The life of Craig Barnes was celebrated on Friday. He touched a lot of lives in our community and elsewhere. To all who knew him, he was a loving man, father, husband and friend. He was adopted as an infant, and there’s no doubt that that early ingraining experience influenced his lifelong view “that love makes families, not biology” — that the power of love runs thicker than blood.
What follows is an article I published about Craig on Nov. 22, 2002. At the Friday celebration in honor of his great life, I couldn’t help but think that we were all now members of his very special Craigslist.
Here’s the old story – because stories once told can never be taken back:
Nov. 22, 2002
If you’re on your game, you probably know that the Yankees’ feared left-hand hitting slugger, Jason Giambi, graduated in 1989 from South Hills High School, along with his brother and three other teammates who all made it to the Major Leagues. Twenty years earlier another left-handed hitting first baseman from South Hills High School, Craig Barnes, was voted the Huskies’ MVP. Craig today is your friendly State Farm insurance agent and MVP in La Verne, where has an office in old town at 2050 Bonita Ave.
He may not have to stare down Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson fastballs, but he showed no less courage in building a highly successful business career after his baseball odyssey ended in the Mexican leagues as a Triple A player in the San Francisco Giants organization in 1977.
From 1969 through the ’77 baseball season, Craig played baseball – good baseball. In 1970, he played first base for the West Covina American Legion team that won the national championship. A hitting disciple of his boyhood idol, Ted Williams, Craig went on to be MVP at Mt. SAC, a team that featured Joe Edmonds, father of Angels’ star Jim Edmonds, and played on two national championship teams for USC and coach Rod Dedeaux in 1972 and 1973.
At various times, depending on his eligibility, he was drafted by the Twins, Cardinals and Angels. The Angels’ manager at the time, Jim Fregosi, pitched batting practice to the young phenom at the Big A.
After graduation from USC, Craig signed with the Giants and made it to the Triple A club. Being shown around the Giants locker room by the scout who signed him, he met another of his boyhood idols, Willie Mays, who had tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you the new player?” to which Craig replied, “I hope to be some day.”
Working his way up through the minors, he hit a home run one day off Dennis Eckersly, who later would give up another home run to Kirk Gibson whose late-inning heroics catapulted the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series championship.
In 1977, the Giants brought back San Francisco legendary first baseman Willie McCovey from the San Diego Padres and had in camp Skip James, a talented player who also had been a terrific running back for the Oklahoma Sooners. The odd-man out, Barnes, was on his way to the Giants’ Mexican league team, the Plataneros, or the banana pickers in English. They played their games in the jungles, where high humidity and long bus rides wore down even the best hitters. He played against the likes of Cy Acosta, Vic Davilio and Jim Bouton of “Ball Four” fame, who was trying to make a comeback with his new knuckleball.
When he didn’t get called up after rosters were expanded in September, he hung up his cleats, not having a clue about his future. As a newlywed, he knew he had to do something. One night, his father, a reserve sheriff, stopped by with his partner, a State Farm agent. When they asked Craig what he thought he might do for a living and he said he didn’t know, his dad’s friend suggested he interview with his boss. In November, Craig was working as an agent.
The Barneses were just scraping by. They moved from their small house in Baldwin Park to an apartment just north of Bonita Ave in old town La Verne, close to Craig’s office. One day, their toddler, Kirk, found a book of matches and started some brush on fire in a vacant lot next to their apartment building.
“The owner freaked out,” Craig said, “and pretty much evicted us right there on the spot. We didn’t have any money. I pleaded with him to give me a couple of more months because my income was going up, and I’d be able to afford another apartment. He wouldn’t work with me.
“That motivated us,” Craig said. “That incident put a fire under me.”
Ironically, his State Farm office today directly faces the building from he was evicted. After the smoke cleared, he managed to buy a small home, then an office building, then another office building and then a larger home – and the rest is pretty much insurance history.
His oldest son, Kirk, who no longer plays with matches and is probably a great advocate for fire insurance, works alongside his father and mother, Kathy, in the office. He attended Damien and played outside linebacker for coach Dick Larsen. His daughter , Natalie, played volleyball and softball for Bonita, including pitching a 1-0 shutout over perennial champion South Hills as a sophomore. She’s a communications major at Cal State Fullerton and is serving an internship with ABC sportscaster Bill Weir (now with Nighline). Meanwhile, Clinton “Bubba” Barnes is one of the team captains on the Bearcats’ varsity football team.
Craig doesn’t have to boast about the accomplishments of his children. Their images , captured in buttons, portraits and other mementos, are displayed throughout the office. The family, however, has to share space with Craig’s other passion, baseball. In reverent tones, he speaks about Ted Williams in the present tense, and is very much a keeper of the Splendid Splinter’s eternal flame. He displays an autographed artist’s rendering of the last man to hit .400 or better that Williams sent him for free when Kathy had asked Williams if she could purchase some memento from him for Craig’s 40th birthday. Williams also sent two free tickets to a baseball show so they could meet him. When they thanked him for the rendering and the tickets, Williams said, “I must have had a bad day, implying such kindness was atypical of the man known for his cantankerous relationship with the media.
“I got to shake the hand of my hero,” Craig said. “My wife could not believe that Ted Williams would take the time to acknowledge two nobodies.” (That was typical of Craig playing down his own great success and achievements – it was never about him.)
He also has a coat rack in his office, but the only thing hanging from it is a picture of Ted Williams when he appeared on the Aug. 1, 1955 cover of Sports Illustrated. His office shrine also pays tribute to Ruth, Gehrig, Mays and a pantheon of other great players.
There’s another symbol or reminder prominently displayed in his office. A lifelike photograph of a tiger keeps an eye on his every move. “It reminds me that you have to stay hungry,” he said. “You can’t forget the lean years.”
Craig has probably won every type of award in the competitive insurance jungle, but he says he doesn’t concentrate too much on sales and “those types of things.”
“I just try to be consistent, available and give good service,” he said, shrugging. “It’s like when you’re up to bat. You want to concentrate on watching the ball. You don’t want to think where your feet are and your arms are and all of that. If you keep it simple, stick to the basics and play the game the way it was meant to be played, everything pretty much takes care of itself.”
Barnes now plays on God’s team full time, with a lot of other greats including his hero, Ted Williams. As a first baseman, he’ll have to share playing time with Lou Gehrig, but knowing Craig, he’ll be honored to be just part of the team, helping out wherever he can.
In the program that was distributed at his memorial service, it closed with these remarks:
“Craig always felt so blessed to have the parents he had, to have to the love of his brother, the love from his three kids, and his wife who loves and will always adore him.
“He has said that with all that ‘who could want more.”
Craig was a very kind, forgiving, understanding and giving man who saw the good in others.
A great man left us too soon and he will be truly missed by all who knew him.
Craig thought there should be 11 Commandments — the last being:
‘Love one another as I have loved you.’