By: Brian Frank
Jacob Cruz’s professional baseball career began when he was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 1994 draft. He played four and a half seasons in the Giants’ system before being traded away. This year, Cruz is returning to the Giants as a minor-league assistant hitting coordinator. In over two decades in between stints in the Giants organization, baseball took him all over the United States and around the world – including to Buffalo to play on some of the best teams in Bisons history.
Cruz joined the Herd after being traded by the Giants along with pitcher Steve Reed to the Cleveland organization for shortstop Shawon Dunston and pitchers José Mesa and Alvin Morman in late July of 1998. Cruz instantly became a key contributor to a Bisons team that went on to win the Governors’ Cup.
“He fit right in like a glove,” said Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, third baseman for the ’98 Bisons. “He had some unbelievably big hits down the stretch. It was probably hard for him. I know he had some big league time and switching organizations, but he didn’t let that affect him. He went out there in a very dedicated manner on both sides of the ball. He played very good defense and had some big hits.”
“Just an extremely professional approach,” said Jeff Manto, who starred on the ’98 Bisons and is one of only three Bisons to have his number retired by the team. “He just seemed to pick up the pieces for us night in and night out. He always had those big at-bats. He always came through when nobody else could figure out the pitcher. He was our ace in the hole.”
“He was a professional hitter,” said Mike Buczkowski, President of Rich Baseball Operations, who was general manager of the Bisons when Cruz played here. “The guy just lived hitting – and took great pride in being an all-around player, but he was a guy who you’d say, that’s one of the guys I want up with the game on the line in the ninth inning.”
Cruz had led the Pacific Coast League in hitting in 1997 with a .361 batting average. He was having another outstanding season at the Giants new Triple-A affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies – slashing .298/.393/.523 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI – when the July trade occurred.
“As a kid you always feel like you’re going to end your career with the team that drafted you,” Cruz said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I thought I was going to be a Giant forever. So I was surprised and in shock that I had been traded. You feel a little bit like – Did I let the organization down? What’s the reasoning? Later on down the road you find out that it’s business – that players move and it’s part of baseball, getting traded. So when that was explained to me, I realized that I’m going to a very good team. One that had Kenny Lofton in center field, Manny Ramirez, David Justice. You know that you’re going to have to work hard to earn an opportunity to crack that outfield – and that’s how I approached it. I went to Buffalo with the mindset that nothing was going to be given to me and I was going to work my butt off and just keep doing what I was doing which was playing baseball.”
Cruz joined a Bisons team sitting in third place in the International League North, four and a half games behind division leading Syracuse. He embraced his new opportunity and continued his red-hot hitting.
“I did a little research and I was always one to get captivated by what Buffalo brought – the history of the city – and then you go to the ballpark, and they had a beautiful ballpark, they were supported by great fans. It was a great atmosphere.”
Of the 13 home runs he hit with the Bisons in 1998, one still stands out – it was one of two grand slams he hit that season, and it came against Syracuse hurler – and future Hall of Famer – Roy Halladay. “You don’t forget when you hit a homer off a guy like that,” he beamed.
Cruz ready to rake for the Herd.
Buffalo went on a roll after Cruz’s arrival, going 27-17 to win the division by a half a game over Syracuse. Looking back, Cruz remembers a well-rounded team filled with a mix of veteran leaders and young prospects.
“You had a combination of everything,” he said. “You had some older players like Phil Hiatt and Jeff Manto. Then you had younger players like Jolbert Cabrera, myself, Álex Ramírez. That combination of young and older players, veteran players and their ability to mesh together and play as a team and a unit was really incredible to experience. You’re hoping for that when you get to the big leagues – that’s what you’re looking for – that type of comradery between the guys, that type of gel between the guys – and that team had that.”
Cruz slashed .331/.380/.633 with 13 home runs and 26 RBI in his 43 games with Buffalo – combined with his 89 games with Fresno, he hit 31 home runs and had 98 RBI for the season.
After winning the division, Buffalo swept Syracuse before going on to beat Durham in five games to win the Governors’ Cup. Cruz batted .379 with four doubles and four RBI in the two playoff series. He went 3-for-4 in Buffalo’s 3-1 Game Five series clinching win at Durham, including an RBI double and an RBI single.
