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Cruz settling in with Marines

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Luis Cruz wanted to go home. He wanted to see his family again, wanted to be back in a familiar environment. He wanted to get away from that lonely hotel room in Fort Myers, Florida, that was a long way from his native Navojoa, which lies on the southern tip of Sonora, a Mexican state that shares its northern border with Arizona. He knew why he was there — it was 2000 and he’d just signed with the Boston Red Sox — just not if he could handle staying there.

“I was 17. I used to cry every day to go back home,” Cruz told The Japan Times, now smiling at the memory. “You’re 17, you’re still a boy.”

Cruz didn’t run back home. He stayed, and he conquered his fears. He’s not a boy anymore, and those moments of strife are an ancient memory to a man who has played in the majors and is currently in his first year in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Cruz has turned heads in the field with some highlight-reel-worthy glove work at shortstop and second base. He’s still trying to find his way at the plate, hitting .229 with eight homers, 24 RBIs and a .682 on-base plus slugging percentage entering Saturday.

The 30-year-old seems to be enjoying himself, which was hard during a trying 2013 season in MLB. He seems quick to flash a smile now and just a few weeks ago was showing off his soccer skills for the television cameras.

“It has been fun so far,” Cruz said. “Tough at the beginning. Spring camp is like two months. We practice for two months, and it’s tough. I’m used to spring training in America. It’s like a month, but you have many days off. Coming here and practicing for two straight months, it was tough for me and tough for my body. But now, I’m kind of adjusting to Japanese baseball and Japanese culture, and I’m kind of understanding a lot of stuff. So I kind of like it. They let me play and have fun, and that’s what matters.”

The Marines are fourth in the Pacific League standings, but there’s a long way to go and a lot of games still on the schedule.

“We need to do the little things,” Cruz said. “We need to play aggressive. I need to be more patient at the plate, get some hits and help this team. Because we have a really good team. We just gotta play good defense and go out there and give 100 percent every time.”

Cruz loves baseball. It’s what he’s known for most of his life and he can’t imagine doing anything else. That helped him in Florida during what he calls the “toughest two years of my career.” He also had someone nearby who was having the same experience in fellow Mexican Luis Mendoza. Interestingly, Mendoza is also in his first year in Japan now, pitching for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

“Me and him signed the same year, same team, and we used to cry,” Cruz said. “We wanted to go home. It’s like, you’re young and you’re by yourself at the hotel and you gotta take care of yourself. You gotta grow by yourself, quickly. So it was tough for us.”

Cruz said that things eventually became easier, and soon it was all about baseball.

Life in Japan has been an adjustment. There’s a lot Cruz had to get used to on the field and even more for he and his family to adjust to in daily life.

“It’s a lot of different stuff,” Cruz said. “I can’t even name one. It’s so many. We’re kind of learning the way they do things here. (If) they do it this way, OK, we gotta do it this way. Even if in Mexico or America, we do it differently. We’re in Japan now. I like it because my family is happy, and the area where we live is a really good area.”

Life is good for Cruz these days. Marines fans have taken to him quickly and he can only shake his head at the trip baseball has taken him on through the years.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It feels good. I talk to my family and sometimes we’re at the train station, and a lot of people recognize us, recognize me, and that’s crazy. We live so far away from home and these people recognize us here in train stations, and they ask for pictures. It’s good. I had that in L.A. when I was playing for the Dodgers. I had that in Mexico, and now I have it in Japan. That’s unbelievable.”

Before coming to Japan, Cruz, like most ballplayers from his part of the world, grew up dreaming about MLB. It was a goal he likely inherited from his father, Luis Alfonso Cruz Sr., who would often take his son on road trips during a 16-year career in the Mexican League.

The elder Cruz was a very good outfielder. According to an article written by ESPN’s Mark Saxon in 2012, Luis Cruz Sr. was invited to join the Milwaukee Brewers’ Double-A team in 1983 but declined so he could stay and take care of his family with his higher salary in Mexico.

The elder Cruz was a star, and after retirement was on the ballot for the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also a major reason his son remained in Florida all those years ago.

“That’s what kept me there,” the younger Cruz said. “Because there were so many times when I just wanted to quit and go home, and my dad was like, ‘Remember what you dreamed. I couldn’t make that dream come true, but I think you can. You can play in the big leagues.’ He always supported me and pushed me. He said, ‘If you want to come home, you’re welcome home. But remember, you had a dream.’ ”

Cruz lived his dream, playing 195 games in the majors over parts of five seasons. His best year was 2012, when he hit .297 with six home runs, and 40 RBIs in 283 at-bats for the Dodgers, where he quickly became a fan favorite.

Things didn’t go quite as well in 2013. In March of that year, he was at the center of the brawl between Mexico and Canada at the World Baseball Classic, then played poorly for the Dodgers, who designated him for assignment that June.

“Louie just got caught in a box this year,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was quoted as saying by Los Angeles Times writer Dylan Hernandez in a June 28, 2013, article. “He struggled early. Trying to get him at-bats after that got tougher.”

Cruz caught on with the Yankees but things were no better in the Bronx. He had Triple-A offers that winter, but ultimately decided Japan was where he wanted to continue his career.

Japan had been an option in 2012, and the chance had come around again, and he seemingly has no regrets about taking it this time.

“In December, that’s when we (he and his family) made the decision to say, you know what, I’m going,” Cruz said.

“So we decided to come here. We have an option for next year, let’s see what happens.”