Thursday, August 23, 2012
The power of two little pigs
By Mark Saxon
He gets a phone call every day. Sometimes, it’s originating in Mexico City. Other times, it’s coming from Monterrey, Reynosa or Saltillo.
When he answers his cell phone, it’s his father on the other end, always with a hitting tip.
“He’ll call me and say, ‘You’re jumpy,’ or, ‘Your bat’s doing this,’ or, ‘You’re doing this,’ “ Luis Cruz said. “It’s good for me to understand what he’s trying to say. He’s been doing that forever.”
Luis Cruz, the son, has been around baseball since he was 2 years old, about the time his father, also named Luis Cruz, began teaching him how to hit.The relationship hasn't really changed, and neither has the game, though they're separated now by thousands of miles. The father is the hitting coach of the Mexico City summer league team. The son has been one of the National League's hottest hitters for the past month.
They even share the same nickname, “El Cochito,” or the little pig, something else the son inherited from his father. The elder Cruz had two other baseball-playing brothers coming up through the amateur ranks, so people started calling them the Three Little Pigs.
The son has crossed a border -- both literal and figurative -- that his father never ventured across, at least not for long.
In 1983, Luis Alfonso Cruz, a promising young outfielder in the Mexican League, got an invitation to join the Milwaukee Brewers’ Double-A team. He turned it down, because he had a family to support and he would have had to take a pay cut and travel north to play minor-league ball. He went on to a 16-year career playing professionally in Mexico.
When he's not coaching the Diablos Rojos, he's often coaching a 28-year-old longtime minor leaguer who has brought a jolt of energy to what often is a listless Dodgers offense, and who happens to be his son. Luis Cruz the younger is batting .375 with runners in scoring position. His .352 average in August leads the team. His 23 RBIs since the All-Star break rank third on the Dodgers. And he’s making less than 1/20th what the guys above him are earning.
In other words, Cruz’s at-bats have been a fresh breeze in what is otherwise often a stagnant climate at Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers have lost 12 of their last 17 games. Fans chant, “Cruuuuuz” every time he bats or fields a ground ball at third base. "El Cochito" T-shirts are already in circulation. Players of Mexican origin have a way of quickly becoming folk heroes when they play for the Dodgers.
"I feel they're finally recognizing me," Cruz said. "A lot of people talk to me and say, 'Hey, where are you from?' Some people tweet me and support me. I've felt it since the first day I came here. It feels good, you know?"
To cross that final, difficult threshold (Cruz wasn't even on the Dodgers' 40-man roster until July), he had to stop listening to what virtual strangers were telling him and start believing in what his father was saying. Cruz had listened to hitting instructors for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres organizations who told him to scrap his leg kick, close his stance and try to slap the ball around to take advantage of his speed.
It never quite made sense to him since he’s got good size -- about 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Given a late opportunity, he was going to trust what he believed and not what other people said. He's gone back to an open, Andres Galarraga-style batting stance, the old leg kick and he's taking healthy cuts again.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly first became intrigued with Cruz during spring training, where he didn’t look like the all-field, no-hit guy they were expecting from his 12-year minor-league record with five different organizations. Cruz batted .308 and slugged .462.
Of course, the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues are sprinkled with older minor-leaguers putting up gaudy numbers who you never hear from again.
“Spring’s a fooler. A lot of times, you see guys have a great spring and then you start the season and it’s like, ‘What happened to that guy?’ “ Mattingly said. “But Luis goes from being MVP of Mexican winter ball to a great spring training to tearing it up in Triple-A. It’s like this guy’s had success all over, he’s had nothing but success and he’s doing it here.
“I don’t know what else to say other than to keep running him out there.”
Now, here he is at the threshold of, perhaps, one final opportunity. When you're on your sixth organization, your margin for error is about as thick as dental floss.
Cruz played rookie ball in the Boston Red Sox organization with Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who had already won a Rookie of the Year and made an All-Star team by the time Cruz made his major-league debut.
“Everyone’s not going to be the same. You’ve got to wait for your time and, when you get it, take advantage,” Ramirez said. “Luis is a great guy, a great fielder and he’s making the job easier for us right now.”
It is, after all, a team game. Cruz now has 24 teammates at Dodger Stadium and one key teammate south of the border.