The team then went on to fall against the New Orleans Zephyrs in the Triple-A World Series at Las Vegas, but the memory of the Governors’ Cup championship still has a warm place in Bisons fans’ memories. It was Buffalo’s second consecutive championship, after having won the American Association crown the season before.
Lovullo ran into Cruz at an airport two years ago and their conversation naturally included talking about their time playing together in the Queen City and the '98 championship.
“I saw him and, of course, what do we talk about, but the championship that we won together in Buffalo,” Lovullo said. “That was the first time I had seen him since the last day of the season in 1998. I hadn’t seen him since that day and the first thing we talked about was how great winning the championship was for the town of Buffalo.”
Looking back, Cruz credits the experience of winning a championship with the Herd as a personal learning experience.
“When you’re that player that feels like you’re on the verge of getting to the big leagues, you’re thinking to yourself am I going to get called up?,” he said. “I remember telling myself I was enjoying playing so well and being part of a team that’s winning and trying to finish this off and winning the championship, that I was actually really looking forward to staying there and hoping that I would get a call up at the end of it all – and I did get called up right after the playoffs. So I thought learning by being with that team, learning to win a championship with that team, was actually something that’s good in player development. Understanding that it’s not just a selfish thing – I want to get to the big leagues but I started this, let me finish this, let’s win a championship – and we were able to do that.”
The next season, it looked like Cruz would make Cleveland’s roster as a fourth outfielder, but a painful injury in Spring Training set him back and he once again reported to Triple-A to recover.
“It was a little frustrating,” he remembered. “I had an oblique strain. I did that playing against the Braves. I swung at a breaking ball down and in during Spring Training and I missed and I swung over it. It was a pretty big injury and took me quite a while to get back. I remember just being tentative while playing in Buffalo early. It was cold. I was a little worried about aggravating it again.”
Cruz with the 1999 Bisons.
On a much lighter note, many Bisons fans probably still remember Cruz’s walk up song when he was in Buffalo – it had a tendency to get stuck in your head. As Lovullo recently said, “He had one of the best walk-up songs that I’ve ever heard. I can still hear it right now.”
Cruz laughed when the song was brought up. “Yeah I played this random Spanish song – it says ‘Hey baby, ¿qué pasó? I thought I was your only vato.’ It was so catchy that I had umpires tell me, ‘Please do not play that song. I’m going home and I’m singing ‘Hey baby, ¿qué pasó?’’ (laughing) I think the more the umpires told me that, the more they encouraged me to play that song.”
Despite his injury, he once again tore it up at the plate with the Herd. He hit .272 with seven home runs in 54 games with Buffalo. He was called up to Cleveland in early June and continued his hot hitting in the big leagues, slashing .330/.368/.511 in 96 plate appearances.
“I was off to a great start that year. I felt like that was the year I was going to be able to establish myself as a major leaguer. Things were falling into place.”
Unfortunately, his promising season came to a screeching halt, when he sustained a thumb injury in early August. He grounded a single up the middle against Tampa Bay in a game at Tropicana Field. Cruz saw Devil Rays centerfielder Terrell Lowery taking his time to get to the ball, so he attempted to extend the hit into a double.
“I slid head first and my thumb went right over the bag,” Cruz remembered. “I knew as soon as I got up something was wrong with my thumb. I looked up at it and my thumb could almost touch my wrist. I had torn the ligament off the bone sliding into second. I often think about that injury because of what could have been. It just seemed like after that I was just riddled with injuries. I had a total of seven surgeries in my career and was just never able to establish myself the way I wanted to.”
Like many players who make it to the big leagues, one of his most special memories remains his major league debut, which came at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1996, two seasons before he came to Buffalo. His first game took on even more meaning because it came against his favorite boyhood team – the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“The Dodgers were my hometown team. That’s who I grew up watching. So there was a little bit extra incentive. I’m out in right field and my heart is just – I can’t slow it down. It’s not like any other game where you settle into the game and you think, OK by the second or third inning I’m good. That never happened. I remember calling my dad up and saying ‘I don’t know if I can make it out here. My heart can’t take it if it’s like this every day.’ But eventually it does slow down.”
