Ivan Cruz: The story of a baseball educator
01/10/2014 6:16 AM - Devo
5554 plate appearances
Ivan Cruz played 14 years of professional baseball. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 28th round of the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft out Jacksonville University. Cruz spent time with the Tigers, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals organizations, and during that time shared the field with Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Joe Girardi, Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Kevin Young, JIm Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Matt Morris.
His career shouldn't be remembered by numbers alone or who he played with. Cruz should be remembered for what he represents. He is a player, a coach, an educator and is one of the most sincere and astute baseball men I have ever spoken with.
The GM's Perspective: With 14 years in professional baseball, what was it like when those final days were approaching?
Ivan Cruz: 2004 was my last year, my heart was there but my body wasn't. It was obvious for everyone else but me. It was hard at first of course. Just to be able to recognize you can't play anymore was difficult.
GMs: Was giving up the game a decision you made or an organizational decision?
IC: When I went to Spring Training with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, I was released with only two days left before final cuts. I wanted to know the reason why, and it's hard when people tell you the actual truth. So I went home and talked it over with my family and made the decision that I was done playing. I did my own thing for a few years, but went back into the game by coaching a US Military All-Star team for a couple of summers (2008, 2009). In the winter of 2009 I went to Puerto Rico to become a first base coach for a winter ball team. That's how I started getting back into the baseball loop. Word got around, and I received a few calls as far as interviews, including the San Diego Padres.
I flew to San Diego for a couple of days for an interview, and about a week later when I was in Winter Ball I was notified I was going to be the manager of the Peoria Padres in Arizona.
GMs: Was it difficult going from player to coach? Obviously it has to be tough when you're playing at a high level for a lot of years and now it's over.
IC: For me personally, it took some time. I was a competitive guy, and I felt that I still had it in me. But, when you're getting ready to teach the ballgame it becomes tricky. Everything you did as a player does not mean the same thing to 25 other guys. You could have 25 different ways of doing the same thing. To answer your question, yes it was difficult, it was a difficult transition because if I chose to teach kids I knew I had to leave the playing side behind.
When I teach the kids, it's not about me anymore; it's about what I can to do to contribute to these kids' lives and careers. When you do that, you have to look outside yourself, and provide value to whoever wants to learn the game. At first it was difficult because I found myself trying to instruct the players just like how I was instructed in the past. I didn't realize that I was completely wrong trying to utilize that strategy. It took an emotional toll on my family and myself because I was not the same guy.
My family is great and my Fiancée has been so supportive. We're going on 13 years together. She's seen my ups and downs and I really love and appreciate her for that.
GMs: I completely understand. My playing days were nowhere near as extensive as yours, but until you realize that the game of baseball is a business, you never fully realize the scope of how big this is. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get where I did, I got paid to play baseball and not many can say that. I was really fortunate to experience it.
IC: If you think about what you said, and your experience, it's being grateful for whatever experience we've had. When you think that, "you were a professional ballplayer" think about the magnitude of what you just said: You were a professional baseball player. How many people can say I got paid to play? Just looking at how difficult it is and yes, we all would like to have been around for a lot longer than we were, but if I focus on the negatives, I'm spending my energy on things that cannot help me move on.
You can understand that. Look at your blog and look at the things you've been able to accomplish. Look at the people you can reach by the way you write. It's a gift within itself and not many people can do that.
GMs: Funny you should say that! Look at what can be done through social media. We are able to talk, when only a few short years ago, this wasn't possible.
IC: We focus on the good things. How can we contribute to people's lives by coaching, teaching etc.?...If we shift the focus we can contribute, experience, and grow ourselves in whatever it is we're doing. Everything, including us, has an expiration date, and we hope that our work and our experiences can stick around and help someone else. That's what we're here for.
GMs: Do you find that coaching process has changed from the days you were playing compared to now? Amongst the different generations of players, do you notice anything different when compared to your playing days?
IC: Somewhat yes. I started playing professionally back in 1989. Interestingly enough it was in Niagara Falls with the Rapids. Social media was non-existent and the Internet was in its infant stages. Young players are exposed to it so much now, so we, as professional educators, have to understand that their experience is definitely different than our experience. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, as far as their exposure. We have to create teaching opportunities and attempt to understand what they're exposed to, but at the same time keep driving forward the fundamentals and the right way to play the game so that they have a chance to achieve their career goals.
GMs: You were drafted in the 28th round of the 1989 MLB June Amateur Draft from Jacksonville University (Jacksonville, FL). What was that process like and can you give you give us some insight on the positives and negatives that go with it?
IC: I was a very late-round draft pick my junior year out of Jacksonville. I decided to take a chance and sign. I could've gone back to school, but I ran with it and if it didn't work out I still had a back-up plan.
I took a real hard look at a real young age at my risk vs. my reward. My risk is, I can take a shot at being a ballplayer and it may not work out. My reward, I can take a shot at being a professional ballplayer. At the time it was something I was really looking forward to because I wasn't good enough out of high school to sign a professional baseball contract in Puerto Rico.
GMs: You had solid years during your time in the minors. Multiple years of 20 plus home runs, and 100 RBI seasons. Even a 35 home run and 100 RBI season with Triple AAA Memphis in 2002 when you won the Minor League Round Tripper award and were named PCL post-season All-Star.
IC: I was blessed with a certain ability, and I did what I could with it. Again, we could look back at our achievements and be proud of them, but as educators and teachers, we can actually think about those achievements and motivate those kids that don't have the confidence or don't believe in themselves. The dream is possible, but you have to choose it, you have to sacrifice the partying, the drinking and all that kind of stuff. Your career can come to a crossroads. It's your choice.
