple-A Omaha. He dove for a ball in the outfield and ended up with a double hernia and torn stomach muscles. He was limited to 61 games, and he batted .233 with little power in those games. He returned to Omaha in 1975 but spent most of the time on the bench. The Royals had several outfield prospects like future major-leaguers Ruppert Jones, Mark Williams and Keith Marshall. They got the bulk of the playing time in the field, and Craig was left on the bench. In the middle of the season he was traded to the Iowa Oaks of the Astros organization, in exchange for Ray Busse. The move gave Craig more of a chance to play, and he even drove in the winning run against his old Omaha teammates once. He played in a total of 100 games between the two teams and hit .237 with 14 doubles.
In Craig’s final season in professional baseball in 1976, he signed with his hometown San Diego Padres and was assigned to the Amarillo Gold Sox of the Double-A Texas League. At 26 years old, he was one of the older players there and was a part-time coach, as well as part-time comic relief. The Gold Sox won their division and also had the most fun in the League. They pulled pranks, they jumped into pools fully dressed. During a pre-game introduction before a playoff game, the first Gold Sox player pretended to trip coming out of the dugout, and the rest of the team piled on in a massive trainwreck.
“When I was a player, I played better when I was loose,” said Craig, who sometimes helped introduce the players on the field himself. “When you get up to the plate and think about the crazy things you did before the game, some pitcher’s fastball doesn’t seem as bad.”
In six seasons in the minor leagues, Craig batted .269 with 238 runs scored and 56 stolen bases. He had 63 doubles, 8 triples and 22 home runs among his 370 career hits. He was inducted into the UC-Irvine Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003.
After his playing career had ended, Craig was a long-time UPS delivery driver. In his retirement, he found a new calling. He explained it here.
“One day during a church service several years ago, my pastor posed a question to the congregation: What gifts do you have that you’re not using that can help others? For me, the answer was something simple: time,” Craig said. He talked to a volunteer at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in San Diego and started spending his time there. He volunteered to be a “Blue Angel” — a shuttle driver who took patients and visitors around the hospital campus.
Craig’s work at the hospital was interrupted by the diagnosis of lung cancer in 2016. He went through radiation treatment at Sharp Grossman, and returned to his shuttle job as soon as possible. His own cancer battle gave him a new insight to the patients that he drove around the campus.
“Being the first person they see when they arrive at the hospital, and greeting them with a smile, is the best part of the job. Every day I meet new people, each with their own story. Some are going in for surgery and worried about the outcome or don’t have family or friends with them. I try to lend support where I am able and share my experience with them to make their visit less stressful,” Craig said. “No matter what I am going through, when I come to the hospital to share my time and connect with others, I leave with a sense of peace. It helps take away concern about my treatment and forget what I’m going through.”
ASTRO, or the American Society for Radiation Oncology, gave Craig its 2017 Survivor Circle Award. The organization gives the award each year to a cancer survivor in the community where it holds its annual meeting. “Rocky Craig could have been bitter about his diagnosis, having led a healthy life. Instead, he has found courage and actively shares his positivity with other patients battling cancer,” said ASTRO’s Paul Haran, MD, FASTRO. “Despite his ongoing treatment for lung cancer, he continues to volunteer for the hospital where he is being treated — and his story and encouragement helps spread hope to others.”
Craig’s cancer returned earlier this year, and he spent his remaining months surrounded by his family and friends. He is survived by four children and a large extended family.
For more information: Legacy.com
Special thanks to Whitey Reid for alerting me to Rocky Craig’s passing.