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Even for Page 2, Luis Cruz is a feel-good story

T.J. SIMERS

Infielder overcomes a lifetime of rejection to find a regular spot in the Dodgers' lineup.

August 29, 2012|T.J. Simers

DENVER — I don't know what's wrong with me.

Maybe it's old age, dehydration or a severe case of the slobbers.

In the past year I've written some nice things about people, so what's that all about? That's certainly not Page 2.

Now I find myself taking the time away from ridiculing the Dodgers to get to know Luis Cruz, or as the son-in-law said when I told him I would be interviewing Luis Cruz: "Who?"

I almost never write about guys like this or the thousands of dreamers like him who are here one minute and a second later gone.

But I am actually eager to tell you about Luis Cruz. And while it might read like someone else writing under my byline, I'm more impressed with Cruz's persistence than almost any athlete I have ever met.

How do you not like someone who's so thrilled with life he's the first guy here Monday so he can take pictures of Coors Field?

He talks about the people that count, pausing to hold back tears when he talks about how much his grandmother did in allowing him to get this big league chance.

He pulls out a cellphone and proudly wants to show pictures of his wife and two children.

It has been a lifetime of baseball rejection for Cruz until now, less than two months ago sad, mad and deciding to play in Japan.

Just as he's ready to commit to leaving, the Dodgers call and want him to come to the big leagues.

"All my teammates are hugging me," Cruz says. "I call my wife, my mother and six minutes later the Dodgers call back to say they've changed their mind."

How many times can someone be punched in the gut, straighten up and come back for more? He decides his future is in Japan.

And so he delivers the same speech he always gives himself when decked: "Today I start again."

The Dodgers call and this time really want him. "But I don't get excited," he says with a grin, "Until I get there and see the stadium."

If they don't call again, he's somewhere in Japan.

He's 28, a late-inning defensive replacement, or so folks think. But he gets a chance, "all I've ever wanted," he says, and now he's the starting third baseman hearing fans chant, "Cruuuuuz" when he makes the best of his chance.

But how many times could he have quit?

He signs with the Red Sox as a kid, can't speak English, plays in Fort Myers, gets so homesick he buys a ticket and goes home.

He's suspended for 15 days, returns, plays in Augusta, breaks a leg, goes AWOL again, returns to Fort Myers and is traded to San Diego.

He plays for the Padres' minor league teams in Fort Wayne and Lake Elsinore and is loaned to Mexico City.

The Padres cut him, the Pirates release him, the Brewers drop him, the Rangers get rid of him, and there are minor league stops along the way in Mobile, Portland, San Antonio, Altoona, Indianapolis, Nashville, Austin and Albuquerque.

The next time the son or daughter says they can't do something, or nobody believes they are any good, just go "Cruuuuuz" on them.

"I remember the day, Aug. 19, 2006," he says. "I'm in Mobile, the GM comes to me and I think I'm being called up. He asks me if I belong in the big leagues. I tell him yes and he says, 'I don't think so.'

"I came out of there crying."

A few years later he gets a September call-up from Pittsburgh.

"My dad is one of those people who feels things but just never lets anyone know it," Cruz says. "I call him when I get called up.

"He doesn't say anything; he passes the phone to my mom. I know he's crying."

When he joins the Pirates he's told he will be batting second, and he says, "my legs start shaking.

"When it's time for me to hit, I can't even breathe."

He singles, goes to spring training later and wins a roster spot. The same day his grandmother dies, the woman who took him as a kid to all those tournaments, making sure he always had a uniform.

"I'd like it if she could see me play now," he says, offering a prayer before every game and touching his shoulder in her honor.

He has her name tattooed on his left shoulder along with his favorite number, No. 10, a tribute to Chipper Jones. Jones has been his role model, and earlier this year he plays against Jones, so many dreams coming true.

"Maybe I wasn't good, but you can get good," he says.

This past winter his father tells him to work harder, be better than any Mexican or American player in the Winter League. So Cruz goes out and earns Winter League MVP honors.

He signs with the Dodgers, believing they offer the best opportunity. A few days later they add Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston.

"And I'm dead," he says.

But he's backed by encouragement: his wife, his parents and Josh Bard, a minor league teammate.

Bard tells Cruz, "Play like your head is on fire."

He does, so red hot the Dodgers finally have to give him his chance.

"Life is good and getting better," Cruz says.

Fernando Valenzuela played with his dad in Mexico long ago and then become a barbecue visitor to the Cruz home. Last week Cruz found himself catching for Fernando on Valenzuela's bobblehead night.

"I was more nervous catching that pitch than when I play in a game," Cruz says, worrying Fernando might unload a screwball on him.

But then a little later he's hearing the same people who went crazy over Fernando chanting his own name.

"The good thing," he says, "Is if they start booing, I'll believe they're just yelling, 'Cruuuuuz.' "

He never gets here if he doesn't think that way.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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