Berkman, Cruz enjoying coaching challenges

February 23rd, 2022

HOUSTON -- As a highly touted freshman at Rice University in 1995, Lance Berkman shared a hotel room on the road with Owls junior slugger José Cruz Jr., who was considered one of the best players in the nation. Both wound up having long Major League careers and remained close friends, which is what made Wednesday’s college game at Houston Baptist University so special.

Berkman and Cruz -- former roommates at Rice and, later, teammates with the Astros -- squared off as college head coaches at Husky Field. The two spent some time pregame Wednesday catching up like old friends do, shaking hands while being pelted with cold raindrops.

“It would be a lot better if it was 72 and sunny, but we’re freezing and it’s raining. But it’s a lot of fun being out here playing college baseball,” Berkman said.

Cruz, in his first season as head coach at Rice, guided his Owls to a 6-2 win over Berkman’s Houston Baptist University Huskies for his first career college win. Cruz took home the game ball and called the victory a “weight lifted off his shoulders.”

“I’m so excited we finally won a game,” Cruz said. “The boys have been hungry for it and working for it. I’m happy for that, and to get that out of the way. As far as Lance goes, he’s a dear friend. I do appreciate what he’s going through. We’re constantly in contact about what we’re doing, [what we're] not doing and how we’re going about our business. I’m sure he’ll have great success in the near future.”

Berkman is still waiting for his first victory as a college coach five games into his tenure at HBU, which has played a challenging schedule that included a loss to Baylor on Tuesday.

“It had to be somebody, but it might as well be me,” Berkman joked about being on the wrong end of Cruz's first coaching win. “It could have gone the other way, too, but we’ll see how the season plays out from here.”

Rice, the former national power, and HBU are both starting new eras with their head coaches, who remain in touch frequently about their new careers leading young men on the diamond.

“We’re both here and we want to win and want to do the best by our team, but at the same time, we’re friends,” Cruz said.

Berkman said he and Cruz will root for each other from afar when they’re not playing each other.

“I know we’re competitors on the field, but we compare notes,” he said. “I’ll pick his brain and we’ll talk about stuff [like] ‘Hey, what’s going on? How are you fixing it?’ The coaching community is pretty small and tight-knit, and I value his input and his friendship.”

Cruz takes over a Rice program that has fallen on hard times since its heyday under legendary coach Wayne Graham from the mid-1990s through the mid-2010s, topped by a College World Series championship in 2003.

As a player, Berkman led Rice to the first of its seven College World Series appearances in 1997 -- the season he was National College Player of the Year. As a coach, he takes over a former NAIA school that made the move to NCAA Division I in 2008. The Huskies, who don’t yet have locker rooms or lights at their stadium, won just 14 games last year.

“It’s a great experience for both of us,” Berkman said. “I like the fact that more ex-pro guys are getting involved in college baseball. You’re seeing that as a trend in the nation. We’ve got some learning to do ourselves. It’s a challenge, it’s a new career and we’re both excited about it.”

Cruz, whose team was swept in three games by No. 1-ranked Texas last weekend in Austin, said he’ll continue to bring his squad across town to play HBU as long as Berkman is head coach.

“Well, it’s great for our school to have a school like Rice that’s willing to come here,” Berkman said. “We don’t get a whole lot of programs that high-profile that are willing to come in our ballpark. To be able to host them is an honor.”