Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#464 - Jose Cruz

This card represents the last one of Jose Cruz in an unadulterated Cardinals uniform. On his ’75 card he would be air-brushed into an Astros cap with maybe the biggest star in Topps history. Up until now, Jose had shown some skills – good defense, good hustle, some nice stats in the minors – but nothing that really foreshadowed his years of success in Houston. His biggest moment in ’73 may have been when he and his two siblings – Hector and Tommy – were reunited on the team in September although all three never played in the same game. ’73 represented both a high and low for Jose’s time in St. Louis: high because he asserted himself as the regular center fielder and set most of his offensive personal highs with the team; low because he hit only .227 and the late-season emergence of Bake McBride would push him to a reserve role the following year. But a little-regarded transaction late in ’74 would fix everything pretty quickly.

Jose “Cheo” Cruz and his brothers – Jose was the oldest – grew up in Arroyo, Puerto Rico from where Jose was signed shortly after graduating high school by the Cards in ’67. He showed some speed that summer in A ball with nine triples in just over 200 at bats and the next year upped his numbers across the board at the same level. After a solid ’69 in Double A he took off at that level in ’70 and recorded an OBA of .386 with a lifetime seasonal high of 21 homers. He made his debut for the Cards in September and hit well in his few games. After an even stronger start to his ’71 in Triple A he came up for good halfway through that season.

When Cruz came up in mid-’71 he got the starting job in center field, forcing the trade of incumbent Jose Cardenal to the Brewers.  This Jose did a pretty good job his rookie year, posting a .377 OBA while homering nine times, a rate he wouldn’t approach again until he moved to Houston. But in ’72 his average fell 40 points as he and Luis Melendez, who was a couple years younger, traded starts in center. Then in ’73 most of his offensive stats picked up considerably but his average didn’t and when Bake McBride had a hot debut after his call-up both Jose and Melendez were pushed to reserve roles in ’74, though Jose had a nice rebound in his average. Shortly after the season he was sold to Houston in a deal that ended up being a steal for the Astros.

1975 was a totally crappy year for the Astros as their pitching sort of blew up and they fell to the bottom of their division. But the team was rife with young speedy outfielders and his first season in Houston Cruz split time in right field with Wilbur Howard. While Howard hit .283 to Jose’s .257 and stole 32 bases to Jose’s six, Cruz was more efficient at the plate, recording a much higher OBA on way less strikeouts. So in ’76 when the outfield was moved around a bit Jose became the regular guy in left and rewarded everyone with the move by hitting .303 with 61 RBI’s and 28 stolen bases. In ’77 the average fell a couple points to .299 as Jose moved across to right but just about every other stat moved up big with ten triples, 17 homers, 87 RBI’s and 44 steals. From then on he was an institution in Houston. In ’78 he hit .315 followed by a .289 in ’79 with comparable other stats to his ’77. In ’80 he hit .302 with his first year of over 90 RBI’s and got his first All-Star appearance as the rest of the baseball world finally caught on. He finished third in NL MVP voting  and got his first playoff action, lighting up the Phillies with a .400 average and .609 OBA. In ’81 slumps at the beginning and end of the strike year bookended a strong middle and his average fell to .267 as his stolen base totals tumbled. In ’82 he recovered to .275 and then in ’83 he had his best offensive year: an NL-leading 189 hits to hit .318 with a .385 OBA, 14 homers, and 92 RBI’s and his first Silver Slugger. ’84 was pretty much a repeat: .312, .381, twelve homers, and 95 RBI’s for another Silver Slugger and another All-Star nod. In ‘85 he had his first significant injury with a dislocated toe in his left foot but recovered to hit .300. The next year Houston returned to the playoffs but Jose spent some time on the DL with a sprained ligament in his knee, curtailing his numbers, though he had a strong finish, hitting .278. After he slumped to .241 in ’87 he left Houston as the career Astros leader in most offensive categories to sign as a free agent with the Yankees at age 40. With NY he DH’d a few games before hanging them up. For his career Jose hit .284 with 2,251 hits, 165 homers, 1,077 RBI’s, 317 stolen bases (against only 136 times being caught), and a .354 OBA. He is currently 22nd in all-time putouts in left field and 32nd in assists. In the post-season he hit .279 with a .380 OBA and six RBI’s in 16 games.

After playing baseball Cruz pretty much retired, occasionally coaching in Puerto Rico, but mostly teaching his son Jose Jr. – who went on to have a twelve year career of his own – to play ball. In ’95 he formally returned to baseball in the States as manager of Laredo in the new unaffiliated Texas-Louisiana league. After going 17-32 he took a year off and when Larry Dierker was named manager of Houston in ’97 he asked Jose to be a coach. Cheo lasted in that role for 13 seasons, as both a first base and hitting coach. In 2009 in a staff shake-up in the wake of Cecil Cooper’s release as manager, Jose moved upstairs as an assistant to the GM and a community-relations person. He is still in that position with the Astros.

Jose could be a streaky guy as the first star bullet implies. Pretty much every season he had hitting streaks of ten games or more. He may have the shortest name in the set that includes the parenthetical name.

The St. Louis contribution to the ’76 baseball centennial was not Bob Gibson’s overpowering Series performances but another impressive personal achievement: Lou Brock’s 105th stolen base in 1974. In the year that Brock went on to establish his record of 118 steals, that one broke the record set in ’62 by Maury Wills. He set the mark September 10th, in a game against the Phillies. He stole his 104th in the first inning after a single off Dick Ruthven of the Phillies and the record breaker in the seventh in pretty much the same situation. The next night the Cards played the Mets in that 25-inning marathon so Lou was a busy boy back then.

I can be a bit streaky myself in this exercise and I’m going to use a guy from the last hook-up:

1. Cruz and Cliff Johnson ’75 to ’77 Astros;
2. Johnson and Chris Chambliss ’77 to ’79 Yankees;
3. Chambliss and Pat Dobson ’74 to ’75 Yankees.

No comments:

Post a Comment