The halls of the Peoria Sports Complex- spring home of the Seattle Mariners- features “The Road to Seattle,” a 25-foot wall piece that celebrates the team’s scouting and player development departments and features the names of the 180 homegrown players who made their MLB debuts with the team. Among those names are franchise icons such as Alvin Davis, Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar Martinez and Felix Hernandez. Others are names that have long been forgotten, including the man who was the first homegrown prospect to reach the majors.
Rodney Paul Craig was born January 12, 1958, in Los Angeles, grew up in Carson, California, and graduated from Narbonne High School in Los Angeles’ Harbor City neighborhood.
A talented athlete, Craig’s first love was baseball. This love led him to Houston, Texas following high school, where he would play for San Jacinto Junior College. Ed Stevens, scout for the expansion Seattle Mariners, saw enough talent and athleticism in Craig that he signed him as an undrafted free-agent. And while the deal didn’t include a signing bonus, Stevens did give the youngster money for new clothes.
The Mariners had just two minor-league affiliates their expansion year: a winter rookie-level team in the Arizona Instructional League and one in short-season Bellingham of the Northwest League, where Craig began his professional career. While there, the speedy outfielder helped the ‘Baby M’s,’ as they were called, to the 1977 Northwest League Championship, where they beat the Portland Mavericks 2 games to 1. Rodney played an instrumental role in the Mariners’ game 1 win over former MLB pitcher Jim Bouton, plating 2 runs on a fourth inning double.
Seattle moved Rod up one rung on the ladder for the 1978 season, to Stockton, in the Class A California League, where he would play in 90 games and more than hold his own against players whose weighted age averaged 1.9 years older than the Mariners prospect. While there was still very little power in his game (.316 slugging), Rodney did steal 41 bases in 49 attempts and showed patience at the plate, drawing 39 walks (to go with 57 strikeouts).
For as much talent as Rodney displayed on the field, he was also beginning to show himself to be a troubled young man. While in Triple-A Spokane in 1979, where once again he was one of the youngest players in the PCL (over 4 years younger than the average player), the outfielder clashed with manager Rene Lachmann and some of his older teammates, and would eventually walk out on his team. This led to him being fined and demoted back to the California League. Still, Rodney would go on to slash .315/.378/.414 over 48 games. In his 204 plate appearances, Craig had 18 walks and 18 strikeouts, while stealing 16 bags.
Rodney became the first Mariners homegrown player to reach the majors when he was called up to the big league club on September 11, 1979, making his MLB debut against the Texas Rangers. For the rest of the month, the 21 year-old Craig impressed at the plate, slashing .385/.396/.577 over 16 games and 53 plate appearances. While he made a positive contribution at the plate that month, he was less than impressive on the bases and in the field, where his inexperience was evident.
Prior to the 1980 season, Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe wrote that Seattle would hand the prospect the starting right-field job if “his tempestuous attitude doesn’t ruin him.” Once the team broke camp and headed north for the start of the season, Craig was indeed on the opening day roster. His season got off to a fast start, as he went 3-5 and drove in a run against the Blue Jays on Opening Night. Two days later, he got another start against Toronto and, once again, went 3-5 with a walk, a double, a homer and 5 RBI.
After starting the season with a six-game hitting streak, Craig’s production would soon begin to plummet, with his average falling all the way to .230 by June 11th. After appearing in 44 of the team’s first 57 games, Rodney was sent to Triple-A Spokane to try and find his swing. Recalled in September once the rosters expanded, Craig appeared in 26 games that month and hit .248 in 118 plate appearances. It appears the Mariners had seen enough to discern that Craig would be nothing more than a fourth-outfielder, at best, and traded him to Cleveland in the spring of 1981 for a 29 year-old DH by the name of Wayne Cage (whom Seattle would sell to the Hankyu Braves of the Japanese Pacific League only a few days after acquiring him).
Rodney’s big-league time with the Indians was a short one, consisting of just 71 plate appearances (mostly after coming in as a defensive replacement or as a pinch-hitter) during the 1982 season. Terry Pluto, who covered the team for The Plain Dealer during the first half of the ’80s, would, years later, recall Rodney as a “very quiet, perhaps even a gentle soul,” whose teammates had nicknamed him “Bucket Head” because of the helmet size Rodney wore. Pluto also recalled some of those same teammates taking advantage of Craig’s poor skills at the card table, often winning his meal money on team flights. The outfielder remained in the organization for two more years- spending the 1983 and 1984 seasons at AAA Charleston and Maine, respectively. The team would release him in January of 1985.
The rest of Craig’s professional career was spent as a baseball nomad: 5 games in the Mets farm system during the 1985 season before playing south of the border for Dos Laredos in the Mexican League; 10 major league games for the Chicago White Sox in 1986; 13 games for Triple-A Rochester (Baltimore) in 1987.
By the beginning of the new millennium, it was quite evident that Rodney was suffering from mental health disorders. There’s no telling what finally broke him but it very well could have been the 2001 death of his mother. According to childhood friend Gregory Sampson, Rodney did not attend the funeral and when Sampson asked him about it, Craig refused to believe that she had died. While denial is a part of the grieving process, Rodney’s subsequent behavior pointed to deeper issues.
He soon adopted the life of a vagabond, drifting to at least three states over the next three years and finding himself in trouble with the law at each new stop. There were arrests in Arizona (an assault charge that was later dismissed) and three separate ones in Florida. Rodney served three weeks in Broward County jails in 2002 after pleading no contest to trespassing charges. A 2004 fight in El Paso, Texas resulted in Rodney being indicted on assault charges after he had struck a homeless man in the head with a rock. Craig claimed self-defense and would end up being sent to a state psychiatric hospital after the court found him mentally incompetent to stand trial. Charges were later dropped after the witness failed to appear in court. At least one more arrest would come, in Miami-Dade county, on a 2008 trespassing charge.
It’s unclear where Craig spent the next few years but we do know that by the summer of 2013 he had made his way back to Los Angeles, where his life would be taken from him on the 17th of August. Trying to set up at a homeless encampment near Wilshire Blvd and Hope Street, Rodney was met with resistance from homeless residents who did not want him there. At one point an argument ensued and, as he was leaving, Rodney kicked a dog belonging to one of the campers. Two men, Billy Morales and Anthony Johnson, chased down the former athlete and began kicking and punching him. The fatal blow came at the hands of Morales, who stabbed Craig in the heart with a knife. Morales would later be convicted (January, 2015) of second-degree murder in the death and sentenced to 16 years-to-life. Johnson was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading no contest to assault.
Boston Globe “Rookie Ratings: Only Few ‘Can’t Miss'” January 6, 1980
LA Times “Two Men Charged in Stabbing Death of Homeless Former Ballplayer” October 24 2013
LA Times “Man Gets 16 Years to Life in Prison for Killing Former MLB Player” March 24, 2015
The Plain Dealer “Terry Pluto Remembers Former Cleveland Indians Outfielder Rodney Craig” October 26, 2013
The Sporting News, dates unknown