He went 0-for-4 in his debut, but it wouldn’t take him long to get his first major-league hit. He was back in right field against the Dodgers the next night. In his second at bat of his second game, he drilled a 1-0 curveball from Tom Candiotti for his first major-league hit, a solo home run over the right-center field wall.
Cruz ended up playing in 409 major league games over nine different seasons in a career that took him to not only San Francisco and Cleveland, but also Colorado, Detroit, and Cincinnati. After the 2006 season, Cruz began playing internationally, starring on teams in Korea, Taiwan, and Mexico.
“I was very fortunate that I had the opportunity to travel the world and play baseball. I spent two years in Korea, did a little bit of Taiwan, did a lot of Mexico. I kind of considered myself a gun for hire. It was great.”
His best season in Korea came in 2007, when he hit .321 with 22 home runs, 85 RBI, and posted a .972 OPS for the Hanwha Eagles.
Cruz blasts a home run while playing for the Hanwha Eagles in the KBO.
“I look back at that and just immersing yourself in the Korean culture and saying that I lived out there for two years. Not many people get to experience that. Loved it. You go to these countries with an open mind, knowing that things are different, and you’re willing to try anything new – and I was.”
“In Korean baseball there are incredibly talented players,” he explained. “It was great baseball, incredible competition. I really thoroughly enjoyed that. It’s a different experience. The fans are cheering, there’s cheerleaders, they’ve got songs. You’ll have an MVP of the game getting rewarded with a teddy bear. It’s just a different experience from major league baseball. One that it takes you a little while and then you embrace it and you’re like – oh this is really cool.”
Following his playing career, his life took a natural turn into coaching. “I got into coaching because my passion is still baseball, it’s always been. There was a moment where I thought I wanted to go a different avenue – just walk away from the game and try something different. But I realized that I’m still in love with the game and I felt like I had a lot of knowledge, I speak Spanish, I’ve traveled the world playing baseball, had some success at the big league level, had some big years at the minor league level and the big league level. I felt like I had a lot of knowledge I could share and connect with the players and give them what I had learned. I was given an opportunity by the Diamondbacks to either become a scout or go into player development and I ultimately ended up choosing to become a coach at A-ball with the Yakima Bears in 2011.”
Cruz still feels the influence of two of his coaches while he was in Buffalo – manager Jeff Datz and hitting coach Bill Madlock. “No question,” he said. “Jeff Datz kept in contact. I saw him over the years. I just loved his passion for the players. You felt like you were playing for a manager that cared about you, that was willing to take care of you, and that encouraged you. You don’t forget people like that in your life and I’m very grateful that he managed me those years and it made that transition going from the Giants to the Cleveland organization that much easier.”
“Cleveland at the time just employed some incredible people that knew how to coach. Madlock was one of them. He was a guy that could pull you aside and have a conversation even though you knew his history of who he was and how successful he was as a player, his humility to show and talk the game when you were failing was one of those things that I’ll never forget. He’s a superstar and he was willing to spend 20 minutes after the game, 30 minutes after the game, talking me off the ledge so to speak, and you just don’t forget those people.”
Cruz’s coaching career has taken him to minor-league cities as well as major-league destinations. In addition to working in the Diamndbacks’ organization, he worked in the Chicago Cubs’ organization and was assistant hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 and the Milwaukee Brewers in 2020 and 2021. Now his career has taken him back to the organization it all started with when he was drafted in 1994 – the San Francisco Giants.
“I’m one of the hitting coordinators for the Giants at the minor-league level. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to coordinate again. I coordinated in ’18 for the Chicago Cubs and loved that experience. Being here with the Giants, I’m coming full circle and coming back to where I consider home. It’s just an incredible experience to put the S.F. uniform back on. I got into the cages the other day with some young players – they’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old – and you forget how much you enjoy coaching them. I really enjoyed that and I felt like OK, this is where I need to be.”
Baseball took him around the world and ultimately back to San Francisco – where it all began. Through it all, his two seasons in Buffalo remain a special time for him.
“I remember enjoying the city – Chippewa Street, just going out to eat after a game, the culture, and downtown. It was a big city and yet it felt small in some ways. It was somewhere I thought I could see myself living… until I saw winter there,” he laughed.