This article was written by Steve West
Craig Lefferts battled all his life to make it to the major leagues. Once he did, he stayed there for a decade, and became famous for running from the bullpen to the mound, showing his lifelong enthusiasm for the game.
Craig Lindsay Lefferts was born on September 29, 1957, in Munich, West Germany.1 His father, Ed, was stationed there as a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force. Ed took his wife, Bobbie, and five children across the world on various assignments. Craig lived in half a dozen cities before the family settled in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he attended high school.
As a child Lefferts suffered from asthma, as did his sister, Lynn. They took medicine to control the condition. Craig’s asthma improved enough under medication that he was able to play football and later baseball, dealing with the smell of the grass that exacerbated the condition. “In the grass … I couldn’t breathe, and then I’d quit,” he said. “I caught a lot of flak from the players. If I couldn’t practice, they didn’t want me to play.”2
Lefferts played American Legion ball, but was twice cut for being too small before making the team. At Northeast High School he was cut as a sophomore, but made the team as a junior, playing outfield. He bugged coach Larry Rudisill to give him a chance to pitch. Finally he was given the opportunity against Sarasota, the previous season’s state champion. He was so nervous that his father told him to quit. The reverse psychology worked; he said, “Dad, I can’t do that.” His father replied, “Well, then make up your mind and just go out there and do your best.” Lefferts threw a one-hitter and beat Sarasota 1-0, kick-starting his pitching career.3
After high school Lefferts tried to follow his father into the Air Force, but failed the physical. He had graduated at 5-feet-10 and 140 pounds, but it was his lazy right eye that caused the failure. Instead, his father reached out to his alma mater, the University of Arizona, to see if Craig could walk on to the team.
He was given the chance to walk on, but was cut, just as he had been in high school. “He was skinny, slight, and didn’t throw hard,” coach Jerry Kendall said. “I cut him and said, ‘Get stronger and we’ll take another look.”4 “It happened a lot to me when I was young,” Lefferts later said. “It’s been the story of my life, everybody telling me I’m not good enough, but inside I knew that if I got the opportunity I could pitch and pitch well.”5
Trying out again in 1979, Lefferts made the team, and turned out to be one of its best pitchers. While he was a junior, his sister, Lynn, died from an asthma attack. Craig had seemed to grow out of the condition, but Lynn had suffered all her life. Scheduled to pitch the following day, he told his parents that Lynn would want him to. He threw 11 innings over two games, giving up just three hits and two runs. He thought about his sister throughout the game, and believed that was the point that drove him to focus on baseball. “We were close. We both had asthma together. We suffered together,” he said. “I know what it’s like not to breathe. She’s free from it now. … I felt an inner peace because she wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.”6 He later became a fundraiser for asthma and cystic fibrosis research.
Lefferts was selected and pitched for the United States in the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, but the team failed to win a medal for the first time ever. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the seventh round that year, but chose to return to school. Lefferts led the team to the 1980 College World Series, where he threw a shutout against Michigan and was the winning pitcher in the title game against Hawaii. He was named to the All-Tournament team, and later to the 1980s All-Decade team. He was drafted once more, this time by the Chicago Cubs in the ninth round, and signed a contract.
Lefferts was assigned to Geneva in the short-season New York-Penn league in 1980, and pitched well, going 9-1 with a 2.78 ERA, including a four-hit shutout in July. At the end of the season he was named to the league’s all-star team. He had another complete game in the first game of the playoffs, winning 2-1, but Geneva lost the series two games to one to Oneonta.
Things weren’t as easy at Midland of the Double-A Texas League the following year, where Lefferts was 12-12 with a 4.14 ERA, but he was still one of the best starters on the team. He threw another four-hitter in July, shutting out Jackson as he retired the last 17 hitters.
At Triple-A Iowa in 1982, Lefferts was 8-5 with a 3.05 ERA, and continued to step up the ladder. His July gem that season was a three-hit shutout of Oklahoma City.
