Coming out party: Allen Craig stars for St. Louis Cardinals in World Series
Alexandria's Jeff and Bonnie Brand were hanging on every pitch last week as one of the best World Series in baseball history unfolded.
The Brands hosted eight Alexandria Beetles players during the course of five summers and never expected to be following one on the game's biggest stage some day. But that is exactly what transpired this fall as Allen Craig became a postseason hero to St. Louis Cardinals fans.
Craig was with the Brands for two summers in Alexandria. A back injury plagued him on the field in 2003 before he returned healthy in 2005. He tore up the Northwoods League that summer, challenging for the triple crown through the final weeks of the season. His 12 home runs and .362 batting average are still franchise records in Alexandria.
"He's always been very talented," Jeff said. "The first year he was here, he was playing shortstop and the manager talked to me and said, 'We really need Alan. He makes everybody else better.' Then it kind of hit me a little bit just how respected his skill set was."
Craig took off after his success in the NWL that summer. His .344 batting average and 76 hits were team highs during his senior season at Cal-Berkeley. He finished his career with the Golden Bears as a .308 hitter with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs in 192 games.
Those numbers and his versatility on defense made him an eighth-round draft pick by the Cardinals in 2006. He steadily moved his way through the St. Louis farm system before making his big-league debut on April 8, 2010 against the Cincinnati Reds.
Craig spent more time in the minors last season and hit .320 in 83 games at Triple-A. Entering the 2011 season, he found himself in a competition for playing time on the Cardinals roster with corner outfielders Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, guys who have a combined 3,170 hits and 11 all-star appearances between them.
Craig accepted his role as a utility outfielder for the Cardinals and excelled at it when healthy. He hit .315 with 11 home runs and 40 RBIs in 200 at-bats during the regular season. Those numbers were good enough to earn him a spot on the Cardinals' postseason roster.
Craig continued to make the most of his at-bats during the playoffs. He went 3-for-8 in the National League Championship Series, including a home run and three RBIs.
He then became a household name during the dramatic World Series against the Texas Rangers. Craig came up in game one as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning and drove in what turned out to be the winning run on a two-out single.
He followed it up the next night with a go-ahead hit in the seventh that gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead at the time. With that, he became just the third player in history to collect a go-ahead hit in the sixth inning or later on consecutive nights in the World Series.
Craig wasn't done. He hit a leadoff home run in the eighth inning of an historic comeback victory for St. Louis in game six. Then with the score tied 2-2 in the decisive game seven, he drove a home run to right field that gave ace Chris Carpenter a 3-2 lead in the third inning. St. Louis never trailed again as the Cardinals won 6-2 for their 11th World Series title in franchise history.
"I don't think you can describe it," Jeff said of watching it all take place. "I don't know how to. It is surreal. It is very weird to see someone you know pretty well, for the better part of two summers we spent just about every day with him, to see him on national TV being interviewed, it's pretty cool."
For the Brands, it's gratifying to see someone they grew close to get rewarded for his hard work.
"There's some kids that say, 'Oh, every day. We're playing every day,' " Bonnie said. "Alan just had a routine, and he just got up and played ball. He liked it."
It is that kind of work ethic that separates a lot of the players who come through the Northwoods League every summer. Allen's talent stood out but his ability to make strides at every level of his baseball career set himself up for success.
"That's the difference between the guys who make it all the way through the system," Beetles owner Shawn Reilly said. "They elevate their game at every level. Somehow, someway, they continue to improve their game so that they match or exceed that level."
Craig raised his game to the highest level on baseball's biggest stage. Bonnie calls and leaves a message on his cell phone after every home run he hits. She was kept busy during the fall classic as Craig finished with three home runs and five RBIs. He drove in the go-ahead run in four of the seven games for St. Louis.
The Brands will see Craig this November at his wedding. He was fighting for playing time in a crowded outfield when they last saw him in spring training. Now he's one of baseball's latest legends of October.
"It's probably a little bit like 10 years from now we'll be saying, 'This was really special,' " Jeff said. "I think now we have an appreciation for it. I mean, we look at ourselves sometimes and go, 'That is pretty amazing.' "
Craig comes through in the clutch
The Former Alexandria Beetle was a clutch player for the St. Louis Cardinals in their World Series Championship
He drove in the winning run in game one on a two-out pinch-hit single
In the second game, Craig got the go-ahead hit in the seventh to give the Cardinals the lead
Game six saw Craig hit a leadoff home run in the eighth inning as the Cards came back to win
In the deciding game seven, Craig's homer in the third gave the Cardinals the lead and the team never trailed after that to win 6-2 and take their 11th World Series title
He also caught the final out of game seven, playing in left field