A’s coach Craig Lefferts recalls memorable blast from the past
Craig Lefferts, the Oakland Athletics minor league rehab pitching coordinator, works Wednesday, March, 1, 2017, at the team’s Lew Wolff Training Complex in Mesa, Az. Lefferts, once a stalwart of the San Francisco Giants bullpen in the 1980s, is also known for hitting the only walk-off home run by a pitcher over the past 47 years. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Before he became a mainstay as coach in the A’s organization, Craig Lefferts hit one the weirdest home runs of the past half-century.
“It was a shock to everyone,” Lefferts said, “including me.”
It gets more surprising with each passing year: Lefferts remains the last pitcher to hit a walk-off home run, and he did it more than 30 years ago, on April 25, 1986.
Hitting only because the Padres were out of pitchers in extra innings, the left-handed reliever made his way toward the bat rack and searched for any knob marked “No. 19.” He knew those bats belonged to Tony Gwynn, which, at 33-inches, 31-ounces, were light enough for Lefferts to swing.
Lefferts then stepped to the plate against Giants reliever Greg Minton, a sinkerballer who specialized in keeping the ball in the park. Lefferts fell behind 0-and-2 in the count and then hammered a curveball into the seats, just over the outstretched glove of Chili Davis.
The 12th inning blast gave San Diego a 9-8 victory at Jack Murphy Stadium.
And that, folks, is the last time a pitcher hit a walk-off home run. In fact, Lefferts remains the only pitcher to turn that trick over the past 47 years.
“I remember it was like it was yesterday,” said Lefferts, 59, now the A’s minor league pitching rehab coordinator. “Actually, when I got to the ballpark that day I had the flu. I had 102 degree fever and I was not supposed to play.
“I was on the trainers table for the first six innings of the game. And then we ran out of pitchers, so I had to go put my spikes on and run down to the bullpen.”
Before Lefferts, no pitcher had hit a walk off home run since Jim Hardin of the Baltimore Orioles hit one against Moe Drabowsky of the Kansas City Royals on May 10, 1969.
Did Lefferts savor the only home run of his 12-year career? Hardly. The man who had a distinctive ritual of sprinting from the bullpen to the mound when he pitched did the same thing during his trip around the bases.
A trot this was not.
“You know how after a walk-off home run, everybody is there at home plate?” Lefferts recalled. “I got to home plate and nobody was there yet.”
Lefferts is still on the go — albeit several steps slower these days.
He is in his 16th season in the A’s organization but remains best known in the Bay Area as a mainstay of the Giants bullpen in the late 1980s.
Lefferts was a late-inning weapon for manager Roger Craig, who used the left-hander often and extensively. This was back in the days when it was common for relievers to pitch multiple innings. When the Giants won the pennant in 1989, for example, Lefferts appeared in 70 games and totaled 107.0 innings.
“I don’t think my role exists in the game today,” Lefferts said. “My arm was kind of like a rubber-band. And because I didn’t throw hard, I didn’t lose a lot from day to day. If I threw three days in a row, I could pitch that fourth day.”
Lefferts also racked up 101 career saves, including at least 20 each season from 1988-90. But durability was his calling card. In 1986, the season of his walk-off homer, he led the majors with 83 appearances.
The Giants acquired him midway through the next season, on July 4, 1987. In one of the biggest blockbusters in team history, San Francisco shipped Mark Davis, Mark Grant, Keith Comstock and Chris Brown to San Diego.
In return, the Giants got a trio of major pieces for their two playoff teams: Lefferts, Dave Dravecky and Kevin Mitchell.
“That was nice to not be alone,” Lefferts says now of changing teams. “I remember when all of us showed up in Chicago because that’s where the Giants were playing the Cubs … Going to an organization that was up-and-coming and looking to get into the postseason was a good thing for us.”
After the Giants lost to the A’s in the 1989 World Series, Lefferts returned to San Diego as a free agent. He bounced around with a few other teams before retiring after the ’94 season.
He spent a few years at home with his five kids before his wife encouraged him to get into coaching. It helped that Lefferts had a connection: His son, Brady, had a fourth-grade teacher named Mr. Beane — as in, Billy’s father.
Lefferts asked Mr. Beane for his son’s number and reached out. The A’s didn’t have an opening at the time, but Beane helped connect Lefferts with the Toronto Blue Jays, who hired him immediately. And just like that, he was back in the game. Eventually, Beane found a spot for him in a variety of roles.
Former A’s pitcher Dallas Braden, now with the MLB Network, remains forever grateful for his time at short-season Class A Vancouver in 2004, when Lefferts was the pitching coach.
“You have to be a chameleon in that role, and Lefty can change colors with the best of them,” said Braden, who threw a perfect game for the A’s in 2010. “He can get into the head of right-handed power guys, the Latin guys and even a weirdo lefty like myself.
“When you can do that, you’re a treasure, and it’s great to see the A’s have found ways to hold onto him.”
Craig Lefferts works with A’s players at the team’s Lew Wolff Training Complex in Mesa, Arizona. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
In his current role as minor league rehab coordinator, Lefferts’ job is to help injured pitchers transition from training room back to on-field workouts. He works year-round at the A’s facility in Mesa, Arizona.
Lefferts understands the arduous physical and mental challenges of a comeback. After all, he’s done it himself — and recently.
The veteran of 696 career games had spinal fusion surgery 18 months ago to address a ruptured disk. His bones didn’t fuse properly during the immediate aftermath and he spent the first year in a neck brace.
He also struggles with eyesight, a problem that has nagged at him for most of his life. Lefferts was nominated to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of high school but failed the physical because he lacked depth perception and had a lazy eye.
Two failed eye surgeries in retirement have left his vision fuzzier than ever.
“It’s worse. I wear Coke-bottle glasses,” Lefferts said. “And I have prisms in my glasses that are actually about twice the maximum the doctors said they were ever put in.”
He has a sense of humor about it, and said his recent healthy travails have helped him better understand how to handle pitchers returning from daunting setbacks.
“That is definitely part of the process, to stay motivated and continue to have positive thoughts and faith that they’re going to get better,” Lefferts said. “I’ve been through. I’ve dealt with that most of my life.”