Despite having almost exclusively been a starter in the minor leagues, Lefferts made the Cubs bullpen out of spring training in 1983. “He was one of those guys who wasn’t overpowering, but he always seemed to get you out,” manager Lee Elia said.7 He only made the team because regular long man Mike Proly opened the season on the disabled list. Switching to the bullpen didn’t faze Lefferts. “It will be an adjustment, but it shouldn’t be too difficult,” he said.8
Lefferts made his major-league debut on April 7, 1983, in the team’s second game of the season. Coming on in the eighth inning with the Cubs down 6-2 to the Montreal Expos, Lefferts pitched the last two innings of the game, giving up a solo home run to Jim Wohlford in the ninth. “It was my fault. It was a nothing fastball,” he said.9
Lefferts pitched well early in the season, but put this down to the players not being familiar with him. “The hitters haven’t seen me before. They’re not sure what I throw,” he said. “Once they get to know me, I’ll have to trick ’em a little bit.”10 He got a spot start on May 25 in Houston, and scattered six hits over seven innings, but a passed ball in the second led to the game’s only run. He got three more starts in June, but after giving up five runs in five innings on June 20, he was sent back to the bullpen for the rest of the season. “I know I’m not a starter on this club. My role is in the bullpen. I’ll probably be there all year, which is all right with me,” Lefferts said.11 Despite one more spot start, in a doubleheader in August, his bullpen future was settled, and he did not make another start until 1992.
Having pitched well in 1983, with a 3.13 ERA in 89 innings, Lefferts was surprised to be dealt to the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade.12 For the Cubs, the desire was to obtain Scott Sanderson at any cost, as they believed he could become their top pitcher. Padres GM Jack McKeon was looking to stockpile young talent, and Lefferts’ success in the bullpen was enough for San Diego to want him included in the deal. The Padres had included Gary Lucas and his team-leading 17 saves in the trade, and expected Lefferts to take up some of that slack. “Lefferts throws strikes and we feel like he’ll develop into a good one,” McKeon said.13
While in Puerto Rico pitching winter ball for Ponce over the offseason, Lefferts learned how to throw a screwball from teammate Gil Rondon, and it gave him an extra dimension. “I think I’ve just about mastered it,” he said. “I can throw it for strikes. I can throw a hard screwball and I can throw it as a changeup. It has helped me a lot against righthanded hitters.”14
As others fell by the wayside through the season, Lefferts moved up in the pecking order. He ended the season with a 2.13 ERA in 105⅔ innings, and his 10 saves trailed only Rich Gossage on the team. The team had a magical season, winning its division by 12 games. One game, on August 12, has entered into baseball lore as the Battle of Atlanta. When Braves pitcher Pascual Perez hit the Padres’ Alan Wiggins to lead off the game, the Padres vowed revenge. After several attempts to retaliate (and already multiple ejections), it was Lefferts in the eighth inning who managed to hit Perez. First baseman Steve Garvey said, “When Lefferts finally hit him, I ran right to the mound and kind of held my arms out to try to help my pitcher, and about 20 guys blew right on by me after Lefferts, who by that time had hit the dirt at shortstop and was running toward left field.”15 Lefferts was one of seven players ejected after a 10-minute brawl; another six players were ejected after another hit-by-pitch in the ninth.
Down two games to none in the NLCS, the Padres came back to win the last three games and beat Lefferts’ former team, the Cubs. Lefferts got the win in each of the final two games. The World Series was a letdown though; the Padres lost to the Detroit Tigers in five games. Lefferts had personal success, though, throwing six shutout innings in three appearances, including three innings with five strikeouts as he earned the save in Game Two. “Any way you want to look at it, this game was won by (Andy) Hawkins and Lefferts —they stopped us cold,” Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said.16
An incident during 1984 was later related by Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, which showed how valuable Lefferts quickly became to the team. In explaining the difference between a winning and losing team, Gwynn said that winning teams will ignore the little things that come up during the long season, such as a fight between Lefferts and fellow pitcher Ed Whitson:
“We’re coming back from the East somewhere, and the guys are playing blackjack and sucking down a few brewskis,” Gwynn [said]. “Eddie is dealing, and he’s kind of toasted and not really paying attention to the card game. Whit had like 19, and Lefferts had 18, but Lefferts takes the money and Whit doesn’t notice.
