Jose Cruz Jr. came into the game as an unheralded prospect in 1997. Despite being the son of former Astros star, Jose Cruz, Junior didn’t make his MLB debut until the very old (by prospects standards) age of 23. To put things into perspective, Cruz Jr.’s teammate, Ken Griffey Jr., already have five years in the game by his age 23 season. So as expected, collectors weren’t hot on Jose’s 1997 Bowman Chrome rookie card because no matter what type of numbers could be amassed, the late start would affect his final numbers.
Jose’s Bowman Chrome card, much like many other prospects from the BC debut sat in dollar bins until the ’98 season when Kerry Wood struck out 20 hitters and his best rookie card was his ’97 BC. Suddenly, Bowman Chrome, one of the hottest products of 1997, was one of the hottest products again, only this time in 1998. That was also the year aging prospect Jose Cruz Jr. made his debut for the Seattle Mariners. Shockingly, in Jose’s 49 games, Cruz Jr. easily out-homered 27-year old Ken Griffey Jr.
I remember watching Baseball Tonight every morning and hearing about Jose Cruz Jr. and his home run exploits and watching the guys on ESPN proclaim the next great era in Seattle baseball would one day belong to Cruz Jr. He was THAT exciting. In barely a month and a half, Jose hit 12 home runs and then suddenly was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. I was in disbelief. How could Seattle walk away from a slugger who was on pace, in his rookie season, to hit 45+ home runs? None of it made any sense to me.
What manager wouldn’t want a line-up with Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, and a potential 50+ home run slugger in Jose Cruz Jr.? Unfortunately, the trade to the Blue Jays affected Cruz Jr. mentally and his swing was never quite the same. By the end of the season, Cruz Jr. ended up with 26 home runs in just 104 games, good enough for runner-up for the Rookie of the Year but nowhere close to what he could have done if his momentum wasn’t destroyed by a trade to Canada.
By the end of 1997, Jose Cruz Jr. was damaged goods but you wouldn’t know it by his movement among collectors. His Bowman Chrome rookie card was now permanently in Beckett’s Hot List and was the #2 most desired card in that set behind Kerry Wood’s entry. Card companies were predicting that Cruz Jr. was the next big thing and even placed him on an insert called ‘Back to the Future’ with the all-time Home Run King, Hank Aaron, suggesting that Jose was the heir apparent.
In 1998, in Jose’s sophomore season, Cruz Jr. managed to hit just 11 home runs which officially put to rest his rise to prominence among baseball card collectors. Jose did manage to string together a couple of great seasons in 2000 & 2001, including a 30-30 year but for the most part his career was spent jumping from team to team as a part-time player. In 2008, Jose Cruz Jr. was released by the Houston Astros, his 5th team in four seasons and no one wanted to sign him so he was forced into an early retirement.
To this day, I still don’t know why Seattle traded away their most promising slugger since Ken Griffey Jr. but I have a theory. I believe Kenny was jealous of the attention and the potential numbers this young slugger was capable of. Sure, Seattle had Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner and both had power but one was a lifetime DH and the other, Buhner, was in the twilight of his career by 1997. Kenny and Jose were both outfielders and coming into their prime years and would likely be neck and neck for years to come.
For Jose Cruz Jr., there were even signs that he was a better slugger than Kenny. The average wasn’t there but the possibility to out homer Ken Griffey Jr. was already proven from his lone 49 games as his teammate. I believe someone decided to bury Jose in another country to keep him away from Ken’s limelight. It should come as no surprise that after Jose Cruz Jr. was shipped away, Kenny’s numbers went through the roof and he ran away with the AL MVP award that year, the only one in his 22-year career.
In 2012, I tweeted to Jose Cruz Jr. that I believed Ken Griffey Jr. wanted him out of Seattle because he had the potential to be a much more prolific slugger. Surprisingly, Jose tweeted back one word … “Interesting”. Perhaps he was making fun of my conspiracy theory or maybe, just maybe I opened his eyes to the travesty performed by the elite members of the Seattle Mariners ball club in 1997 and how ultimately it killed the momentum of a 23-year-old kid destined for greatness.
Finally, I thanked him for his time in baseball and told him not only was I a fan but that there were still many of us left that collected his cards and appreciated him all around the world. Cruz Jr., again, was kind enough to tweet back once more. Thankfully, I was able to save that one.
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