Ten years have passed since Jose Cruz Jr. last played in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform, and four years since he made his last major league appearance in 2008. His major league career started in Seattle and ended as a player for his hometown Houston Astros; but it was in Toronto where Jose played his best baseball as the centre fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.
As the son of a former player Jose was drafted by Seattle and joined a team that featured Ken Griffey Jr. Edgar Martinez and a young Alex Rodriguez. Shortly after his debut in 1997 he was traded to Toronto for pitchers Paul Spoljaric, and Mike Timlin.
One year after his arrival, and in his first full season in Toronto, Jose Cruz Jr and a Blue Jays team that was stacked with the likes of Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, and Carlos Delgado, won eighty-eight games. Unfortunately for the Jays, the Yankees won a record 114 games that season and the eighty-eight wins were only good enough for third in the AL East, and second in the wild card race; four games behind the Boston Red Sox.
Though some of his teammates on the ’98 team have gained notoriety since their retirement, Jose managed to stay grounded and focused during a tumultuous time in baseball. He is not the athlete who grabbed headlines and attention with his actions and though he was never an all-star, or world champion, he has accomplished something possibly far more rare in professional sports; he has defied a divorce rate he describes as “ridiculous” and remained married to the woman he married in 1999.
Like many retirees both in and out of baseball, Jose has moved to Florida and spends a lot of time golfing, but don’t let the golf hat and sun tan fool you, Jose Cruz Jr. is not ready to walk away from baseball just yet. Now, as an MLB analyst for ESPN, Jose offers his insight and experience to the “big leagues” of sports media.
Jose was recently in Toronto to sub in for the vacationing Greg Zaun on Jays Connected. I caught up with the former Blue Jay to ask him about his time in Toronto, playing in the “steroid era”, and life after baseball.
Jose Cruz Jr. Interview:
What has it been like for you to come back to Toronto after all these years?
I got recognized by the customs guy as soon as I got to the airport here. I walked on the field yesterday felt weird because this was a big percentage of my life, now I am walking over here to do this Sportsnet thing. My growing up process was here; as a player and as a man.
In 1998 you played for one of the better baseball teams we have seen in Toronto since 92/93. What was that season like for you?
It was great. We started winning after we traded some guys. We had Mike Stanley on there, who I think got traded to Boston and Tony Phillips, who was also a good player. All of a sudden I got called up, then I got sent down, then called up, and then we went on this hot streak.
Then we had issues with the manager (Tim Johnson) about if he had gone to Vietnam.
How did that affect the team?
It creates havoc. At the end of the day, you are trying to do the best you can to produce, but it becomes more of a selfish game as opposed to that gelling of a team to win. The manager can cause chaos coming into the clubhouse.
At one point in the 1998 season some you dyed your hair blonde? Delgado, Gonzalez, Green… Whose idea was that?
I know that I was amongst those guys talking about it. I must have been one of the first guys to do it, then Carlos showed up, then Greeny, and Alex. It was a fun thing. Then two days later Carlos shaved his head and I’m like; “What do you mean man!? I’m not shaving my hair. I gotta ride this out.”
Joe Torre describes the historic 1998 Yankees as a completely selfless team, where no individual was concerned with personal stats, but always put the team first. Were you ever on a team with that sort of atmosphere?
The only time that I remember it being like that was in the WBC (World Baseball Classic) when I played for Puerto Rico. That was great. As a professional, that was probably the most fun I had. It’s really hard to say something like that, I think, on a baseball team because you’re judged individually. At the end of the day, you are trying to do the best you can, because if the team does great, that’s wonderful, but if you stink and your numbers don’t add up; you’re gone. If you do great and the team does horrible, they’re probably gonna keep you.
You can’t be satisfied; you’re always fighting something. Whether it’s the pitcher, a coach, the media, your demons, whatever, you’re fighting something out there. Defense is team, and offense boils down to the individual.
Canseco and Clemons have been in some trouble since retiring and a lot of the focus is around their time in Toronto.
It’s funny, all those things happened right underneath our noses. I was talking to some of the guys and we didn’t have any idea. I was never into any of that stuff. I didn’t know personally, but I’ve never seen a guy that big. He (Canseco) was big, and he was very strong and he’s funny. He’s very good, as far as entertainment value.
