Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Card #130: Julio Cruz

Who Can It Be Now?
Julio Luis Cruz (Baseball Reference says Louis, The Baseball Cube says Luis) was born on December 2, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up in Brooklyn, he played baseball in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn to stay out of trouble. Baseball Reference's Bullpen says (without a cite, unfortunately) that Cruz said that he was not the best baseball player in the neighborhood, but that the players who were better did not avoid trouble. 

Well, let me correct that statement a bit. The Bullpen is a great source of information, but they got this one slightly wrong. Cruz did not play baseball as a kid -- he played stickball. The 1984 article linked above mentions that the first time Cruz actually played baseball was not until later in his life -- after his family moved to California. Before that, it was stickball in the street from dawn till dusk until he reached 9th grade.

His family moved to Southern California when Cruz was 16, so Cruz attended Redlands High School in Redlands, California (a suburb of San Bernardino). In high school, Cruz played baseball (of course) and, despite his 5'9" stature, basketball. On that same basketball team and in the same high school class (1972 graduates) with Cruz was Super Bowl winning NFL coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick.

Cruz was not drafted out of high school, and he stayed close to home and played at San Bernardino Valley College. After his second year of school, Cruz was working out with friends at UCLA when a California Angels scout saw him playing. The Angels signed him on as an undrafted free agent in May of 1974. 

Cruz was assigned to Idaho Falls in the Rookie Level Pioneer League for the 1974 season. There, Cruz put up a fairly typical Julio Cruz season -- plenty of stolen bases (34, against 11 CS), a so-so AVG (.241), a stellar OBP (.361), and a SLG (.266) based off power numbers (4 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR) that would make Charles Atlas's comic book 97-pound weakling feel okay about kicking sand in Julio's face.

California's organization was intrigued, however, by his speed and his glove, so Cruz moved up to the Midwest league in 1975. He blossomed there in terms of base-stealing -- swiping 60 bases in 68 attempts -- and in getting on base, walking 70 times in 452 plate appearances. That led the Angels to push him more quickly through the organization in 1976, with Cruz going from the California League at the start of the year (68 steals in 81 attempts, .307/.433/.368) to Double-A El Paso for about two or three weeks (13 games) and to Triple-A Salt Lake City by the end of the season. 

He struggled some in Triple-A hitting-wise -- .246/.312/.333. Perhaps the quick movement up the ladder was to see if the organization wanted to use one of its roster spots to protect him from the expansion draft. With his relatively poor showing in a small sample in Triple-A, the Angels did not protect him. As a result and in the fifth round of the 1976 Expansion Draft, the Seattle Mariners selected Cruz with the 52nd pick.

After half a season at Triple-A Hawaii, Cruz got the call to the major leagues and appeared in his first game on July 4, 1977. Leading off and playing second base, Cruz started the game with a fly out against his future team, the Chicago White Sox. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Cruz singled off Francisco Barrios for his first major league hit. Cruz was then caught stealing. Oops.

Cruz's Seattle career was marked by three things. First, Cruz was always in the top 4 in stolen bases in the American League without ever leading the league. After his half season in 1977, Cruz finished 2nd in 1978 (59 SB), 3rd in 1979 (49), 4th in 1980 (45), 2nd in 1981 (43), 3rd in 1982 (46), and 4th in 1983 (57 in the season split between Seattle and Chicago).

Second, as soon as Cruz was eligible for contract arbitration, he and the Mariners ended their contractual negotiations every single year in arbitration.  The Mariners won three of four years against Cruz in arbitration, but doing that year after year took its toll on Cruz's attitude toward the team. It probably did not help that, as the linked story shows, then-Mariners owner George Argyros was calling Cruz out after the 1982 season and, further, claiming that Cruz shouldn't have won his arbitration case after the 1981 season -- or that, after Cruz won his case that year, GM Danny O'Brien said, "We thought our case was much stronger. Now the pressure is on Julio. He has been very unhappy losing the past two year. Now we'll see how a happy second baseman plays."

