I met Julio Cruz exactly three times – once in the clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium when he was a member of the Seattle Mariners.
The other times came years later. He had long since retired. His onetime home city, which had been Redlands, was near Seattle. Someone had convinced him to come back for an off-season baseball clinic at Community Field.
A few years later, Julio was inducted into the newly-formed Redlands High School Terrier Hall of Fame.
Brooklyn-born. Moved to Redlands. Graduated. Headed for San Bernardino Valley College. Signed as a free agent. California Angels. That was just the beginning.
Julio hit .237 over nine seasons in the major league. He is, indeed, a Hall of Famer. In Redlands. The guy has taken part in some of baseball’s greatest moments.
Sports Editor Jeff Lane, my predecessor at the Redlands newspaper, had done plenty on Julio during his five-year stint. Julio was a popular product. To that point, no Redlands player had ever drifted their way from that city into the major leagues.
Ed Vande Berg, a southpaw pitcher, would be next. In fact, the two would eventually be teammates in Seattle.
Julio, a 1972 Redlands High graduate, played at nearby San Bernardino Valley. Though undrafted, he was signed by the California Angels on May 7, 1974 as a free agent.
The Angels sent him into their minor league system. As a 19-year-old, he batted .241 for Idaho Falls of the Rookie League in 1974. On he went, right up the Angels’ chain – .261 for Quad Cities, .307 for Salinas, .327 for El Paso and .246 for Salt Lake City at age 22.
EXPANSION — A REAL BREAK FOR CRUZ
The American League, about to expand from 10 teams to 12 teams by 1977, had to make players available in a draft pool. Julio, left unprotected by the Angels, who had ex-Red Sox second baseman Jerry Remy at the MLB level. No room for Julio.
While Julio batted .366 for Hawaii of the Pacific Coast League – stashed with the Padres’ chain while Seattle organized its minor league system – it wouldn’t be long before he got his shot at the major leagues.
On Nov. 5, 1976, Julio had been the 52nd player taken in the American League expansion draft when two new franchises appeared in the American League – Seattle and Toronto.
Suddenly, he was suddenly a Mariner.
In a curious draft footnote, pitcher Butch Edge was taken by Toronto out of Milwaukee’s chain. Edge would eventually wind up in Redlands years later as the University of Redlands’ men’s golf coach.
Other players taken in the draft included Pete Vuckovich being plucked away from the White Sox by Toronto. Vuckovich would eventually wind up with the Brewers, winning the 1982 Cy Young Award.
As for Julio, he quickly turned into a Seattle stalwart. Longing for star players, Julio’s base-stealing skills turned him into a popular Mariner.
He stole 59 bases in 1978, then swiped 49, 45, 43 and 46 bags over the next four seasons. What’s lost in those numbers is that he stole 49 in just 107 games in 1979. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, he stole 43 times in 94 games.
If there was a weakness to his game, Julio’s on-base-percentage was awfully low – his highest at .363 in ’79 – but he put a lot of bunts in play to try and get on base.
There were some decent hitters in Seattle – Al Cowens, Richie Zisk, Dave Henderson, Willie Horton, Bruce Bochte, Ruppert Jones, among others – with pitchers like future White Sox teammate Floyd Bannister and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry playing in Seattle with Julio.
In fact, Julio was on the field on May 6, 1982 when Perry (10-12 that season) won his 300th game. He beat the Yankees in the Kingdome to notch this milestone victory.
In fact, it was Cruz who fielded the grounder off Willie Randolph for the final out.
TRADED TO THE CHISOX
On June 30, 1983 — MLB’s trading deadline — Cruz was swapped to the Chicago White Sox for second baseman Tony Bernazard. The results of that trade might’ve been the impetus for the ChiSox vaulting to an American League Western Division title by 20 games over Kansas City.
“Let’s Do It Again” was the theme for 1984. What the ChiSox did was fall back to fifth place, 14 games under .500.
General Manager Roland Hemond, who leveraged the Bernazard-for-Cruz swap, brought in pitcher Ron Reed and practically stole future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver from the Mets.
Their contributions weren’t enough to offset poor showings, perhaps reflected by 1983 ace pitchers Lamarr Hoyt (13-18) and Rich Dotson (14-15) one season later.
There were 54,032 fans at Yankee Stadium when Seaver beat the Yankees for his 300th career win. Cruz, in the dugout batting less than .180, wasn’t part of that ChiSox 4-1 triumph.
On the field, though, were Hall of Famers like Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, MVP Don Mattingly and, of course, Seaver. Managers Tony La Russa and Billy Martin squared off against each other.
One night later, Cruz was back in the lineup, going 2-for-2 off Ron Guidry — caught stealing by Yankee catcher Butch Wynegar.
The ’85 White Sox club bounced back to win 85 games and actually led the division in June.
By 1986, the club was in disarray with new general manager Ken Harrelson, who had replaced Hemond, and manager Jim Fregosi. It would be four more seasons before the Chicago White Sox finished over .500.
Julio was living off an impressive free agent contract that was signed in December 1984, a six-year deal between $3.6 and $4.8 million. He never finished out his contract.
Julio played in 1,156 games; swiped 343 bases; don’t forget impressive .982 defense at second base.
Released by the White Sox in July 1987, Cruz signed as a free agent with Los Angeles. But the 1987 Dodgers already had a second baseman. Steve Sax would go on to lead his team to a World Series title a year later. Julio never actually played in L.A.
A TERRIER HALL OF FAME RETURN
He was part of the second class of Hall of Fame inductees at his former high school. In fact, Julio unwittingly opened the door to a humorous line given by fellow inductee Brian Billick, of Super Bowl fame.
Julio had spoken emotionally about his Terrier days. The memories. Boy, he had fun. The teams he’d played on. There was some success. The Terriers, with Cruz in the lineup, won the first Citrus Belt League title in 1971 — 44 years after their previous championship from 1927.
At the Redlands Hall of Fame podium, Cruz shared a memory.
“Just being in the showers with guys like Brian Billick was a thrill. Those were highlights for me. I’ll never get over that.”
Billick, the Terrier great defensive back/QB who was head coach of the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl, was being inducted the same night.
In fact, Billick broke the crowd up when he said, “Julio, it’s amazing to me that you felt like the highlight of your high school career was taking a shower with me.”
A few years before that Hall of Fame moment, Cruz, along with ex-major leaguer Rudy Law and Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins took part in a baseball clinic at Community Field. Former Pirates and Yankees pitcher Dock Ellis, I was told, showed up late.
Hundreds of youth had shown up for that historic event at the corner of Church and San Bernardino. This was a rare moment for local youth.
Dads let their kids know who this guy was. Julio Cruz, of Redlands. Former major leaguer. Little guy. Second baseman. Switch hitter. Lots of speed. Wanna be a big leaguer? Listen. Watch.
Jenkins and Law couldn’t have been more classy.
Julio, the ex-Terrier, knew he was at home.
They gave tips. They shared stories. They shook hands. Smiled. They signed autographs.
Julio became a coach. Broadcasting games for the Mariners, Julio Cruz took his Brooklyn-to-Redlands-to-Seattle-to-Chicago travels really well.
Why not a Terrier Hall of Famer? He fit the mold. While playing with, or against, all those MBL Hall of Famers, he played for one Cooperstown-bound manager, La Russa.
It was a diamond-style Redlands Connection.