As a reporter standing on the field prior to pregame drills and batting practice, you get a number of reactions as the players come out of the clubhouse. Many just pass by, some nod, and you also get a few “how’s it going’s”. But on opening night for the South Bend Cubs, this reporter experienced something different.
A player stopped, flashed a 100-watt smile, and stuck out his hand saying “Hi, I’m Michael Cruz!” After chatting for a few moments, Cruz was off to work with the pitchers.
The Cubs selected Michael Cruz in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. In a draft that the Cubs lacked a first and second round pick, Cruz was the first position player they chose. The left-handed bat of Cruz was apparent, as he compiled a .370 OBP, 15 RBI, and a 23:20 strikeout to walk ratio in 40 rookie league games.
The stocky, 5’ 11” 210-pound Cruz flashed his power potential the following year. Cruz thumped 9 home runs and 23 total extra base hits in only 194 at bats on his way to an .818 OPS while spending time with both Short Season-A Eugene and Low-A South Bend.
Flash forward a few months.
Standing in the dugout at Four Winds Field watching a few players getting individual batting instruction from the Cubs’ roving minor league hitting coach, I felt a firm clasp on my shoulder and a warm “hey, how are you?” from behind me.
Turning around, I was face-to-face with a beaming Michael Cruz.
After exchanging pleasantries, I let Cruz know that one of my main goals of the day was to interview a Spanish speaking pitching prospect. Cruz graciously agreed to translate, and went off to begin working with the pitchers that were coming out on the field to begin their daily drills.
We conducted the interview following the warm-up session. But when we were done, Cruz did not retreat to the clubhouse. Instead, Cruz turned the tables on me.
Cruz wanted to know what it was like to be in Wrigley Field. As someone who has experienced the Cubs’ home field transition from the smelly, dirty old park of the 1960’s and 70’s, to the fan-friendly environment of the 1980’s, to the palace of baseball it now is, I was able to regale Cruz and a small bunch of players now beginning to listen in.
I spoke of how fans used to roll up scorecards and insert them through the chain link fence that separated them from the catwalk to the visitor’s dugout, in the hopes of getting a few autographs. There were stories of knowing exactly where to get Ron Santo Pizza’s fresh out of the oven, of cleaning up the park after the game and then being allowed by the ushers to run around on the field, and how all players would patiently sign autographs following batting practice.
Cruz absorbed all of it, and was genuinely interested in hearing more before getting about the business of preparing to play a game that night got in the way.
As a member of the South Bend Cubs in 2018, Cruz started off slowly, batting only .176 in April and .147 in May. In our conversation, the 22-year said that he now had himself “squared away” at the plate. That began to show up in his production with a sizzling .322 batting average an .901 OPS in June.
“Cruz has made huge strides”, commented manager Jimmy Gonzalez; “we like his power and ability to grind through some of the rough spots that players have throughout the season”.
Gonzalez was caught a little off guard when asked whether Cruz had any future beyond playing. “Coaching?” Gonzalez pondered, “Yeah, he’s a very positive influence in the clubhouse, and likes to work with the kids”. Cruz also recognized his position within the team structure. “I’m here to provide leadership” stated Cruz proudly.
But although Cruz said that his “goal was to be in the majors”, something Cruz said when we first met seemed to stand out even more.
“I’m here to help these guys (the Cubs pitching prospects) get to the majors!”