Toronto is known as a good party town. Were you are party guy when you were here in Toronto?
No, I’m still not a party guy. I guess that kept me out of harm’s way while I was here. I rarely went out in Toronto. I kept it together, I’m married and that kept me grounded.
I got married in ’99 and still married to the same girl. That’s a gigantic feat for any major leaguer I think. The divorce rate is ridiculous.
What were your favourite cities to visit?
I couldn’t stand going to New York, until I went to New York without having to play baseball.
I thought Seattle was great. I go there every summer for three to six weeks. I love Whistler. It’s one of my favourite places on earth. There’s mountain biking, zip lining, and a bunch of golf.
Seems like every pro athlete is a golfer, when did you pick that up?
I didn’t golf until I retired. Out of boredom I golfed with Alex Gonzalez and liked it and I was hooked. The whole game, every shot, the approach to the hole, the architecture of the course; I love the whole thing about it. It’s probably one of the sports I follow the most.
Sabermetrics has changed how players are evaluated. Was that something that was around when you played?
I think that’s been going on for a bit, but it really started to take hold later in the early 2000’s. In the late 90’s they started paying attention and then the whole ‘Moneyball’ thing also helped it get out. It’s one of those things that you either hate it or love it.
Which are you?
I don’t think you can look at numbers and win ball games. I think ball players win ball games. A lot of what these guys do is judge someone based on numbers and there is a lot of ways to improve and get better and they don’t take that into consideration; it doesn’t matter.
Where you ever on a team with the “Moneyball” philosophy of the GM?
Yeah, out here. Once J.P. Ricciardi got here that’s when it was like that. I stole thrity bases one year and then the next I couldn’t steal anymore. Buck got very upset at me because I was trying to steal some bases and so they shut me down. They said “you can only steal when I give you the green light, in certain situations, once the guy had two strikes..” and it became very tough.
To me it doesn’t make any sense why you wouldn’t try and steal a base if it’s given. Take it. Take what’s there. It’s called baseball.
Baseball is still a big part of your life but what else do you have going on?
I am trying to finish my school. I was enrolled in the University of Miami in the fall and spring, and I think I am going to be done by next spring.
I did that plus I have three kids, so the whole week is done before it even starts.
What’s your major?
Is managing or a front office job something you want to do in the future?
I think just having that degree opens more doors; there’s more potential in what I can do. Whether it be front office or maybe coaching collegiately. I can’t coach collegiately unless I have it. I think it enhances me and what I can do and broadens my horizons.
At what point in your career did you start thinking about life after baseball?
I always thought long-term, maybe because my dad played for a while, but I always had that long-term vision about it. I put aside a percentage of my cheque and invested it.
What I realize now is that you have such opportunity as a player to meet interesting people and make great relationships in certain cities and certain places that you don’t get when you’re out of baseball. You just need to do a good job during baseball to get that.
What would you have done differently?
I would have taken failure a little bit better. Not that I would have surrendered to it or anything but I would’ve accepted it better. And I would’ve been more outgoing.
How would have that have helped?
I think if you have a long-term view, the relationships you create early in your career and as you keep going, they are meaningful especially if you’re genuine. I’ve met plenty of people after I was done that were like “Oh my god I remember when you were playing and you were so nice and generous to me” when they were coming up and now are like; “whatever you need” or “you came and signed an autograph for my kid” or whatever and that guy is a big time CEO. You don’t realize it as a player, because so many people are trying to get something out of you and become a little standoffish. A lot players don’t have the perspective to be able to see the big picture and treat the fans and people with a certain type of appreciation.
Is TV something you want to keep doing?
You know, it’s been fun man. I enjoy it, there is a lot of things that I didn’t know worked like they did. They way they create the content, the way they work the content, the timeframes, how fast it is, It’s fast man, so fast. I did the stuff here at Sportsnet, and it was a walk in the park compared to ESPN, that was torture man the first couple days it was just so fast.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know what’s next. Trying to to finish my school, keep going with the ESPN gig, which has been very fun, and see how I can come to Toronto more.