Every young baseball player’s dream is to make it into Major League Baseball. For Will Craig, that dream came true on August 27, 2020.
Playing baseball for Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee, Craig always had baseball on his mind. After a stellar high school career, he was drafted in the 37th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals. Upon high school graduation, Craig began negotiating his future to get one step closer to his dreams. He had two stipulations for the Royals: a salary that was to his liking, and a full athletic scholarship to a college of his choice after his baseball career. After negotiations fell through, Craig decided he was going to college to play baseball for Wake Forest.
Wake Forest was not Craig’s first choice. He grew up a huge University of Tennessee fan and wanted to stay close to home and play for the team he grew up watching. Everything appeared to work out at the in-state SEC school, and his mom was an employee so he would get a discount on schooling. He applied for every scholarship he could and received them all. Everything was lining up–except for Tennessee did not have the same plans.
They didn’t think Craig was skilled enough to get into the rotation, and they actually wanted him to be a pitcher. He wanted to be an infielder and knew his calling card was to be a power hitter. After looking at other schools, only Wake Forest saw Craig’s potential as a hitter.
He was able to compete right away for the starting spot at third base and did not look back. In 2015 Craig was named ACC Player of the Year, hitting .382/496/.702 with 13 home runs and 58 runs batted in. He also pitched at Wake Forest and went 3-4 with a 6.09 ERA that season.
The St. Cloud Rox and the Northwoods League
“If you are serious about becoming a professional baseball player, you need to do this,” Craig said, talking about his experience with the St. Cloud Rox and the Northwoods League.
“From when you start your professional career in rookie ball to Double-A baseball, you won’t find anything closer than this. Playing baseball in college will teach you a lot of things as a player, but one thing it will not teach you is the fast-paced environment of playing 72 games in the span of 75 days. Playing in the Northwoods League teaches you to move on quickly and get ready for the next game, because it is 24 hours away and not four days away.”
The road trips in the Northwoods League were something he had to get used to, as this was his life for the next three months and his future if he wanted to go into professional baseball. “Everything about my first year of professional baseball had me feeling like I was back in St. Cloud.” With his experience, he could focus on what was most important, and that was baseball.
Memories of St. Cloud
Craig had some great memories from his season in St. Cloud, but two moments, in particular, stick out to him:
One of his favorite memories was playing at Joe Faber Field on a foggy evening. Will stepped up to the plate, saw a pitch he liked, and smoked the ball into center field. He knew that ball was gone. As he started rounding the bases the umpire ruled it a ground-rule double. In his heart, Craig knew it was a home run. He remembers it being one of the hardest balls he’s ever hit. However, the umpires said they lost the ball in the fog and because they couldn’t tell where it went they had to rule it a ground-rule double.
As Craig pleaded his case to the second base umpire, the opposing center fielder came in and stated that the ball cleared the scoreboard. The umpires discussed it and decided to give Craig a home run–a situation that may never be seen again.
Another memory that Craig had was executing the “perfect sit”. What is the perfect sit, you ask? It is where you sit on the bench for an entire game and don’t move from your spot. You might be thinking to yourself that it’s probably not that hard, especially if you have an off day and know you aren’t going to be playing.
What about when the benches clear?
That is the situation Craig found himself in.
After a Rox player was hit by a pitch, the benches decided to stand and make sure that it wasn’t going to happen again. No fights broke but Craig never even got out of the dugout. His first attempt at the perfect sit was not going to be affected by bench-clearing. He was in it to win it.
Coach Augie Rodriguez
Something that has been a treat for the last nine seasons for Rox players has been learning under one of the greatest Northwoods League Field Managers of all time. That will change in 2021 as David Bellamy takes over as Field Manager for the Rox, but Rodriguez’s impact will undoubtedly remain.
Rodriguez would always push his players and be upfront and honest with them. In 2014, Wake Forest was making a deep run in the ACC tournament. Craig called Rodriguez and asked for permission to arrive a week into the season, so he could rest up from his college season before playing baseball all summer. Rodriguez’s simple reply was that if Craig wanted to play for the Rox, he would be there on time.
Rodriguez’s specialty was finding out what motivated players and he would test them to get better. That is what Craig remembers and respects most about one of the top field managers in Northwoods League history.
After Craig’s time in St. Cloud, he finished another season at Wake Forest. It was now time for what he had been waiting for since he was a kid: going pro.
During his 2015 season, there was talk from agents saying that he might be a first-round pick. Craig didn’t even know that was possible. It might be every baseball player’s dream to play professional baseball, but it is also a dream to go in the first round. No matter what happens, you can always say that you were a first-rounder.
After meeting with several teams, including the Atlanta Braves, who owned the third overall pick in the draft, draft night had finally come. The first few picks came and went as Craig eagerly waited to hear his name called. Around pick number 20, his agent called and said not to talk to anyone. Major league teams were calling Craig and he was told not to answer any of the calls until his agent said so. Finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates called and after patiently waiting Craig was given the go-ahead to answer. He was drafted by the Pirates in the first round officially turning his dreams into reality.
Everything set in, but he had no time to celebrate. It was time to go to the minors. Just a day after his signing and physical, he was on a bus at 7 a.m. to travel to rookie ball.
Northwoods League 2.0.
“It’s like the movies. You know when they post who made the team on a bulletin board after tryouts? That was what it was like after every spring training to see where I was going,” Craig said. Moving up the ranks is what players have to do in order to get to the major league level. Craig did exactly that as he never repeated a year and moved up a level every season. In 2018 and 2019 Craig had back-to-back 20 home run seasons while driving in 102 runs in 2018. He was good enough to be chosen to represent the Pirates in the 2019 Futures Game, a matchup that showcases the future of Major League Baseball.
Not Your Average Debut
As we all know, 2020 was not an ideal year for anything. MLB played the entire season without fans and there was no minor league action. After a strong 2019 season, people were calling for Craig to be brought up to the big leagues. “It was different because in 2019, fans would say ‘Give Will Craig a chance! He’s hitting well!’ but there wasn’t any of that this year. Fans couldn’t really know how well players were doing at the alternate training site so there wasn’t any of that.” Craig had to really prove himself to his coaches that he was ready for the show.
As the season went on, Craig was doing what he needed to do to prepare to be called up. One morning he woke up to a call from his manager. Craig was confused because they usually texted or just spoke while at the field. Answering the phone he was confused, he was told that he was being called up to the big leagues. His dreams were finally going to come true.
Craig started to pack his bags as he waited to hear where he was going to be sent, as the Pirates were on a road series with the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Bags packed, Craig waits in the lobby to find out which flight he is going to take.
“You’re driving to St. Louis. Not flying,” Craig’s manager said.
It’s not your average form of transportation to the big leagues but Craig was happy regardless. After his 11 ½-hour drive to St. Louis, Craig was ready to make his debut. In-game one of a doubleheader, Craig hears, “Are you ready to be a major leaguer? Do you want to start in your first Major League game?” Speechless, Craig was able to answer “Yes, sir!” He got to play in a seven-inning game where he started at first base and had three at-bats in front of an empty stadium with no crowd.
While his debut might not have been written out as a typical debut, he would not have it any other way. Craig doesn’t know his future for 2021 but he is ready for the call again.
“I don’t know what 2021 has in store for me. I obviously want to be on the roster. I feel that I can bring something whether it’s on the Pirates or any team that wants me. I feel that I can make an impact every day I’m there. Whatever does happen, I know I will just be the best player that I can be and do whatever it takes to help my team win.”