But somebody must have told him, because Whit goes ballistic on the bus. He starts screaming and yelling. He gets up and grabs Lefferts by the top of his hair and —pow! —just slaps the crap out of him. Guys had to get up out of their seats and grab Whitson to stop him. The quote I remember that day is, “Hey, man, you’re messing with our money. He’s going to help us get to where we want to go.”17
Lefferts quickly cashed in on his postseason performance, signing a two-year contract with the Padres. A desire to start was never in the cards though. “I wouldn’t turn it down if the chance came to move into the starting rotation,” he said. “But for the time being, it looks like my job here is to pitch middle and late relief.”18
Things didn’t go as well in 1985, with the Padres falling to a third-place tie and Lefferts’ ERA jumping to 3.35. He suffered from elbow problems, which continued into the following season. But he got off to a good start in 1986. “That confidence snowballs, and it’s building right now,” he said.19 He had his career batting highlight on April 25, hitting a walk-off home run off the Giants’ Greg Minton in the 12th inning. (As of 2018 he remained the last pitcher to hit a walk-off homer.) By the end of the year he’d pitched in a league-leading 83 games, but wasn’t feeling good. “I’m pleased with the effort, but disappointed in a lot of other ways,” he said. “I know there have been a lot of times in crucial situations when I haven’t been effective.” He didn’t use his arm as an excuse. “My arm has been pretty good all year,” he said. “I’ve had a sore elbow that’s needed ice and treatment continually, but that doesn’t keep me out of pitching.”20
After Lefferts struggled to a 4.38 ERA in the first half of 1987, the Padres traded him to the Giants.21 The Giants still thought highly of him. “The way he gets the left-handed hitters out, he might be finishing a lot of games for us,” manager Roger Craig said.22 Lefferts later said he was pleased with the trade. “It was definitely a great break getting traded out of San Diego the way things were going there and to San Francisco, the way things have happened here.”23
At the time of the trade the Giants were in third place, and moved up over the rest of the season to win the NL West. Lefferts pitched just two innings in the NLCS as the Giants lost the series to the Cardinals in seven games. Once again his efforts were rewarded; he signed a new two-year deal with the Giants. He started 1988 well, and wasn’t worried about his lack of publicity. “I think I could be a stopper on other teams,” he said. “I don’t get the saves, but the guys come up to me and tell me I’ve done a good job. That’s good enough for me.”24
In early 1989 Lefferts had a streak in which he retired 29 consecutive batters over six games (with two double plays on inherited runners making it 31 consecutive outs). That was part of a streak of 26 innings without giving up a run, going back to the previous season. He had a 2.69 ERA and led the bullpen with 20 saves, although he shared the closer role with Steve Bedrosian after the Giants added him in June. The Giants won their division, then beat the Cubs in the NLCS, with Lefferts finally giving up a run in the only inning he pitched, having not surrendered a run in the first 12 innings of his postseason career. They went on to be swept by Oakland in the World Series, with Lefferts pitching in three games.
