He picks up an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, throws a small rock up in the air and swings away. One after another, the 3-year-old boy sends rocks flying into the Aguadillan sunset. The sweet crack of the plastic rang beautifully in his ear—he was in love.
For two years, that bottle was the only bat Michael Cruz knew.
After a while, his father, Carlos Cruz, whom he calls "Papi," started picking up rocks and pitching them to his son. He realized that his boy’s swing was short and sweet, but most of all — it was powerful. It was time to get Michael a real bat.
Carlos signed his son up for a little league team in his hometown of Aguadilla at the age of six. In this seaside Puerto Rican town, baseball is everything.
With his first game jitters behind him, he dug in, tapped the plate and sent the pitch sailing: creating a feeling that he remembers to this day. On this day, this little star was outshining the tropical sun. The ball flew so far, so fast that the umpire stopped the game to check his bat, not believing that such a small guy could do so much damage. There was nothing wrong with the bat.
But there was something right about the way Michael Cruz swung that bat.
From the time he was 11 years old, Michael’s Papi took him to the baseball field near their home to hit balls. The two of them did this every single day, three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening — from the time Michael was 11 until he left for his high school baseball academy.
This little field, with no grass and an infield full of rocks, became a second home for Michael.
June 10th, 2016
A patient, 20-year old Cruz sits in his boyhood home in Puerto Rico, waiting for the call that would change everything. The phone rings. The Chicago Cubs, Michael’s favorite team to watch growing up, are on the line — and in the 7th round, with the 224th pick in the MLB draft, they’ve selected him.
Like a big leaguer trying to dig out a triple, his heart races. Standing on third base, arms lifted high, he celebrates. But he, more than anyone, knows it’s a long way to home plate.
Shortly after, he walks over to that same old, grassless, rocky field, picks up a bat and swings away.
In the same place his big league dream was born, it was starting to come to life.
Cayey, Puerto Rico
Cruz played his high school ball here at an academy called “PRoBASEBALL HIGH SCHOOL.” The ‘o’ is intentionally lower-cased to emphasize the ‘PR,’ Puerto Rico’s shorthand name.
After one year at the academy, Cruz’s family was struggling to afford to send him there any longer. So, his father got a job as a cook for the academy while his Mother worked as a store clerk back home in Aguadilla. His family couldn’t always afford equipment, either. A local store owner donated a mitt and a bat for him to use, and neighbors chipped in to buy him catcher’s gear and other equipment.
His mother, Luz Rosario, whom Michael called an “angel from the Heavens” in a phone interview, recalled countless stories like these about people helping her son along the way. His parents rarely had the money, but they always had the love.
A story. Michael’s academy coach, Carlos Rivera, was showcasing some of his graduating players to a couple of college teams at a professional baseball field in Cayey. Cruz, 15 years old at the time, tagged along. College coaches watched on while Michael launched seven of 12 pitches well over the 320 foot fence in right field — “moonshots,” Rivera recalled. After the showcase, the college coaches only asked about one player: Michael Cruz. Coach Rivera recalled Michael’s father saying, “you cannot have my son yet, he is only 15.”
Cruz’s academy coaches also touted his work ethic and teachability, but more than anything, they spoke about his character.
“I used to tell Michael this, ‘There’s going to be two educations that you’ll get when you go to college,” Rivera said. “One is how to make a living and the other is how to live. He knows how to live well. He knows how to treat people well, he knows how to act like a professional.”
The College Days
Cruz learned plenty in both of those areas during his time in college. He spent his first two years at Claredon College, an NJCAA school in Texas. Cruz set the league on fire, hitting 434/.563/.819 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs in 56 games in 2013-2014.
Following two seasons there, he transferred to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“The biggest adjustment for him was how he got pitched to at the Division-I level, especially in the middle of the lineup,” B-CU coach Jason Beverlin said. “He saw a lot more breaking balls, no matter the count. He had to mature as a hitter approach-wise. Physically, the tools were already there.”
In one season at B-CU, he seemed to adjust quite well — batting .325, driving in 41 runs, scoring a team-high 50 runs and starting in all of the team’s 56 games at catcher or designated hitter.
When Michael was 13 years old, he told his mother, a native-born Puerto Rican who grew up in New York before moving back to her home country, that he needed to learn English.
“I told my mom that I needed to be able to speak for myself when I got interviewed,” Cruz said. “Because I knew that I was going to make it to the big leagues.”
Now, he’s doing just that. And if Michael has his way, there will be plenty more interviews.
“The first goal is to make the big leagues. But I also want to be the best catcher. I want to be in the Hall of Fame,” he said.
While Cruz’s abilities at the professional level are yet to be seen, his confidence is clear.
June 14th, 2016
Allow me — a 20-year-old student-intern with scout.com — to enter into the story.
Following our interview, though we were over the phone, I could picture his beaming smile as he thanked me over and over again for my time and talked about how special this was for him. He couldn’t believe that I had an interest in his life story. Later, he sent me a series of text messages. I’ll keep those words between him and I, but they were genuine, heartfelt and real. Three things you don’t always get from athletes these days.
I interview a lot of athletes and none have ever treated me like this. I add this anecdote to help illustrate Michael’s character.
I talked with his high school coach, his college coach and his mother — and they all spoke at length about Michael’s drive, confidence and humility. I can confirm that the Chicago Cubs are getting more than just a good player, they’re getting a good person. A special person.
For now, he’s just a seventh round draft pick with a big dream. But few could’ve imagined such a thing if they saw him swinging that 2-liter soda bottle 17 years ago in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Well, one person imagined it. More than that, he believed it. He knew it. And he was going to do everything he could to chase that dream.
That person was Michael Cruz — and someday, he might just wake up from that dream after crushing a ball over the ivy wall.