Cruz family to enjoy a proud day together
Jose Jr., Enrique finish college, will receive degrees in sports management from Rice
HOUSTON -- There are no words to describe the emotions that will swirl through Jose Cruz on Saturday morning.
"I mean, what can you say?" he asked. "I'm so proud of them."
Around these parts, Cruz is known as one of the greatest players the Houston Astros have ever had. In 13 seasons, from 1975 through 1987, he collected 1,937 hits, but that's only part of the story.
He was a member of the first three postseason teams the franchise ever had and made three National League All-Star teams. He's one of nine Astros who has had his uniform number (25) retired. He didn't just perform on the field, he set a standard for excellence on the field and was a consummate professional in the clubhouse and the community.
On Saturday morning, he'll simply be one of the proudest parents on earth as he watches his two sons, Jose Jr. and Enrique, get their degrees in sports management from Rice University.
If that sounds special, it's actually better than that. Jose Jr., 39, played his last game at Rice in 1995 before embarking on 12-year career in the Major Leagues. Through the years, he "kept chipping away" at his degree before finishing a few weeks ago.
Enrique, 31, ended his collegiate career as a member of Rice's 2003 national championship team and spent nine years in professional baseball. He returned to school full-time last year and credits his Rice coaches, especially head coach Wayne Graham, with helping him through the transition.
"They welcomed me back to campus with open arms," he said. "I couldn't have done it without them. After nine years away, it was very difficult to get back into the grind."
That the two brothers will end up at the same place on Saturday after all these years is a tribute to their perseverance, smarts and a commitment to fulfilling a promise to their mom, Zoraida.
"She deserves the credit," Jose Sr. said. "She's the one who made them good students and taught them to have good study habits."
Is that right, boys?
"Mom was very firm about getting our homework done," Enrique recalled from his youth. "We'd come home, and I'd be wanting to watch Punky Brewster. She was always, 'No, let's get our work done first.' The thing is, our sister (Shakira, a lawyer) is the super-smart one. So, yeah, my mom deserves a ton of credit for this day."
Jose Jr. added, "She said, 'All I want is for you to graduate from college. That's my request.' That stayed with me through the years. You know, now that I have kids of my own, I've borrowed from her in already putting a focus on college."
When Jose Jr., a husband and father of three, decided to return to school, he was doing work for ESPN. Last year, he took a job with the Major League Baseball Players Association to provide assistance and counsel for Spanish-speaking players.
As for graduating, he said, "It took some doing. It's a dynamic you have to balance. But honestly, I wanted it so badly. I'm so excited, so happy and proud. I'm so proud it's a Rice degree. I love this place."
He'll be forever indebted to Rice professor Clark Haptonstall, who told him: "OK, if you want to do this, I'll show you the way. I started on it and finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel."
As part of his original contract with the Mariners in 1995, the club had agreed to pay a portion of his education costs if he decided to finish his degree.
Maybe that's the larger lesson.
Jose Jr. and Enrique are adamant that if they were able to finish their degrees after so many years away, other players can do it, too. (Coincidentally, Phillies reliever Joe Savery, another former Rice Owl, will also be participating in Saturday's graduation ceremonies.)
"This degree means the world to me," Enrique said. "It lets people know I'm something besides a baseball player and that maybe they need to take me seriously if there's an opportunity. I'd say to all the guys out there who haven't graduated, this is something you'll always have."
For now, Enrique will continue to run Cruz Baseball Camps with his dad and brother. He'll give personal instruction to players and see what else the world has to offer.
For now, though, he'll take a moment to appreciate his family's accomplishments. As his father said, "This is a great day for them, but it's a great day for our whole family. We couldn't be prouder of them."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.