The final thing marking Cruz's time in the Pacific Northwest was being a part of absolutely terrible baseball teams. From 1977 through 1982 and through June 14, 1983, the team record was 391-590, a .399 winning percentage. Getting traded on June 15, 1983, to the Chicago White Sox straight up for Tony Bernazard (who was traded to Cleveland after the season ended) had to feel like being paroled from loser's prison for Cruz. The trade was called the 22nd worst trade in Seattle Mariners history by the Seattle Sportsnet blog.

Cruz enjoyed winning the American League West title with the White Sox in 1983 enough to re-sign with the Sox to a 6-year contract worth between $3.6 and $4.8 million. Hailed at the time as a huge victory for the White Sox to retain the player that many called the catalyst for the Sox division title, it turned into an albatross of a contract for the White Sox. Cruz started suffering from turf toe -- in medical terms, a metatarsophalangeal joint sprain (a tear in the connective tissue between the foot and one or more of the toes). 

After suffering the turf toe injury, Cruz was not the same player for the obvious reason that speed was literally most of his game. As a White Sox player, Cruz hit .224/.309/.380 over four seasons. After a 1986 season in which Cruz continued to struggle with injuries (playing just 78 games in the field), the White Sox traded for Donnie Hill and Fred Manrique to replace Cruz. 

Cruz came to spring training with the White Sox because they could not trade him away to anyone. So, instead, viewing the $900,000 in salary and $5.64 million in deferred payments as sunk costs, the White Sox released Cruz in late March of 1987. Cruz played in 30 games for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque in 1987 with little success at the plate (.174/.319/.217) and followed that up by playing with the independent Fresno team in the California League in 1988 for 41 games. After similarly terrible hitting there -- .199/.305/.213 in Single-A...really -- Cruz did not continue playing in organized baseball.

Mustache check: Cruz is clean shaven. Doesn't he know that this card would be shown 32 years later in Movember?

Trivial Pursuit
Cruz tied an American League record in 1981 by stealing 32 straight bases without being caught. Since that time, Ichiro, Time Raines, Paul Molitor, and Brady Anderson have all passed the record, with each of them stealing at least 35 in a row. Ichiro is the AL record holder at 45 straight, while Vince Coleman is the overall record holder with 50 straight steals without being caught.

This Is Radio Clash
From 2002 to 2010, Cruz served as a Spanish-language color commentator for the Seattle Mariners. Yes, despite his continual fighting with the Mariners ownership as a player, Cruz settled in the Pacific Northwest and never left.  When he got the job, he joked that he might have problems with the job because:
The thing is, most Latinos out there are of Mexican descent, and some of my words are bad words. I speak sort of a Puerto Rican slang. I could be in trouble. You might hear a lot of beep beeps. People will think it's Ozzy Osbourne
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Julio Cruz was always a player who instilled fear when he was on the basepaths. He was a very smart baserunner when stealing bases. Over the course of his career, he was successful on 343 of his 421 attempts -- a success rate of 81.5%. That's far better than the breakeven point of around 66%.

One thing I do remember, though, was that Cruz never seemed to hurt the Brewers. My recollection on that is backed up by stats for a change: he never homered against Milwaukee and hit just .231/.313/.298 against the Brew Crew.

After his career as a player ended and for the most part, Cruz stayed in the Seattle area. He managed Pulaski in the Appalachian League in 1997 in the Texas Rangers system, but that was his only minor league management experience that I can find.  He did coach in the minors for at least three organizations, according to the Seattle TimesA couple of years after his managing experience and in 1999, he became the baseball coach at Eastside Catholic High School in Seattle along with former Mariners pitcher and teammate Bill Caudill. 

He was awarded the 2011 Moose Clausen Community Service Award by the Mariners RBI Club as a "past or present member of the Mariners community who has made significant contributions to the community."  He remains a much-loved part of the Seattle baseball community today.

1 comment:

  1. Ichiro stealing 45 in a row in a day where teams control the running game a lot more closely is impressive.