In this edition of Know Your Stro, we get to talk a little bit about Astros great Jose “Cheo” Cruz. Most Astros fans of a certain age know the man well. Younger fans may be familiar with the name and may recognize him from his time as a coach and front office advisor. What many don’t realize is just how great a player he was. So let’s get to know the man Joe Morgan called, “One of the most underrated players I have ever seen.”
Born August 8, 1947, in Arroyo Puerto Rico, Jose Cruz was destined to be a ballplayer. The St. Louis Cardinals signed Jose straight out of high school in 1966. In 1970 he would finally get his first taste of the majors with a 6 game taste. His time with the Cards was not spectacular, although he did manage at least one special memory. During spring training of 1973, Jose and his two brothers, Cirilo (Tommy), and Hector all played the outfield together for one game. According to Samuel O. Regalado’s Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger, manager Red Schoendienst is quoted as saying, “They’re good ballplayers. [If] they have six brothers back home, and if they come to town, I’ll play them, too.”
Cruz Comes to the Bayou City
In October 1974 the Astros acquired “Cheo” Cruz in a strictly cash deal and things began to turn around. In his Houston debut, Jose went 3-4 with a home run and 3 RBI in the expanse that was the Astrodome. His .257 average that season was the lowest he would post until his last season with the club 12 years later.
Jose Cruz put up solid to great numbers across the board for over a decade. Part of the reason he often does not get his due nationally probably has to do with the fact that he only lead the entire league in a major category once with 189 hits in ‘83. Although his dedication to the team can be seen in his leading the league in sac flies twice. (10 in both ‘77 and’84)
The team is what Cruz was all about. In the winters he would play in the Puerto Rican winter league, where he was known as a power hitter. In Houston, he would intentionally avoid the power stroke because he knew the Astrodome outfield was where fly balls went to die.
His love and support for the team went beyond the field to the locker room. An example of this was heading into the one-game playoff with the Dodgers in 1980 to decide the NL West title. The Dodgers had just beaten the Astros three games in a row to force the match. Before the game, Cruz told his teammates that he would dance naked on a table if they pulled off the win. 9 innings later Jose Cruz put on a performance in the locker room that to Deacon Jones dismay, was on the same table as the food. Cruz would later comment, “I had to do whatever it takes for us to win.”
The Tequila Sunset Years
Cruz would continue to play inspired ball for the Astros for years. The 1986 season saw what would be a rapid decline in numbers. In 1988 Cheo would leave Houston to play one last season for the Yankees.
When he retired, Jose Cruz had the club lead in games played, runs, hits, stolen bases, and RBI. The only players to pass him in games played and hits are Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Cheo also finished 4th in OBP, 3rd in average, and 3rd in home runs.
On October 3, 1992, Jose Cruz and former teammate Mike Scott became the first Astros to see their numbers retired. (Jim Umbricht and Don Wilson’s numbers were retired due to their untimely and tragic deaths while members of the team.)
Retirement has not meant that Cheo is gone from the team. He continues to be involved with the team in front office roles as well as his time as first base coach 1997-2009. That involvement has allowed Cruz to be a part of all but one Astros playoff appearance.
Cruz has also coached in the minors and in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he had the opportunity to coach for the Puerto Rican team that his son played on.
He still follows the game through the lives of his son and grandson, Jose Jr and Trie (Jose CruzIII). Many people may remember Cruz Jr from his time at Rice and 12 year MLB career. However, fewer probably realize Jr’s son Trei recently left Rice as a 3rd round pick to the Tigers. It looks likely that Trei will make the family the 6th all-time to produce 3 generations of MLB players (Boone, Bell, Coleman, Hariston, Schofield/Werth). And when he does make it Astros fans should take the opportunity to remember one of the Astro greats, Jose Cruz.