Many times as an amateur you have those choices. We don't have lessons or sessions, but there are always goals. When we have that clear picture of what we want to achieve we can work backwards. There's a process to that and that's when we start the actual coaching and life lesson part of it.
In professional sports it's about the same, it so happens you go into a larger scale with so many different players. Ultimately, the process is the same; what is it that you want to accomplish today? It's an everyday repetitive process like pitching. A pitcher wants to get outs, but how do you do that? You work backwards as a hitter. What is it that you try to accomplish once you step foot in the box? Once you have that clear picture in your mind, you let the process take over.
GMs: Only 41 big league games, why is that? And what was it like putting on that big league uniform for the first time?
IC: That's a very good question. I hate to say I had bad luck, but maybe it did play in to the equation. When I got to the big leagues in 1997 with the New York Yankees, I was at first base and played some outfield, but entrenched at first base was Tino Martinez. If you think about Tino Martinez and that team with Derek Jeter, Joe Girardi was the catcher at the time, Scott Brosius, Wade Boggs...just to try to get the chance to play, an injury would have to happen. There's no way that I was going to play over Tino Martinez at first base.
I was persistent. Some other players could have given up.
With Pittsburgh it was Kevin Young at first base who signed a four-year deal worth about $20 million, so I was definitely a back-up. With St. Louis, guess what? Tino Martinez was at first base due to the retirement of Mark McGwire the year prior. And guess who was playing some outfield? Albert Pujols. You knew he was going to first base. Think about it, in 1997 Tino Martinez was first base, while Cecil Fielder was the DH. They were built to win at that time, and for me just to get the chance to get called up with those guys was something I'll take to the grave. I'm very grateful for that. We didn't win, we lost in the playoffs to Cleveland, and they lost to the Marlins.
Interestingly enough, I got called-up to St. Louis in 2002 based on my numbers. You take a look at the personnel; we won the Central Division, but lost in the playoffs to Barry Bonds and the Giants.
I was close. I did get to the big leagues but not good enough to stay.
GMs: You made your professional debut with the New York Yankees. Was the mystic of the Yankees as special as everyone says it is?
IC: Yes, absolutely. Once you put the uniform on and step foot on old Yankee Stadium, the mystique is there. There is a responsibility and accountability for what you do. They only have one goal: win. Understanding that responsibility and knowing you are held accountable for your talent all the time, takes a certain mentality. There is that expectation to win. Some of these clubs are expected to win from day one of Spring Training. Everything is geared, everything that they do as professional ballplayers, is geared to that one goal. Anything that takes away from that goal is no good.
GMs: The Yankees always have a ton of media attention, including all the A-Rod drama. Does it affect the clubhouse as much as it is perceived?
IC: That's a very good question. As far as my personal opinion on that, because the media attention in New York is very much magnified and it's always there, I cannot imagine having those issues and going out there trying to win a ballgame. There are enough distractions anyway, and as I said, I cannot imagine how they put all those distractions in the backseat and then go ahead and not only play the game, but prepare to play the game. Preparation is paramount. You just don't go out there naked and be expected to perform.
GMs: Regardless of what Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez did or didn't do, they are/were the best in the world at what they do. Aside from suspensions and negativity surrounding them on a daily basis, you still have to go out there and hit the baseball.
Look at Bonds in 2002 when he was at his peak...my gosh, it was ridiculous what he could do on the field.
IC: In this particular time in history we are blessed to watch one of the best ballplayers in any era.
My experience watching Barry Bonds, to this day, with all due respect to all the left-handed hitters, I have not seen anything he wasn't able to accomplish. If you take a look at the game of baseball itself, you're a Hall of Famer if you get a hit three out of ten times. The other 70 percent of the time you fail. What he was able to accomplish in terms of the numbers, and you can look at Miguel Cabrera, and Albert Pujols, it boggles my mind that a ballplayer can walk that many times. And to not see anything resembling a strike for games at a time, and in that next game go 2-4 with a double and a home run, is astonishing. It's not a matter of getting hits; it's a matter of being productive for your club.
For what he was able to do, I don't know if we will ever, of course I could be wrong, see that again.
Think about the Major League clubhouse for a second. You have meetings, advanced scouting, reports, and you go through every hitters tendencies that played a series before the one you're getting ready to play now. Pitching coaches and bullpen coaches go over every hitter in the line-ups with their pitchers, and Bonds was still able to hit a ball out, (not a base hit) and still have an impact at the end of the night after all of that preparation.
That tells you what kind of focus he had to have when he saw a pitch to hit and to not miss it. The magnitude of that I have not seen anywhere to this day, and we are seeing guys like Miguel Cabrera who look like they're playing Nintendo.
Personally, I had some good years in the minors, but I can't imagine doing that type of performance at the major league level. You have the best pitchers in the world taking the mound, but that goes to show you, that once the pitcher lets go of the ball he can't take it back. All the responsibility lies with the hitter at the point.
The magnitude of what we're talking about here is something I hope people understand as to why these guys are there. It so happens that the major league market pays them a lot of money to do these things we're talking about.
It's part of my job to teach fundamentals and to try to maximize an approach at home plate with the hope that all this will one day result in them becoming a productive major league ballplayer That is my job as a professional baseball educator.
Devon is the Founder and Executive Director of The GM's Perspective. He is a former professional baseball player with the River City Rascals & Gateway Grizzlies. Currently, Devon is a Manager at a financial institution in Northern Ontario Canada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow The GM's Perspective on twitter and facebook. His full bio can be seen here.