Tigers' pick following footsteps of dad, grandpa

June 12th, 2020

Jose Cruz Jr. hit his second and third Major League home runs on a breezy Friday night at Tiger Stadium, both deep to right-center off Omar Olivares. He hit another one there six weeks later off Dan Miceli, and another there the following September, completing a late-season tear after his son Trei was born.

“My first game in big leagues was against Detroit,” Cruz said, “and my first robbed hit was against Detroit because Tony Clark dove and robbed a hit. And Tony's now my boss [at the MLB Players Association].”

Jose hit 10 of his 204 career homers at Detroit’s expense. Jose Cruz Sr. never faced Detroit during his 19-year career in the Majors, mostly in the National League, but he grounded out against Tigers starter Jack Morris in the 1985 All-Star Game at the Metrodome.

Now, 35 years after that Midsummer Classic, and more than two decades after Cruz Jr. tormented the Tigers, the next generation of the family is ready and eager to put on a Tigers uniform and pick up the family tradition.

“I'm excited to rep the Cruz name,” Trei Cruz said Thursday night after going to the Tigers in the third round of the MLB Draft.

The Tigers are no strangers to three-generation baseball families:

• Ray Boone, who played third base in Detroit in the 1950s, was the patriarch of a dynasty that included his son, All-Star catcher Bob Boone, and continued to grandkids Bret and Aaron, the latter now the Yankees manager.

• Joe Coleman Sr. (1955) and Jr. (1971-76) both pitched in Detroit, the latter joining the Tigers as part of the Denny McLain trade to Washington. His son, Casey, pitched against Detroit with the Royals in 2014.

• Buddy Bell, son of Gus Bell and father of David and Mike, managed the Tigers from 1996 to 1998.

The Tigers also have several sons of Major Leaguers in their farm system right now, from Daz Cameron at Triple-A Toledo to Kody Clemens and Cam Gibson at Double-A Erie to Pedro Martinez Jr. in the Gulf Coast League.

But never has a third-generation Major Leaguer played for Detroit. Cruz, who used to shag fly balls in batting practice with Cameron when their fathers were teammates in San Diego in 2007, would love to change that.

That excitement over the family name wasn’t always easy, he admits. There was an expectation that came with it. Trei was born in Toronto while Jose Jr. was a Blue Jay, but he grew up in Houston, where his grandfather was a two-time All-Star and played a key role in the Astros’ division titles in 1980 and 1985.

The Astros drafted Trei out of high school in the 35th round of the 2017 Draft, but Trei opted to attend Rice, where his father was a three-time All-American. Jose Jr. was the third overall pick of the 1995 Draft.

“Obviously my whole life, I've had some pressure being a possible third-generation Cruz,” Trei said. “It's something I had to deal with and I definitely struggled with it growing up, but what I've learned the last couple years is the only pressure is from myself. Pressure's a privilege. If you have pressure, you're doing something right.”

Jose Jr. encouraged him not to worry about the name or any tradition. He knows from experience. 

“I've always told him from the beginning, he's not competing with me or my father,” he said. “He’s basically writing his own book. I grew up with that whole thing, and I never competed with my dad. It's a useless task to try to compete with some ghost or whatever of your very successful parent or grandparent. Just focus on your stuff.”

Though Trei came with his own share of accolades, he’s his own style of player. Unlike his father and grandad, he plays the infield, not outfield. He was a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and tied for the Owls’ team lead with 44 RBIs, then batted .305 with nine homers, 44 RBIs and a .913 OPS in 2019 to make All-Conference USA. He had two homers and two triples in a game against Rhode Island early that season.

Along the way, he learned how to forge his own path with the family name while learning from both dad and grandpa.

“Definitely the biggest thing they've taught me is how to handle failure,” he said. “Because baseball’s a game of failure. If you fail six or seven times out of 10, you're pretty good. That's something I didn't really grasp at the beginning.

“My dad told me if he could change anything from his career, it's how he handled the bad games. My grandpa was great at that. Whether I have a bad game or not, I'm going to walk out of the ballpark being the most confident player in the building.”

Though his father was a slugger, Trei grew into a disciplined hitter. After batting .307 in the Cape Cod League last year, he was hitting .328 with more walks (18) than strikeouts (17) and seven doubles in 16 games for Rice this season.

“That really turned the corner for him in the Cape,” Jose Jr. said. “He was very calm, very smooth, very collected, played better playing baseball every day. Once he hit and he saw that he can compete against the best collegiate pitchers in America and with a wood bat, he was really confident about what he was doing.”

Once the coronavirus pandemic ended the season in March, Trei went home and worked out with his dad and grandfather in preparation for the Draft.

By then, the Tigers had already taken notice. Unlike some organizations, Detroit doesn’t have a deep history of drafting Major Leaguers’ sons, with Clemens being a notable exception. But scouting director Scott Pleis sees an advantage in families, including with former first-round pick Matt Manning, whose father Rich played in the NBA and overseas.

“When these kids are around the game growing up because of their parents, they feel comfortable with it, and they feel like they belong,” Pleis said. “They know what to expect.”

Though Cruz spent the past two years at shortstop, Pleis said he can play around the infield.

“I think he still has some upside,” Pleis said. “He’s a switch-hitter. He’s not a power guy, but he’s got some power. Good athlete, very versatile. His bat has evolved the last few years and keeps getting better. We really feel like we’ve got a really good baseball player here.”

Cruz is ready to embrace that versatility.

“At the end of the day, I want to give myself the best chance in Major League Baseball,” he said. “If it's at third base, if it's at short, if it's in the outfield, it is what it is. … I'm excited to rep the Tigers organization and show the Cruz name in Detroit.”

His father and grandfather would like nothing more.

“My dad was getting all choked up when he got drafted,” Jose Jr. said. “Nobody would be prouder than my father. He's the one who started it all.”