Larry Stone: Early Mariners icon Julio Cruz left a lasting legacy on and off the field | national
After finishing touting Julio Cruz as an accomplished teammate and a huge contributor to his own success at the plate, Ruppert Jones said, “Julio Cruz was scared of nothing!”
And then: “I’m going to tell you a story that I don’t tell a lot of people. Nolan Ryan might get mad if he hears it.”
I heard a lot of stories from Julio Cruz on Wednesday, following his passing at the far too young age of 67. They all painted a picture of a man loved in the sport who lived a noble life outside of it.
Cruz died of cancer, at his home in the Seattle area with his family, who remembered him – like everyone who met him – as a man of humor and kindness.
And also, recalled Jones, a fearless man during a glittering 10-year career that made Cruz — along with Jones — one of the Mariners franchise’s earliest icons. Cruz was called up to the major leagues in July of Seattle’s inaugural season in 1977, took the second baseman position and held it until the Mariners traded Cruz to the White Sox in June 1983 (where he helped lead Chicago to the division title).
It looks like the Mariners were playing the Angels in the late 1970s, and flamethrower big Ryan was on the mound, protecting a three-run lead late in the inning. Craig Reynolds, Seattle’s No. 9 hitter, had the temerity to bunt.
“Nolan Ryan didn’t like it when you didn’t care about him,” Jones said.
Angels third baseman Dave Chalk kicked out Reynolds, but Cruz knew what was coming. Sure enough: a throw thrown behind him that clicked the backstop on the fly. Surely Ryan made his point, didn’t he?
“The next pitch, Julio turns around like he’s going to bunt,” Jones said. “Ball two. Nolan Ryan throws the next pitch again behind Julio. Ball three. Nolan walks Julio. Julio passes the first, he steals the second on the first pitch. He steals the third on the second pitch. That’s all you need to know about Julio.”
Cruz had such a big personality that he deserved two nicknames: Cruiser and Juice. Said Mariners senior vice president and special adviser to the president 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 still had that extra energy, and you could feel it. You could see it. You could hear it talking to him.
Cruz, who was of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Brooklyn, became one of the Mariners’ Spanish-language broadcasters in 2003, a position he held through the 2021 season. When I interviewed him in 2003 for an article about the transition to radio, Cruz said, “I want an Emmy, or the Vin Scully award. The only thing is, most Latinos are of Mexican descent, and some of my words are I speak some kind of Puerto Rican slang. I could get in trouble. You might hear a lot of beeps. People will think it’s Ozzy Osbourne.
It was Julio, whom I never saw without a smile and a kind word, even when life threw a Ryanesque fastball at his back. His first wife, Rebecca, died of cancer in 2007, leaving him a 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 knee pain while playing the tough Kingdome AstroTurf.
“He was what we all strive to be,” Cruz’s Mariner teammate, relief pitcher Bill Caudill, said. “He was always positive, always upbeat. He never had anything negative to say about anyone, but he always brightened up your day. He was exactly that kind of guy.”
Like Cruz, Caudill settled in the Seattle area and the two teamed up to coach the Eastside Catholic baseball team for several years, beginning in 1999.
“The great thing about him was he was so good with all the young men,” Caudill said. “It would take more time to really show these young men how to line up the ball and play the game. He was truly an ambassador for baseball, and I think all the kids really loved him for what he did. Anyone who has met Julio Cruz left knowing they will always remember him, I guarantee that.”
Cruz is 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 interceptions in 1980-81, and ranks No. 2 behind Ichiro in Mariners history with 290 interceptions.
He was a brilliant glove man at second base, at one point teaming up with shortstop Todd Cruz to form what was dubbed “The Cruz Connection”. It was Julio Cruz who, in 1982, won Gaylord Perry’s 300th victory on a ground ball from Willie Randolph. Cruz took four or five steps to first base before throwing the ball and joked, “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, led the field three times in assists and was renowned for his leaping pivots on double plays – even when no runners were rushing at him. Cruz’s jumping ability is legendary. Adamack remembers him jumping off the floor on a stage when he was flat-footed, while Hall of Famer Harold Baines, a teammate of Cruz with the White Sox, said: “I remember he had the used to jump from the floor of the dugout to the top step before every game. It was four or five steps, an athletic feat!”
Caudill said when he attempted a save, he tried to induce ground balls in the middle that the Cruzes would gobble up.
“Julio is shooting double plays for me that I still can’t believe were shot,” Caudill said.
Another Mariners pitcher from that era, Glenn Abbott, echoed that sentiment.
“He was one of the best second basemen I’ve ever had behind me,” Abbott said. “He’s the type of guy, you wanted them to hit the ball on him. I liked having him as a teammate because he played hard every day and he loved to play.”
As Cruz’s agent during his playing days, Tony Attanasio, said in an email, “Julio was a warm, generous guy who played with every ounce of his body.”
Cruz’s success on the field is well known. But it is the warm and generous part that is the most expensive.
When asked if he had any final thoughts, Caudill replied, “Just be sure to say, ‘I love Cruiser’.”