Talented baseball players who have fathers who played in the major are often viewed as the gold standard when evaluating player development. On top of their innate ability, the access to elite instruction and being exposed to what it takes to be a big leaguer puts them at a major advantage over other prospects. The career of Ken Griffey Jr. exemplifies why teams covet this type of young player, prompting his initial team, the Seattle Mariners to pursue another high profile progeny shortly after “The Kid” became a star. That player was Jose Cruz, Jr., and he also went on to show why such a drafting strategy is wise.
The elder Jose Cruz was a two time All-Star outfielder for the Cardinals, Astros, and Yankees, and collected 2,251 hits during a 19 year major league career that finished following the 1988 season. His son, Jose Jr. was chip off the old block from the beginning, compiling an epic tenure as an outfielder with Rice University, where he was an All-American in each of his three seasons and left as one of the top prospects in the 1995 MLB draft. As a power hitting switch hitter, who played excellent defense, Cruz Jr. was a rare five tool talent that teams love to project. Thus, it was no surprise when the Mariners took him with the 3rd overall pick.
Cruz Jr. made quick work of the minors and made his major league debut on May 31, 1997. He joined a team known for its offense, with their lineup boasting Griffey, Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, and a young Alex Rodriguez among others. Cruz Jr. fit right in, hitting 12 home runs in 49 games, but received shocking news at that year’s trade deadline. The Mariners were fighting for the division lead and the playoffs, but didn’t have the pitching staff to match their lineup. They paid a steep price to fix that by sending Cruz to the Toronto Blue Jays for young pitcher Paul Spoljaric and established reliever Mike Timlin in an effort to shore up their bullpen. The Mariners ended up making the playoffs, but lost in the first round, while Cruz Jr. went on to enjoy a productive 12 year major league career.
Cruz Jr. established himself in Toronto, playing seven and a half years and hitting as many as 34 home runs in a season. He also played with the Giants, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Padres, and Astros before retiring following the 2008 season. He played a total of 1,388 major league games, hitting .247 with 204 home runs and 624 RBI and was known as an excellent defensive outfielder. More information about his career statistics is available at http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cruzjo02.shtml.
Even in retirement Cruz Jr. is still involved in the game, serving as an analyst for MLB.com. He has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the game and now acts as an ambassador in educating others about baseball. Despite his busy in-season schedule, he recently answered some questions I had about his career. If you want to keep up with him after checking out our interview, make sure to also give him a follow on Twitter, where he provides great daily baseball coverage.
Jose Cruz, Jr. Interview:
Can you describe some of your thoughts on having a father who played major league ball and how that impacted your childhood?: My father impacted my life in all aspects. He created my beliefs on how you should play the game. On him being an MLB player, I didn’t realize how special his career was until I started getting closer to the majors; then it became something really special.
What was your draft experience like with the Mariners?: I was one of the most exciting times of my life; something I had been working towards for about eight years. The Mariners were great.
Despite being drafted so highly, how difficult was it to do the work and play the games necessary to make the majors? Did you ever have to fight through any self doubt?: It was extremely difficult. It took a lot of work, focus, and belief. There are a lot of great players in the minors. The difference is in the mental part. I had a moment in 1999 that I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to hit again.
How surprising was it to be drafted so highly by Seattle and then get traded midway through your first MLB season?: The getting drafted part was awesome. The getting traded part was devastating. I thought I was going to be a Mariner forever, but you learn quick that the majors is a business. It was a blessing though; Toronto was great for me.
What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: There are a lot of them. I hit a few walk-offs and those were great. I thought playing in the WBC was the funnest baseball experience I had as a pro.
If you could do anything differently about your playing career, what would that be?: I would have accepted the o-fers a lot better and I would have stuck with my hitting approach more.
Who was your favorite coach or manager?: Cito Gaston, Jim Tracy, and Lloyd Moseby.
Besides the pay, what was the best part of being able to play professional baseball for a living?: The preparation for the game, the inner circle of the clubhouse, and the succeeding at the game of baseball was the best.
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