Others noticed big improvements by Lefferts during the season. “He’s a better pitcher now than he was in 1984,” Rich Gossage said. “He’s more aggressive, and he’s pitching with a lot more confidence. When you’re young and don’t have the experience, there’s always doubt in your mind.” Catcher Terry Kennedy noted that Lefferts had pitched with just a fastball and screwball in his early career, but had added a slider. “Lefty’s slider is much better now. … He throws the screwball for strikes better than average, and his slider is above average. He’s also smarter now,” Kennedy said.25 Lefferts himself was happy in his new role. “I feel like I have more of an impact on a game. It’s easy to get into a rut when you’re a middle reliever or a set-up guy,” he said.26
A free agent after the 1989 season, Lefferts returned to the Padres on a three-year, $5.35 million contract. He replaced NL Cy Young Award winner Mark Davis, who had demanded too much money from the Padres after a 44-save season. Ironically Davis had gone from the Giants to the Padres in the deal that took Lefferts in the other direction. The trade for Bedrosian was the reason for Lefferts to leave San Francisco, and the closer role in San Diego was reason for him to return. “If there was no Bedrosian deal, I probably wouldn’t have filed for free agency,” he said. “The biggest motivation for signing with the Padres was the opportunity to be a stopper. The timing couldn’t have been better for me.”27
Lefferts faced two big questions on his return to San Diego: How could he replace Davis, and how would his arm hold up? On the first question, he wasn’t worried about replacing Davis and his 44 saves. “How many people have done that?” Lefferts said. Noting that Davis was a power pitcher while he was a finesse pitcher, Lefferts said, “Both styles can be equally as effective. And I think I’ve proven that over the years.”28
The arm, meanwhile, was a different question. Lefferts had pitched through tendinitis and a sore shoulder for years, and teams were surprised he had gotten the contract he did. The Giants thought his arm was “fragile,” which is why they didn’t bring him back. Lefferts pointed to his history in response. “Except for the end of last year and a brief period in ‘87, I’ve pitched 100 percent of the time. … I’ve pitched in more games (472) than any other pitcher in the last seven years. So how can anyone make that type of argument?”29
The Padres stumbled in 1990, though, from preseason contenders to a 75-win team. Lefferts did his part, notching 23 saves and a 2.52 ERA despite a “dead arm.”30 The team improved by nine games the next season, and Lefferts matched his save total although his ERA jumped to 3.91. In both offseasons his name came up in trade talks, but he remained with the Padres. They even put him into the rotation to start 1992, and he exceeded expectations, going 13-9 with a 3.69 ERA in 27 starts.
With his contract approaching its end, Lefferts was traded to Baltimore on August 31,31 where he went 1-3 as the Orioles fell out of contention. The trade to the Orioles upset the Padres. On the day of the trade they were 8½ games back in their division, but still felt they were in the pennant race. The owners were looking to cut costs and ordered general manager Joe McIlvaine to make deals. The team collapsed after that, ending up 16 games behind, and many blamed the Lefferts trade. “That was one of the hardest trades, emotionally, I ever had to make,” McIlvaine later said. “My gut was telling me, ‘This isn’t the right thing to do.’ … I pleased one group (owners) and I alienated two others (players and fans).”32
At the end of the season the Orioles declined to offer Lefferts arbitration, making him a free agent once more. He signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the Texas Rangers for 1993. Lefferts was in contention for the fifth starter role, or potentially moving to the bullpen. He began as the fifth starter but was poor, pitching to a 1-5 record with an 8.12 ERA by mid-May, when he went on the disabled list with a sore neck. When he returned, he went into the bullpen for the rest of the season, but his 4.04 ERA the rest of the way dropped his combined season ERA to 6.05, by far the worst of his career. The Rangers set him free again at the end of the season, choosing a $175,000 buyout instead of a $1.3 million option.
