After he got done extolling Julio Cruz as the consummate teammate, and a huge contributor to his own success at the plate, Ruppert Jones declared: “Julio Cruz was fearless!”
And then: “I’m going to tell you a story I don’t tell many people. Nolan Ryan may get mad if he hears it.”
I heard lots of Julio Cruz stories on Wednesday, in the wake of his passing at the far too young age of 67. They all painted the picture of a man beloved within the sport who lived a noble life outside of it.
Cruz died of cancer, at home in the Seattle area with his family, who remembered him — as everyone who met Cruz did — as a man of great humor and kindness.
And also, Jones reminded, a man without fear during a distinguished 10-year career that made Cruz — along with Jones — one of the earliest icons of the Mariners franchise. Cruz was called up to the big leagues in July of Seattle’s inaugural 1977 season, seized the second-base job, and held it until the Mariners traded Cruz to the White Sox in June of 1983 (where he helped drive Chicago to the division title).
It seems the Mariners were playing the Angels some time in the late 1970s, and the great flamethrower Ryan was on the mound, protecting a three-run lead in the late innings. Craig Reynolds, Seattle’s No. 9 hitter, had the temerity to lay down a bunt.
“Nolan Ryan didn’t like it when you bunted on him,” Jones said.
Angels third baseman Dave Chalk threw out Reynolds, but Cruz knew what was coming. Sure enough: A pitch thrown behind him that clanked off the backstop on the fly. Surely, Ryan made his point, right?
“The next pitch, Julio turns around like he’s going to bunt,” Jones said. “Ball two. Nolan Ryan throws the next pitch behind Julio again. Ball three. Nolan walks Julio. Julio gets on first, he steals second on the first pitch. He steals third on the second pitch. That’s all you need to know about Julio.”
Cruz had such a big personality, it warranted two nicknames: Cruiser, and Juice. Said Mariners senior vice president and special adviser to the chairman and CEO Randy Adamack, who joined the expansion franchise in 1978, its second season: “Julio always had a sparkle in his eye. I think ‘Juice’ was just because he always had this extra energy, and you could feel it. You could see it. You could hear it in talking to him.”
Cruz, who was of Puerto Rican heritage and grew up in Brooklyn, became one of the Mariners’ Spanish-language broadcasters in 2003, a job he held through the 2021 season. When I interviewed him in ’03 for a story on transitioning to radio, Cruz said: “I want an Emmy, or the Vin Scully award. The only 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.”
That was Julio, who I never saw without a smile and kind word, even when life was throwing him a Ryanesque fastball behind his back. His first wife, Rebecca, died of cancer in 2007, leaving him as the single father of three sons, Austin, Alexander and Jourdan. Julio, who was living with his second wife, Mojgan, at the time of his death, had his own health issues over the years, including painful knees from playing on the hard Kingdome AstroTurf.
“He was what we all strive to want to be,” said Cruz’s Mariner teammate, relief pitcher Bill Caudill. “He was always positive, always upbeat. Never had a negative thing to say about anybody, but always uplifted your day. He was just that type of guy.”
Like Cruz, Caudill settled in the Seattle area, and the two teamed up to coach Eastside Catholic’s baseball team for several years, beginning in 1999.
“The great thing about him was that he was so good with all the young men,” Caudill said. “He’d take extra time to really show these young men how to field the ball and play the game. He really was an ambassador of baseball, and I think all the kids really loved him for what he did. Anybody who met Julio Cruz walked away knowing they will always remember him, I guarantee it.”
Cruz was certainly remembered as one of the shining lights of those struggling early Mariner teams that lost 98, 104, 95 and 103 games in their first four seasons. He was a prolific base stealer who tied the American League record with 32 consecutive steals in 1980-81, and stands No. 2 behind Ichiro in Mariners history with 290 steals.
He was a brilliant glove man at second base, at one point teaming with slick-fielding shortstop Todd Cruz to form what was dubbed “The Cruz connection.” It was Julio Cruz who in 1982 made the final out of Gaylord Perry’s 300th win on a Willie Randolph ground ball. Cruz made four or five steps toward first base before throwing the ball and quipped, “I was trying to find the dry side to make a throw. Gaylord had so much Vaseline on the ball it was almost impossible.”
But Cruz at second base was no joke. He led the league in fielding percentage in 1978, was tops in assists three times, and was renowned for his leaping pivots on double plays — even when no runner was bearing down on him. Cruz’s leaping ability is legendary. Adamack recalls him jumping from the floor onto a stage while flat-footed, while Hall of Famer Harold Baines, a teammate of Cruz’s with the White Sox, said: “I remember he used to jump from the dugout floor up to the top step before each game. That was four or five steps, an athletic feat!”
Caudill said that when he was going for a save, he’d try to induce ground balls up the middle that the Cruzes would gobble up.
“Julio turns some double plays for me that I still can’t really believe they were turned,” Caudill said.
Another Mariners pitcher from that era, Glenn Abbott, echoed that sentiment.
“He was one of the best second basemen I ever had play behind me,” Abbott said. “He’s the type guy, you wanted them to hit the ball to him. I enjoyed having him for a teammate, because he played hard every day, and he loved playing the game.”
As Cruz’s agent in his playing days, Tony Attanasio, said in an email: “Julio was a warm, giving guy who played with every ounce of his body.”
Cruz’s success on the field is well-remembered. But it is the warm and giving part that is most cherished.
Asked if he had any final thoughts, Caudill replied: “Just make sure you say, ‘I love Cruiser.’”