© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
04/27/06 5:11 PM ET
Good times, old times and swing tips
Dodgers outfielders Cruz and Ledee share more than heritage
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. remembers the spring afternoon in 1996 like it was yesterday. It was a sunny day in Mesa, Ariz., and HoHoKam Park, the Cubs' Spring Training facility, was packed as usual. Steve Trachsel was on the mound for Chicago, and the pitcher seemed to have an edge on the young Mariners outfielder that day -- not only in experience, but also because it was Cruz's first at-bat in his first big-league camp. He didn't. Cruz hit a home run. "It was a 1-2 fastball," Cruz, 32, said. "It was a long time ago, but I'll never forget it." Cruz, known around the league as "Cheito," spends more time laughing and having fun in the clubhouse than he does reminiscing about the past these days, but when he does decide to have a retrospective moment, it is usually with teammate Ricky Ledee, who lockers right next to him. Their bond should not come as a surprise. The son of Jose "Cheo" Cruz, Cruz Jr. has been in the spotlight since he was a child. Ledee was once considered the next "can't miss" prospect in the Yankees organization, so both know all about high expectations and challenges. During the last 10 years, they've learned how to accept their roles as players on the field, and as men off of it. There is a lot to talk about. "It's been a crazy ride, no doubt about it," Cruz said. "I guess you don't really see the bumps and bruises that are ahead, because you think everything will be fine and dandy, but it's definitely not like that. Playing this game is a big sacrifice, as far as family goes. It's big personal sacrifice, because you are putting your body on the line and taking the chance of not being able to function later on in your life or play with your kids the way you would like to." Born in Arroyo, Puerto Rico, and raised in Houston, Cruz Jr. was destined to play baseball. After dominating the youth leagues, he shined at Bellaire High School and later at Rice University in Houston. While at Rice, he earned three All-American selections, and he established 15 school records. He was selected to play for Team USA in 1994 and was later selected by Seattle third overall in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft. He became the fourth man in his family to play in the big leagues when he made his debut in 1997. Cruz Sr. hit .284 in 2,353 Major League games with the Astros, Cardinals and Yankees from 1970-88, while his brothers Tommy Cruz and Hector Cruz also played in the Major Leagues during the '70s. Cruz Sr. racked up 2,251 hits, 1,077 RBIs and scored 1,036 runs during his 18-year career. He is now a coach with the Astros. This season, Cruz Jr. is hitting .250 with one home run and four RBIs in 22 games. For his career, he has 194 home runs and 589 RBIs in 1,195 games. He has a career batting average of .250. "I'm not in competition with my Dad," Cruz Jr. said. "I know a lot of people are in competition with their father or relatives, but I don't think that way. I'm trying to do the best I can do, and when I look back, I'll know I gave it my all and, hopefully, I will have some decent numbers to show for it." He just might get his wish. "Cheito" has a history of success. Cruz Jr. was traded from Seattle to Toronto during the 1997 season and finished second to current teammate Nomar Garciaparra, then with Boston, in the American League Rookie of the Year vote that year. He went on to spend six seasons with the Blue Jays and won a Gold Glove with San Francisco in 2003. He bounced from Tampa Bay (2004) to Arizona (2005) to Los Angeles this season.
The changes of scenery have taught him how to adjust. They've also reminded him that baseball is a business, and almost anybody can play for any team at almost any time. Baseball has also reinforced what is really important in his life -- his family.
"It's wild, but it's what I love to do," he said. "You are, basically, living the dream, but it is so much work."
"L.A. is a different story, because there is more media. It's nothing like Arizona or Tampa," he continued. "You are in the public eye a little bit more, but it's cool. Seems like people are really concerned about what you do and what you say, but it's fun."
Want fun? Watch Cruz and Ledee laugh all day. The two first met while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico in the mid-1990s and stayed friends over the years while playing against each other. Their bond has grown this season in Los Angeles.
They talk about Puerto Rico and family. They also talk shop. When Cruz needs a hitting tip or looks like he is heading for a slump, Ledee is there to advise him. Cruz does the same for Ledee.
"We let each other know right away," Ledee, 32, said. "We want each other to have good seasons."
This season, Ledee, a part-time player and pinch-hitter, is hitting .286 with one home run and seven RBIs in 18 games. For his career, he is hitting .247 with 61 home runs and 310 RBIs in 786 games.
Signed in 1990 out of Ponce, Puerto Rico, as a highly touted prospect by the Yankees, some expected more from the outfielder, but Ledee is proud to say he has always given his all. The effort was there in New York for three seasons, starting in 1998 and continuing through 2000, when he was traded to Cleveland and later to Texas the same season.
In the spring of 2001, Ledee had surgery on his hamstring and was later traded from Texas to Philadelphia during the season. While with the Phillies, his transformation from everyday player to role player went into overdrive, albeit unexpectedly.
This is his second season with the Dodgers.
"Baseball, itself, teaches you lessons," Ledee said. "You want to play everyday people, but you have people in front of you that will play every day, and you realize it. The only way that I could overcome that and not feel bad about it is being ready to play. I made up my mind and from that point on, I have been fine."
Having his buddy "Cheito" around helps, especially on the days when Ledee is feeling anxious about playing time or lack there of. Ledee recently joked about suiting up for the Tijuana team in the Mexican League on off-days to get in a few extra at-bats.
He was kidding.
"I still come to the stadium early, and I keep working on things," Ledee said. "If I get my opportunity, I will be ready, because I have not been wasting my time."
He's not kidding.
|"I'm not in competition with my Dad. I know a lot of people are in competition with their father or relatives, but I don't think that way. I'm trying to do the best I can do, and when I look back, I'll know I gave it my all and, hopefully, I will have some decent numbers to show for it."|
|-- Jose Cruz Jr.|
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.