Lefferts signed another one-year deal, this time for $400,000 with the California Angels. He didn’t pitch well, running to a 4.67 ERA before the All-Star break, when the Angels released him to avoid paying appearance incentives in his contract that could have brought him $1 million. Although naturally disappointed that his career was over, he looked back with pride. “For me, I had a wonderful career. I played 12 years in the major leagues. I couldn’t have done more,” he said.33
Lefferts had married Wendy LeBar, and they had five children. He spent a few years at home with them before Wendy encouraged him to try coaching. He reached out to Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager. Oakland did not have a position available, but Beane put him in touch with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was a pitching coach in the Jays system from 1999 to 2002, then in the Oakland system in 2003-14. Most of his coaching was at the lower levels; he spent 2000-03 at Double A. He was also the pitching coach for the South Africa national team at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
In 2015 Lefferts became the A’s minor-league pitching rehab coordinator in Mesa, Arizona, dealing with players recovering from injury. The team sent its injured players to live in Arizona, where they could get specialist physical and mental training. Lefferts’ role expanded from being a pitching coach. “I’m a rehab coach. I’m a pitching coach. I’m a mental coach. I’m a psychologist,” he said. He worked with each player on the field, ensuring that they have a plan for recovery and are following it. Although he pitched through arm problems himself, he acknowledged the changes in the modern game. “I’ve had to learn in these last few years that effort level is really the key initial component to having a positive rehab,” he said.34
Lefferts himself struggled with health issues in recent years. He had spinal fusion surgery in 2016 to deal with a ruptured disk in his back. He also had ongoing issues with his eyes, having two failed surgeries to correct lifelong vision problems. Those problems helped him in working with rehabbing pitchers. “I’ve been through. I’ve dealt with that most of my life,” he said.35
All in all, Lefferts said in 2017, he was pleased with his career and life in baseball. “I have already done my career. I’m the luckiest man around and I still get to put a uniform on and do this for a living. How about that? Couldn’t be better.”36
In addition to the sources in the notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Before the fall of communism and the reunification of Germany, West Germany was the non-Communist area.
2 Tom Friend, “Padre Reliever Has Met Many Challenges on His Way to Becoming a Major Leaguer,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1985.
3 Dennis Georgatos, “Lefferts Faces Pressure,” Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times, April 8, 1990: C10.
8 Joe Goddard, “Bullpen Very Deep; Cubs Will Need It,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1983: 14.
9 Joe Goddard, “Rookie Lefferts Becomes a Starter,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1983: 22.
11 Joe Goddard, “Buckner, Sandberg, Durham Halt Skids,” The Sporting News, June 13, 1983: 16.
12 The Cubs sent Lefferts, third baseman Fritzie Connally and left fielder Carmelo Martinez to the Padres. The Padres sent pitcher Gary Lucas to the Montreal Expos. The Expos sent infielder Al Newman to the Padres, and pitcher Scott Sanderson to the Cubs.
13 Phil Collier, “Lefferts to Work in Padres’ Pen,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1983: 43.
14 Phil Collier, “Padres’ Bargain: Reliever Lefferts,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1984: 19.
15 Michael Knisley, “A Career Year,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1994: 14.
16 “Dirty Kurt, Handy Andy Tame Tigers,” The Sporting News, October 22, 1984: 13.
17 Michael Knisley, “It Was in the Cards,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1994: 13.
18 Phil Collier, “Padres Still Need Lefferts in Bullpen,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1985: 32.
19 “Padres,” The Sporting News, June 9, 1986: 16.
20 Mark Kreidler, “So-So Results From Lefferts’ Efforts,” The Sporting News, October 13, 1986: 27.
22 “Giants,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1987: 21.
23 Casey Tefertiller, “Lefferts’ Career Gets New Impetus,” San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 1988: C6.
24 Nick Peters, “He’s Caught in the Middle,” The Sporting News, May 23, 1988: 20.
25 Nick Peters, “From Set-Ups to Saves,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1989: 16.
27 “Giants,” The Sporting News, January 1, 1990: 52.
28 Barry Bloom, “Lefferts Operates Under Davis’ Shadow,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1990: 16.
30 Barry Bloom, “Padres Stumble Through Ungodly Year,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1990: 10.
32 Chris De Luca, “San Diego Padres,” The Sporting News, March 15, 1993: 18.
33 Melissa Lockard, “Former Big Leaguer Craig Lefferts Helping to Get A’s Players Back on the Field,” The Athletic, October 6, 2017. theathletic.com/117735/2017/10/06/former-big-leaguer-craig-lefferts-helping-to-get-as-players-back-on-the-field.
35 Daniel Brown, “A’s Coach Craig Lefferts Recalls Memorable Blast from Giants’ Past,” San Jose (California) Mercury News, March 14, 2017. mercurynews.com/2017/03/14/as-coach-craig-lefferts-recalls-memorable-blast-from-the-past/.