Obituary: Julio Cruz (1954-2022)

RIP to Julio Cruz, a slick-fielding, base-stealing threat in the late 1970s and ’80s. He was also a Spanish commentator for the Mariners for many years. He died on February 22 from cancer at the age of 67. Cruz played for the Seattle Mariners (1977-83) and Chicago White Sox (1983-86).

Julio Louis Cruz was born on December 2, 1964, in Brooklyn. He and his three brothers were raised by his mother and her parents. While living in Brooklyn, Cruz’s childhood game was stickball. When the family eventually moved across the country to California, he was exposed to baseball for the first time. “They used real bases, not trash cans and fire hydrants,” he told Chicago Tribune columnist John Schulian in 1983. “It was the first time I used a glove, too. The same with bats. The broomsticks I used back in Brooklyn were so long and thin that when I picked up a bat, I asked myself, ‘How can I miss the ball with this thing?’ But I did.”

Julio Cruz at Baseball Almanac

The family settled in Loma Linda, and Cruz went to nearby Redlands High School. Despite his relatively small stature — he would max out at 5-foot-9 — he was voted the most valuable basketball player in 1970. He was also a productive baseball player and was named to the all-Citrus Belt League first team in 1972 as a second baseman. He hit .350 that year as a senior.

After graduation, Cruz played American Legion ball for a couple of years. In 1973, he attended a tryout camp at UCLA with a friend and was noticed by California Angels scout Lou Cohenour. Cruz signed with the Angels and reported to Idaho Falls, in the Rookie-Level Pioneer League, in 1974. Parting his family wasn’t easy. His grandparents, who had come from Puerto Rico, spoke only Spanish, and Cruz had served as their translator for his whole life. “It was hard on my grandparents when I split for two months,” Cruz later said. “They called me every day no matter where we were on the road. And my grandmother was sick, so it was really hard on them.”

Cruz had his challenges on the field as well. The Angels gave him a “bonus” of a glove and a pair of shoes before sending him to Idaho. “And the second week I was there, the glove and shoes busted,” he said, adding that he took it as an omen. “I never thought about making the big leagues. I just didn’t want to embarrass myself.” He hit just .241 with little extra-base pop, but he also stole 34 bases in 72 games. He also led the league in walks (39) and times hit by pitch (7). After trying him at shortstop and third base briefly, Cruz stayed at second base and spent most of his career there,

Between 1974 with Idaho Falls and 1975 with Quad Cities of the Midwest League, Cruz was taught to be a switch-hitter by coaches Del Crandell and Bob Clear. His batting average improved to .261 in 1975, and he stole 60 bases in 68 attempts. He moved around quite a bit in 1976, spending time at Class-A Salinas, Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Salt Lake City. Between the three teams he hit an even .300 and stole 83 bases. His fielding at second base was pretty special as well, as he had a 41-game errorless streak in Salinas. Cruz also learned to control a formidable temper. Once prone to throwing around bats and helmets whenever he didn’t get a hit, he was reminded that it wasn’t the equipment that made him get outs. Salinas coach Bobby Knoop threw Cruz extra batting practice for hours to help improve his hitting.

Source: The Bellingham Herald, May 12, 1980.

The Seattle Mariners picked Cruz in the November 1976 expansion draft. Cruz would later acknowledge that the move to an expansion team helped move up his big-league career by a season or two. In the Angels system, he would have been stuck behind Jerry Remy. “This is a brand new team. It’s the only way to go,” Cruz added. After spending the first few months of the season in Triple-A Hawaii, he was brought to the major leagues in time to make his first career start on July 4, 1977.

The Mariners had been using Jose Baez and Larry Milbourne as second basemen to start the season. However, once Cruz was put into the role, he stayed there. In his first game on July 4, he got 2 singles and a walk off Francisco Barrios of the Chicago White Sox. He was also thrown out trying to steal second. The first stolen base came on July 6, also against the Sox. The Mariners didn’t have much in the way of excitement in their first season, but Cruz provided thrills with his baserunning daring and his slick fielding. He also became an early fan favorite. A friend named Tom Martin paid Cruz a visit in Seattle and brought a glowing report home. “One thing I learned is that Julio is a big hero in Seattle,” Martin told the Redlands Daily Facts. “The kids are always flocking around him there. Julio’s one of the guys that will stay after the game and sign autographs until the kids go home.” On another occasion, Cruz let slip that he had a weakness for cheesecake. The next day, a homemade cheesecake was delivered to the Mariners locker room from a fan.

