Cruz Jr. fulfilling longtime dream at Rice

January 6th, 2022

HOUSTON – One of the first life questions José Cruz Jr.'s wife, Sarah, asked him early in their marriage was what he was going to do when his baseball career was over. Cruz was in his 20s and had lots that he wanted to accomplish as a player, but he already had a plan for his post-playing career.

“I said, ‘Well, I would love to coach Rice baseball,’” he said.

Cruz, the son of former Astros star outfielder José Cruz, was an All-American outfielder at Rice University before a 12-year big league career in which he won a Gold Glove and clubbed 204 home runs, including 34 for the Blue Jays in 2001. He returned to Rice to complete his degree in 2013.

Fast-forward eight years and Cruz Jr. was back on campus, slipping on a pinstripe Rice jersey after being named Rice’s head baseball coach last June. His dream to lead his alma mater had come true, and with his debut 2022 season with the Owls around the corner, Cruz finds himself in a perfect spot at 48 years old.

“I've been a Rice ambassador for almost 30 years,” he said. “Now I’m getting paid for it. I love it.”

Cruz has big dreams for Rice, which was a college baseball power under legendary coach Wayne Graham from the mid-1990s through the mid-2010s, including a College World Series championship in 2003. Cruz’s younger brother, Enrique, started on that team, and he’s had two sons play at Rice -- Trei was a three-year standout for the Owls from 2018-20 before being drafted by the Tigers in the third round of the 2020 MLB Draft, and Antonio returns for his senior season with the Owls in 2022.

The Owls have slipped on the national scene in recent years, but Cruz –- hired away from A.J. Hinch’s staff with the Tigers –- is in the process of trying to restore the glory.

“That’s definitely the epitome of what we want to do is be able to be the last team standing, the last team celebrating in Omaha,” he said. “That’s the goal that I think is attainable here. It’s been done already, and I think we can do it again.”

That begins with a change in culture, which includes embracing information and analytics like most Major League teams have done. Cruz has implemented a pitching lab, which will include Edgertronic high-speed cameras and a TrackMan mobile unit, both of which will be used to collect data. The lab will also have two mounds with three force plates, which measure how pitchers land and how the energy shifts, as well as markerless motion capturing capabilities.

One of the goals of the “Pig Pen” –- named after Rice grad Jeremy Thigpen, the president and CEO of Transocean, who donated money to get the lab up and running -– is to reduce pitcher injuries. Cruz was told by a Major League executive when he took the Rice job that he needed to reverse the stigma of Rice pitchers being injury-prone as professionals.

“We’ll have some ahead-of-the-curve-type stuff here, I believe,” he said. “I think our staff is all in when it comes to modern baseball. It hasn’t been done here. …. I have a really good idea and a good grasp of what I want and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. I’m open to trying different things.”

That includes an analytics team made up of students from the school's sports management program, which eventually could result in a major in sports analytics at Rice, one of the most prestigious academic universities in the U.S.

“This will be part classroom,” Cruz said. “We have so many brilliant students here, so I’m not against them coming up with ideas to help us. If the ideas make sense, let’s do it. I’ve challenged a bunch of them. They’re brilliant.”

The opportunity to return to Rice is a full-circle moment for Cruz, who joined the Owls in 1993 following a decorated high school career. He shared national freshman of the year honors, driving in a school-record 59 runs, and was an All-American a year later. He led Rice to its first NCAA Tournament in 1995 and was the No. 3 overall pick in the MLB Draft by the Mariners.

Cruz helped Graham get the Rice program charging towards elite status. He was followed at Rice by Lance Berkman and a bevy of other future Major Leaguers, including Bubba Crosby, David Aardsma, Philip Humber, and Anthony Rendon. The Owls were one of the premier programs in the country and can be again.

“I think maybe in the future we might be able to out-talent you somewhat, but right now we have to develop talent,” Cruz said. “Guys that come here want to get better. I think we have a lot of talented guys.”

In addition to the leaps that he hopes his pitchers take, Cruz said he’ll get his hitters to understand the hitting sequence better and the team will shift more on defense. He hopes to install artificial turf and new lights in 22-year-old Reckling Park next year.

The work is only just beginning, but it’s a job that’s been decades in the making for Cruz.

“It’s about being successful at life for me,” he said. “I want these guys to be successful at life. I want to win baseball games, but I still think I’m a mentor in many ways and I want them to be successful at life and come back and be a part of Rice and have a great experience. It’s important for me for them to have a great experience here. My kids went here and had a great experience here. It’s personal.”