View Full Version : Cruz - Spring not fun, sun for all guys (3/7)

03-07-2006, 08:05 PM
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Spring not fun, sun for all guys

SARASOTA, Fla. - Life is good in Florida in March when you've got it made. You're Adam Dunn, young and rich, talent still blooming, it's a few hours a day and off to the bass boat. Life's good for Jacob Cruz, too, in a stomach-heaving sort of way.

You think it's all suntans and 3-woods down here? Try being a relief pitcher trying to make this team. The Reds have about 700 relievers in camp, for five spots. They're not exactly living it up nightly at the tiki bar.

Then there is Cruz. There are tough guys, and there are guys like Cruz, who walks the major-league wire every year. It's hard being a professional pinch-hitter. It's harder being a professional pinch-hitter who stares down final cuts every March. Talk about being on the bubble. If Cruz weren't a ballplayer, he'd be sticking his head in a lion's mouth.

He led the National League last year with 20 pinch hits. As a reward, the Reds brought in Quinton McCracken and Tuffy Rhodes. Timo Perez is in the minor-league camp. Jerry Narron says Cruz "has never been caught off guard as a pinch-hitter." And yet, a few 0-fers down here and Cruz is checking flight schedules to Japan.

As Narron says, "In the spring, it doesn't matter if you go 0-for-7." Unless you're Cruz. "I mean, he could go 0-for-7. But they better be seven good at-bats."

Narron gets it. As he says, "I was Jacob Cruz." Narron walked the same wire, danced the same nervous cha-cha every spring. The Reds manager averaged 105 at-bats in his eight-year major-league career. The happiest day of the year was when his manager told him he'd made the club.

"If we're in the World Series this year, there will probably be more pressure on Jacob Cruz this spring than there would be in October," Narron says. How ironic it would be if Narron had to tell Cruz he'd been released.

It's not just that Cruz comes in cold. He comes in cold usually in the eighth or ninth inning, against a hot starter, a top set-up man or the opposing team's closer. Regulars get shots at lousy starters, tired starters and starters having a bad day. Cruz gets 97 mph on the outside corner.

Brad Lidge tonight. Jason Isringhausen tomorrow. Go get 'em, kid.

Regulars get 50 at-bats every few weeks. Cruz gets 50 at-bats in three months. "And that's what your livelihood is based on," he says. Stand and deliver and "you're eating filet mignon." Fail "and you're eating Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Regulars make lots and lots of money. Cruz has a split contract. He gets major-league money if he's on the major-league club. "You wish you could come in here with the peace of mind a lot of these guys have. It hasn't happened," he says.

To do what Cruz does, you have to lift more mental weight than a Mensa convention. One bad day down here and your shoulders sag for a month, from the weight of dread. Only you can't let that happen, or it might affect how you do in the next at-bat. Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't have to worry about taking a third strike in a game in March.

The routine is the same, day after day. As a player. Narron would come to the ballpark every day and prepare as if he were batting third. Cruz watches the first inning from the clubhouse, so he can study the opposing starting pitcher on TV. By the fifth, he's stretching. In the sixth, he drinks a cup of coffee. Maybe he likes being nervous.

"I drank coffee in the sixth once, then got a big hit," Cruz says. "I just kept doing it."

He keeps his own starting pitcher's pitch count. Once the starter gets close to 80 pitches, or the game hits the seventh inning, Cruz will go hit in the indoor cage. Narron saves Cruz for the at-bat he feels is most decisive. It's almost always the eighth or ninth inning. "He could sit in this clubhouse a week, then go out there and give you a good at-bat," Narron says.

That's because Cruz understands life in the major-league margins, and accepts it. He keeps cool because if he didn't, he'd lose his mind.

Just something to think about when you're thinking these guys have it made.


03-07-2006, 08:07 PM
Monday, March 6, 2006
Cruz no pinch quitter

SARASOTA, Fla. - Jacob Cruz watched the transaction list and watched as his job security was chipped away.

"They signed every left-handed hitter from Japan to Latin America - literally," Cruz said.

And parts elsewhere, he might have added.

New Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky signed Scott Hatteberg, Timo Perez, Tuffy Rhodes and Quinton McCracken in the days before spring training.

All are left-handed hitters with the exception of McCracken, who is a switch-hitter.

Cruz understands.

"Job security for a pinch hitter doesn't exist," Cruz said, "except for guys like Lenny Harris and John Vander Wal."

Case in point: Cruz is in camp on a minor-league contract for the fourth straight year, even though he spent almost all of the last two seasons in the big leagues.

"It's the same every year," he said. "Great year, good luck next year."

Cruz did have a great year by pinch-hitting standards. He set the Reds' franchise record with 20 pinch-hits. He also led the major leagues in pinch hits. He tied Tony Clark and Alex Cintron, both of Arizona, for the major-league lead with three pinch-hit home runs.

Reds manager Jerry Narron appreciates what Cruz can do.

"I know he can sit in that clubhouse for a week, then give us a good at-bat," Narron said. "As far as knowing his role and staying ready, he's outstanding."

Most of Cruz's at-bats came as a pinch-hitter last season. He was 20-for-76 (.263) with three homers and 11 RBI as a pinch hitter. He was 10-for-51 (.196) with a home run and seven RBI in his other at-bats. Cruz made only 13 starts on the year.

Still, as Narron said, Cruz manages to stay sharp.

"I just keep hitting," he said. "I'll hit in the cage during the game. I'll go down to the bullpen to watch guys warm up. I'll stand in against guys to keep my eyes sharp."

"Anything I can do to simulate at-bats," added Cruz.

Cruz, 33, was once a hot prospect. The San Francisco Giants picked him 32nd overall in the 1993 draft after an All-American career at Arizona State.

Cruz led the Pacific Coast League in hitting (.361) in 1997.

But he has never been a regular in the big leagues. The 147 at-bats he got in 2004 with the Reds were a career-high.

Each spring Cruz gets all the at-bats he wants. He was not on the Reds' trip to Tampa to play the New York Yankees on Saturday. Missing a spring road game is a rarity for him.

"First time ever," he said. "It felt weird. I thought I was fired."

Cruz keeps his humor. He is one of the easiest-going, approachable players in the Reds clubhouse. Spanish is his first language but his English is flawless, so he often helps Latin players with life issues.

Cruz probably will find a job elsewhere if things don't work out with the Reds.

"I don't think that far in advance," he said. "I just go day-by-day. You've got 40, 50 at-bats to prove yourself in spring. It's a tough gig."

Cruz is off to a good start. He had three hits and four walks in his first three spring games.

Cruz's disadvantage is Hatteberg is on a major league contract, so he's safe. McCracken and Perez can do more things as far as defense and baserunning. Rhodes showed great power in his 10 years in Japan.

Cruz's advantage is Narron knows what he can do.

"He's going to give you a good at-bat every time," Narron said.

That will often do in a pinch.


03-08-2006, 11:52 AM
I have a lot of respect for Jacob Cruz. He has the toughest job in baseball yet does it quietly and consistently with no complaints. I cannot even imagine the amount of preparation he puts into his job on a daily basis. I would also imagine he is one of the leaders in the clubhouse, especially to the Latin players. And considering some of his wife's health problems that came to light last year it's even more impressive he can stay focused and produce like he does.

He is one "veteran player" that I don't mind Jerry Narron keeping around.

03-08-2006, 11:54 AM
Gina, Jacob, Junior and the Judge.