OAKLAND, Calif. -- The last time Allen Craig was on this side of the San Francisco Bay Bridge for more than just a few hours was nearly three years ago.
In October of 2010, Craig and other California baseball alums gathered in Berkeley to help kick off what eventually became a successful campaign to save the venerable Pac-12 program from elimination. Before Friday, though, he'd never been on the field at the O.co Coliseum.
The first time he stepped out into right field to shag fly balls, he got an earful from fans, who had clearly done their scouting.
"It's funny. The fans in right field were telling me to ‘Take off [that] red hat!'" laughed Craig, who graduated from Cal with a degree in social welfare, and had heard the ‘Take off that red shirt!' chants plenty of times during his days as a student at UC Berkeley, particularly when the Golden Bears squared off against the rival Stanford Cardinal. "That was pretty funny."
As he stepped off the field following batting practice on Sunday, Craig heard another familiar cheer from his days in Berkeley: ‘Go Bears!'
He smiled. He was finally home.
Craig went 4-for-12 over the weekend set with the Oakland Athletics, as the his St. Louis Cardinals dropped two of three to fall behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the best record in the National League, but he did crush his sixth home run in the month of June, raising his season total to nine as the 2013 campaign reached the halfway mark.
Craig is now fifth in the majors with 63 RBIs, and, in the wake of the departures of both Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman over the past two offseasons, has become not only a mainstay in the Cardinals lineup, but one of St. Louis's most productive hitters, hitting a red-hot .336 in the month of June and .320 on the season.
"He's a professional hitter," said Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny. "He just has matured, I think, even more, and continues to show people it's not a fluke, what he's been able to do so far in his career, and I see better things ahead of him."
St. Louis clearly sees the same thing, inking Craig to a five-year extension for $31 million this March, buying out three future arbitration-eligible years, as well as his first year of free agency.
The new deal came just in time for Craig and his wife Marie, who were married shortly after the former Golden Bear hauled in the final out of the 2011 World Series. On Dec. 20, the Craigs welcomed their first child -- Eden Rose -- into the world, and as Craig leaves the Bay Area behind, once again, he'll be headed home to the two ladies in his life, as the Cardinals head down to Anaheim for a three-game set, where both Marie and Eden will be in attendance, as will the rest of his family.
"It's going to be a special show, and Anaheim is going to be extra-special, because that was the team I followed, growing up, and it'll be cool to be on the field and check out the clubhouse and play Albert and the Angels. It's going to be cool," Craig said.
It will be the first time Craig has seen Pujols since the slugger changed shades of red after the 2011 season. A career .305 hitter with 45 homers and 212 RBIs in 315 games, Craig was influenced by two all-time greats in his early days in St. Louis. One of them was Pujols.
"He always did a good job talking the game, talking about pitchers and what they're trying to do to us," Craig said. "I think, for myself, watching him on a daily basis, how he went about his routine, defensively and offensively, and how he went about it, what he was doing when he was going well and how he worked when he was not going well to try to get out of the struggles over the course of a long season. Those are the things that I really learned from him."
Craig's other big influence: Mark McGwire.
"He did a lot. He was my first big league hitting coach, so obviously made a great first impression," Craig said. "His big thing was the mental part of hitting and the focus, and that's what he was best at. That's what I learned from him."
After hitting .300 in his first three big league seasons under Big Mac, this year is Craig's first without the former Oakland and St. Louis slugger, but he hasn't missed a beat, slugging .470 with a .357 on-base percentage, and is on pace for career highs in hits, doubles and RBIs.
"Oh, it's definitely a little bit different, initially, just not having his presence in the clubhouse," Craig said. "But, I think the transition to John Mabry has been pretty seamless, and John's so knowledgeable about hitting and the game, and he's now gotten an opportunity for the last couple of years to watch us as hitters, and we have a really good working relationship and we communicate well on getting better."
One of the reasons Craig has become one of the best young players in the game has been his versatility. Coming out of Cal, the consensus among scouts – and coaches in the program – was that his bat played, but he didn't have a true, natural position, playing first base, second base, shortstop, third base and left field in college. During this past weekend, he played designated hitter, first base and left field.
"It's kind of funny how it works out," Craig laughed. "Everybody would like to have a solid position, but that definitely hasn't been my route. I think in the long run, it's benefitted me. I've had the opportunity to start games I normally wouldn't have, just because I can play other positions. I got to be in left field in the bottom of the ninth of the World Series and catch the last out. If I hadn't done the position changing early in my career, I probably wouldn't have been out there. It's funny how things work out. It's kind of something that I've taken in stride."
Craig has also not forgotten about his roots. During the Cardinals' early-season trip to San Francisco, he made it a point of swinging by his alma mater to check out some of the new improvements. An avid fan of Cal football, his first stop was the newly-renovated Memorial Stadium with teammate Jon Jay.
"I came to Cal last time we played the Giants to check out the new football facilities, so I went up there for that, earlier this season," Craig said. "It's outstanding. It's better than I could have imagined it."
Craig also made a point of swinging by his old stomping grounds -- Evans Diamond – which, after 70 years, finally got permanent lights and a new video scoreboard during the course of Pac-12 play this year.
"I have seen the lights. We went by there on our trip to see the football stadium. I haven't seen the scoreboard," Craig said.
While Craig hasn't had the opportunity to chip in financially yet, that new contract means he's ready to cut a check or two to help out.
"We're talking about getting something done. We'll see how it goes," Craig said.
For now, though, his goal is to get the Cardinals not only back to the postseason – where they fell to the San Francisco Giants in seven games in the NLCS last year – but back to the World Series, where he will likely take the center stage once occupied by Pujols.
"Things have been going good. It's not something that I try to really focus on, being the guy replacing Albert," Craig said. "Obviously, I realize that's the case, but I'm still young in my career, still trying to establish myself. I'm really trying to put that focus on the team and focus on winning and whatever I can do to contribute."
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes BearTerritory.net. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.
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