In his first year, Cruz appeared in 60 games and had a .256/.336/.296 slash line, with 15 stolen bases. He scored 25 times and drew 24 walks. He drove in just 7 runs and had 5 extra-base hits (3 doubles, 1 triple and 1 home run), but his good fielding at second base helped compensate for a lack of offensive pop.

Source: Austin American-Statesman, January 9, 1984.

Cruz took obvious pride in his accomplishments. “I didn’t get a penny to sign, and look where I am now,” he said. “I’m proof of where you can get to if you have confidence and determination.”

Cruz’s offensive production tailed off in 1978, as his batting average fell to .235. He still kept stealing bases, finishing second in the AL with 59 and first in the league with an 85.51% success rate. He excelled at diving for ground balls, and he always made leaping throws to first base, even though the move put undue strain on his shoulder. “I think he has a chance to be one of the exciting players in the game,” said Mariners general manager Lou Gorman. He was almost a little too exciting — he received so many cheesecakes from adoring fans that he had to ask them to stop, lest his weight balloon out of control.

The Mariners may not have had a great team during Cruz’s tenure, but they had a really good coaching staff, and they worked with Cruz to make him a better ballplayer. Bill Mazeroski, no slouch at second base in his playing days, helped him improve his fielding. Maury Wills, a one-time stolen-base record holder, helped Cruz get a better read on left-handed pitchers, making him even more dangerous on the basepaths. Cruz never got much recognition, though. He was first in the AL in fielding percentage in 1978 with a .987 mark, but he was never awarded a Gold Glove. He had his best season in 1979, with a .271/.363/.326 slash line, 70 runs scored and 49 stolen bases in 58 tries, and he wasn’t even placed on the All-Star Game ballot. Cruz also felt that the Mariners didn’t appreciate him enough to pay him what he was worth, and the two parties had frequent contract squabbles. After he lost his first arbitration hearing in 1980, the second baseman asked for a trade, accusing Mariners management of telling lies. “The breach between management and the player is almost insurmountable,” said his agent, Tony Attanasio.

Cruz slides into second base with a stolen base during the 1983 ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. Source: The Charlotte Observer, October 9, 1983.

Cruz had his struggles at the plate. He hit just .209 in 1980 and was held out of the starting lineup occasionally toward the end of the season. But he rebounded from that season and spent the rest of his time with the Mariners hitting in the .240s and .250s. He baserunning never wavered, though. He stole 32 consecutive stolen bases between 1980 and ’81, tying an American League record set by Willie Wilson of the Royals. He tied the record with a steal against Baltimore on June 11, the last game that Seattle played before the players’ strike. He almost broke the record later in the game when he singled in his second at-bat against Dennis Martinez. Martinez balked him to second before he could swipe the bag. “I asked the umpire if I could stay at first, but he said I had to go and told me to get lost,” Cruz said. When the season resumed on August 10 against California, he was thrown out in his first attempt.

Cruz also set a defensive record for second baseman in 1981 by recording 18 chances in a game without making any errors. Armed with improved stats, Cruz went to arbitration with the Mariners for the third straight season and finally won, getting a salary of $375,000 for 1982. Three arbitration hearings, in which the Mariners focused on his lack of power and lack of a high batting average, had irreparably damaged his relationship with team management. He repeatedly talked about wanting to be traded, so he could play outdoors and on natural grass.

For the record, Cruz earned his 1982 salary with a .987 fielding percentage at second base and career highs in runs (83), hits (133), doubles (22), triples (5) and home runs (8). He finally got his wish and was traded out of Seattle on June 15, 1983. He went to Chicago for infielder Tony Bernazard, and after spending his entire career on a losing ballclub, he was part of a division-winning ballclub.

The White Sox finished with a record of 99-63 to finish first in the AL West. At the time of the trade, second baseman Bernazard was hitting .262, while Cruz was batting .254 for Seattle. After the trade, Cruz had some early struggles brought on by nerves. But he recovered to hit .251 with Chicago. More than anything, his presence in the lineup helped to push the team to the next level. His fielding at second base helped solidify what had been a shaky infield defense. Outside of fleet-footed center fielder Rudy Law, the Sox were a pretty slow team. Cruz swiped 24 bases in 99 games, scored 47 runs and drove in 40 more. He homered just once with the Sox that season, but he was an eighth-inning shot against Kansas City’s Paul Splittorff that barely cleared the outfield fence and helped give LaMarr Hoyt his 16th win of the season. Cruz even scored the winning run that clinched the team’s first postseason appearance since 1959.

