Most managers won't tell you how they really feel about their ball clubs. Usually they make things sound infinitely better than they are, or else they hogtie their interviewers with candy-coated clich'es. One who doesn't choose to play this game with the media, though, is Roger Craig, manager of the defending National League West champion San Francisco Giants.
Craig, the acclaimed pitching coach of the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers and a noted teacher of the split-fingered fastball, has been platooning a lot this year in his never-ending battle to keep his club competitive with Los Angeles and Houston.
In its first 114 games, San Francisco used 76 different lineups. Recently, the Giants have moved half of their bullpen into the starting rotation because of injuries, and shifted third baseman Kevin Mitchell to the outfield. Yet through it all, and despite a decline in home runs from '87, they still lead the league in runs scored and at the time of this interview had won 13 of their last 20 games.
``Of course I've got a good ball club,'' Craig was saying. ``Every time we've had a major injury this season, and we've had a lot of them, somebody on my bench has come in and saved us. [Roger was referring to players like Ernie Riles, Donell Nixon, Chris Speier, and Bob Melvin.] My bench has given me a lot of options that weren't there last year when we won, including speed.
``I'll be platooning a lot between now and the end of the season because that probably is going to be the key to us winning our division again. I know players don't like to be jerked in and out of the lineup.... But this is not the time of year to allow anyone's feelings to get in a manager's way. You have to do what you think is needed to win, and your players have to go along with it.''
Asked if he thought the current Giants were a better team than the 1987 edition that won 90 regular-season games, and barely lost to St. Louis in the playoffs, Roger replied:
``If this year's pitching staff hadn't been torn apart by injuries, I'd probably say so. Our starters haven't given us many complete games. We've had to rely on our bullpen to keep us alive. But in a division where I don't think anybody is going to open up much of a lead, we've got just as good a chance to win as the Dodgers and Astros.''
Craig, the ultimate outdoorsman during the off-season, built a rustic house-lodge about 19 months ago with the help of his son, a contractor, in the mountains about 75 miles northeast of the San Diego airport.
Even though Roger won't confirm his new home's estimated $500,000 value, it has two stories, a Jacuzzi, a TV satellite dish, and a multi-horse stable. Until last winter, when he got around to having a telephone installed, Craig had to ride his horse more than a mile to the nearest general store to get supplies.
For those who don't remember Craig when he pitched for the Dodgers (both in Brooklyn and L.A.), the New York Mets, the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Phillies, his 74-98 lifetime record is one of baseball's most deceptive.
Forty-six of those losses came during a two-year period when Roger was pitching for Casey Stengel's expansion Mets, a team that lost 120 games in 1962, and 111 the following season.
Except for those two years, in fact, Craig had a winning record. And even with the Mets, he pitched well in a frequently hopeless cause. The year they bottomed out at 120 losses, Roger's 10 victories accounted for one-fourth of his team's total - a figure that undoubtedly would have been higher if the Mets hadn't been shut out 11 times when he was on the mound.
At 6 ft. 4 in. and 200 pounds, Craig was a physically imposing presence on the mound, and he possessed a full set of pitcher's tools, including a 92 m.p.h. fastball, a hard slider, and a changeup. His main problem was he kept landing with teams that seldom scored many runs.
But there were some rainbows along the way, too. He pitched in four World Series and won key games in two of them - helping Brooklyn to its historic first-ever victory in the classic by beating the Yankees as a starter in the pivotal Game 5 in 1955, and beating the Bronx Bombers again in Game 4 in 1964, this time in relief for the Cardinals and helping his team to another eventual triumph. Elsewhere in the majors
The late-season trade designed to keep a team in contention is standard at this time of year. The Dodgers, trying to hold onto first place in the NL West, made one last week, sending Pedro Guerrero to St. Louis for John Tudor. Guerrero, a power hitter who never learned that team wasn't spelled with a capital ``I,'' should increase the Cardinals' RBI totals. Meanwhile Tudor, a crafty left-hander who often pitches as much with his head as his arm, fills a key spot in the Dodgers' starting rotation formerly held by Fernando Valenzuela, who is on the disabled list and probably won't pitch again the rest of the season. The ex-Cardinal ace made his presence felt right away, too, winning his first game in a Dodger uniform.
Left-hander Danny Jackson, who lost 18 games in 1987 with the Kansas City Royals, has had no trouble since switching leagues. Jackson, now 18-5 with the Cincinnati Reds, has won his last eight starts, leads the National League with 12 complete games, has thrown five shutouts, and is practically a lock to be named Comeback Player of the Year.