Cruz Jr. out to guide Rice back to baseball's elite

José Cruz Jr.

By Chuck Pool

One of the cornerstones of Rice's rise to prominence in college baseball, José Cruz Jr., has returned to his alma mater as the 22nd head baseball coach of the Owls.

"José Cruz Jr. understands as well as anyone the trajectory of Rice baseball over the last three decades," said Rice Director of Athletics, Recreation and Lifetime Fitness Joe Karlgaard during a news conference Tuesday. "As a player, he gave us immediate credibility when he chose Rice. He saw the program grow into a perennial powerhouse through his brother playing on the 2003 CWS (College World Series) championship squad, and he has felt our recent struggles as the parent of two players. He is passionate about leading the charge to bring Rice baseball back to the top of college baseball."

"It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to come home to Rice, a place that has given me and my family so much over the years," Cruz said. "Wayne Graham sold me on what Rice could become and he was right. It's up to me and my staff to return Rice baseball to the position we worked so hard to build."

Cruz joins the Owls from the Detroit Tigers, where he was in his first season with the club as a coach, focusing on hitting instruction and working with the outfielders under manager A.J. Hinch.

He is the first former Rice baseball player to be named the Owls' head coach since Harold Stockbridge, who lettered from 1946-48, guided the program from 1949-52. He is the third former Rice student athlete on the current staff of Owl head coaches, joining Jon Warren (men's track) and Efe Ustundag (men's tennis).

Cruz's association with Rice began in 1992 when he chose to remain home and sign with the Owls after leading Houston's Bellaire High School to the top ranking in country in 1992. The signing of the local standout, whose father, José Cruz Sr., remains one of the most popular players in Houston Astros history, was a turning point in legendary coach Wayne Graham's efforts to attract top talent to Rice.

In his first season, Cruz shared national freshman of the year honors from Collegiate Baseball, and he earned All-Southwest Conference honors after driving in a school-record 59 runs. A year later, he was the consensus conference player of the year and first-team All-America, hitting .401 with 14 home runs and breaking his own school mark with 68 RBIs. Cruz helped propel the Owls to the conference tournament, starting a streak that would last until 2021.

By 1995, Graham's efforts had built the Owls into a potent force and the team qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history. Rice eliminated defending national champion Louisiana State University at the Tigers' home field in Baton Rouge before falling to eventual College World Series champion Cal State Fullerton.

In 1995, his final season at Rice, Cruz hit .377 in 1995 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs and led the nation with 76 walks in his final season at Rice. Seattle made him the third overall pick in that year's MLB Draft.

Less than two years later, on May 31, 1997, he made his major league debut with Seattle, but was traded to Toronto at the trade deadline at the end of July. He went on to play 1,388 games in his major league career, including all 162 games in 2000. He slugged 204 home runs, 252 doubles and 36 triples while stealing 113 bases. He twice hit more than 30 homers in a season and joined the "30-30 Club" in 2001 by hitting 34 homers and stealing 32 bases. He won a Rawlings Gold Glove while playing right field for San Francisco in 2003 and was inducted into the Rice Athletics Hall of Fame later that fall.

He returned to Houston in 2008, playing 38 games for the Astros before announcing his retirement.

He and his younger brother Enrique, who was a starter on the Owls' 2003 CWS championship squad, both returned to Rice and completed their degrees in the spring of 2013. That same year, José joined the Major League Baseball Players Association's player services department, and was later an analyst for ESPN's baseball coverage.

Both of his sons, Trei and Antonio Cruz, followed in his footsteps to Rice. Trei was a three-year standout for the Owls from 2018-20 before being drafted by the Tigers in the third round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Antonio will return for his senior season with the Owls in 2022. Trei became the eighth member of the extended Cruz family to play professional baseball when made his debut with the West Michigan White Caps earlier this year.

(Video by Brandon Martin)