Cruz continued to be a sparkplug for the White Sox in the playoffs. Though the team lost to Baltimore in the AL Division Series, Cruz batted .333, with 4 hits, 3 walks and 2 stolen bases. After the season, Cruz even picked up an MVP vote in recognition for his clutch play with the Sox.

In the offseason, Cruz entered free agency for the first time in his career, and several teams became bidders for his services. The Angels were the leading candidate until the Sox came through with a 6-year, $4.8 million contract. After years of playing well with small salaries, he had financial security — but struggled in the game. Cruz batted .222 and stole just 14 bases in 20 attempts in 1984. He tried to adopt the philosophies of hitting coach Charlie Lau, but it just didn’t work for him the way it had for others. The fans who loved his spirited play in 1983 started booing him a year later, and he took it hard.

“I’ve never been a player who played simply for himself,” he said. “I play for my family and friends. I play for people. I love to have them watching me in the stands. I make them a part of the game. This year, I have let them down, and it has been difficult for me to cope.”

Cruz was never able to play a full season again. Knee surgery sidelined him in spring training in 1985 and caused him to miss more games during the season. He was bothered by a sore big toe — known as turf toe — that sapped his speed. He played in just 91 games — 74 as a starter — and hit .197 with 8 steals. He had offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his toe, which helped to reduce the pain, but his play in 1986 didn’t improve. In 81 games, he batted .215 with 7 stolen bases. He was released by the White Sox in the spring of 1987. His contract was frequently cited as an example of out-of-control player salaries and may have helped lead to the owners’ collusion scandal of the mid-to-late 1980s, where teams essentially refused to sign any free agents whatsoever.

“In my mind, I gave it my best shot,” Cruz said of his last try with the White Sox. “I knew I wasn’t going to beat out anybody here. That wasn’t my intent. I cane here to try to hold up. Mentally, I feel I came out victorious.”

Source: Seattle Mariners via Twitter.

Cruz signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers and spent part of 1987 in their minor leagues. He failed to hit above .200, though he showed flashes of his old speed. He signed with the Royals in the offseason after getting a metal plate inserted in his toe. He failed to make the team out of spring training and finished his career in 1988 with the Fresno Suns of the Class-A California League.

In 10 seasons in the major leagues, Cruz had a .237/.321/.299 slash line. His 916 career hits included 113 doubles, 27 triples and 23 home runs. He stole 343 bases and was thrown out just 78 times for an 81.47% career success rate. That percentage is good for 42nd all-time, ahead of the likes of Ichiro, Alex Rodriguez and Joe Morgan. Cruz also scored 557 runs and walked 478 times. He has a career fielding percentage at second base of .983, which is 79th all-time.

Cruz remained in the Seattle area with his family after his retirement from the game. He joined the Mariners as a roving minor-league baserunning and infield instructor in 1990. He worked on things like making sure players get consistent leads at first base, so the pitcher never knows when the runner is going to try and run. Cruz said that all his baserunning expertise came from asking the best players for their tips, so the information he passed down came from the likes of Willie Wilson, Rickey Henderson and Maury Wills. His extraordinary success rate in stealing bases came from Lou Brock. “He told me, ‘Don’t go unless you’re going to make it eight out of every 10 times,'” Cruz related in a 2019 issue of Mariners Magazine.

Cruz later worked in the Texas Rangers organization as a minor-league coach and served as a manager of the organization’s Rookie-Level Pulaski Rangers in 1997. The team went 43-25. He left coaching midway through the 1998 season to be closer to his family.

Cruz joined the Mariners new Spanish-language broadcast team in 2003 as a color commentator, teaming with Amaury Pi-Gonzalez and later Alex Rivera. He had no prior experience and was nervous about the role — he noted that the butterflies in his stomach were the same ones he had during his playing days. “Some of these people are going to be hearing Mariners games for the first time,” Cruz said before the start of the season. “I grew up listening to Vin Scully, Curt Gowdy… And now they’re going to be listening to Julio Cruz. Wow.”

Cruz had an enthusiastic personality that was perfect for broadcasting, and he worked on radio for 18 years. He occasionally donned a uniform to work with the Mariners during spring training as an instructor, too. Cruz is survived his wife, Mojgan, and three sons, Austin, Alexander and Jourdon, and their families. The family released a statement through the Mariners that said, “Julio shared his kindness and humor generously, and we know he is beloved in the baseball community and beyond. Our family is grateful for your well wishes and support.”

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