As the sun rose on a recent morning in Spring Training, Tony Cruz sat down a few feet from the clubhouse that he used to locker in a couple of seasons ago.
“It’s nice to be home,” he smiled. A rookie on the 2011 World Series Championship team, Cruz is back with the Cardinals as their Minor League Catching Instructor.
“I knew coaching was something I always wanted to do,” he said. “I love being around the game. I love the game. I just thank God he gave me the opportunity to jump in right here.”
The 32-year old Cruz had a minor league offer to play with the New York Mets, but he didn’t hesitate when St. Louis reached out with the coaching offer.
“I feel like once a Cardinal, always a Cardinal,” Cruz said. “I thought it was a pretty easy decision–especially having a family and being home. Spending time away from them the last few years was not an easy thing to do, so I thought it was a pretty easy decision to go ahead and take this job.”
Following his first five years with St. Louis, Cruz was traded to Kansas City after the 2015 season. He spend the majority of his playing time in Omaha (AAA) and then caught 52 games in El Paso (AAA) for San Diego in 2017. Last year, Cruz made it back to the big leagues for nine games with Cincinnati.
“Even my last few years here, I always tried to help the younger guys,” Cruz said. “Sometimes those younger guys don’t realize it doesn’t matter how many days you have in the big leagues, we have one goal–and that’s to win. We’re gonna need them to try and win, so I would try to help them out anyway I could. But definitely going back down to Triple-A, playing with some of those guys, just trying to teach them at the next level things that will happen, things that occur and come up and just try to coach them through that.”
And besides the tutelage Cruz received in St. Louis from the likes of Dave Ricketts, Mike Matheny, and Yadier Molina he also took advantage of his time with a pair of other Gold Glove winners in Salvador Perez and Tucker Barnhardt.
“Salvy, one of the best throwers in the game and then I watched Tucker, who was really good down ball,” Cruz shared. “He really can get under it and make it look good. Those were two things that impressed me from those guys, but I tried to learn everywhere I can. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
Cruz also has the experience of transitioning to behind the plate from another position. A former third baseman, he moved behind the plate in the minors and even played some first–and right field for the Cardinals.
“Transitioning, that’s not always an easy thing to do,” Cruz said. “We’ve got a guy there in Knizner, that’s what he’s trying to do now. I know he caught his last year in college, but I’m hoping that I can be a big help to him. He’s a big-time prospect. He can really hit. Working with him defensively, it’s been fun.”
Last season, Andrew Knizner hit a combined .313 in 94 games between Springfield (AA) and Memphis (AAA). And with the trade of Carson Kelly, Knizner is now clearly the top catching prospect in the organization.
“Offensively, he’s a really good bat,” Cruz assessed. “Defensively, he’s got a little bit of a ways to go–but he’s a hard worker, he’s a sponge. He’s open to new ideas, he likes to listen and work so I can’t ask for more.”
Part of one of the “Memphis Mafia” incarnations with Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, and Jon Jay, it’s not lost on Cruz that there is a new group of young players that are figuring to play a key role for St. Louis this season.
“It’d be interesting, they’ve down there in Memphis the last two years,” Cruz said. “It’s not an easy task. There’s a lot of guys out here. They draft I don’t know how many guys each year, so there’s always somebody behind you. There’s always somebody always working so you’ve just got to keep working. I think work is probably the number one thing. If you work at it, really hone your craft, know who you are, and control what you can do then you’ve got a shot. I always say, it’s not an easy game. I think sometimes people lose the fact of hard this game really is.”
Besides working with Knizner, the exact schedule of where and with whom Cruz will work with this season isn’t yet fully mapped out, but his goal is clear.
“I want the player to be the best player they can be and make their strides to whatever it is to get to the big leagues.”
photo credit: Brian Walton/TheCardinalNation.com; Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com