Wham! Jose (Chco) Cruz, the Astros' impish leftfielder, slammed his bat against a table last week, shattering the quiet of the Houston clubhouse.
"Hey!" a dozen voices cried out at once. Cruz hit the table harder.
"T. Scott, get your gun," Pitcher Bob Knepper called to utility man Tony Scott, who had recently purchased a handgun. "Shoot that man." Whereupon Cruz produced a third, even more deafening blast.
The sound of Cruz's bat has been echoing ever louder not only in the Astros' clubhouse but also throughout the National League. At the end of last week Cruz had batted .379 in his last 41 games, to raise his season's average to .322—just two points behind league-leader Bill Madlock of Pittsburgh. At 36 Cruz could become the oldest National League batting champion since Stan Musial, also 36, in 1957.
Cruz's little-noted success resembles that of his team. Since dropping their first nine games, the Astros had played at a .561 pace through last Sunday, the best performance for that period in the league. In the process, they have produced candidates for Rookie of the Year (Reliever Bill Dawley), the Cy Young Award (Pitcher Nolan Ryan) and Manager of the Year (Bob Lillis). Even if none of them wins, the season can't be called a disappointment. The Astros were 78-70 at week's end and a solid third in the West Division, trailing Los Angeles by 6½ games and Atlanta by three.
If the other Astros had been as steady as Cruz, Houston's record would be even better. A lifetime .281 hitter, Cruz is heading for the highest average of his 14-year major league career. It helps that he's playing five pounds lighter than last season, at 185. He also has had more productive hitters around him—Shortstop Dickie Thon, First Baseman Ray Knight, Third Baseman Phil Garner—than in past years. But Cruz has been befuddling pitchers since the Astros bought him from the Cardinals and made him a regular in 1975. He holds the bat with his hands high, takes an exaggerated step √† la Mel Ott and Sadaharu Oh and slashes at everything thrown at him—high, low, fast, slow. Even so, he hits line drives to all fields and infield "chop-chops" that he beats to first with his 3.8 speed.
"Throw the ball three feet over his head and outside, and he'll hit it down the leftfield line," says L.A. Pitcher Pat Zachry. "Three feet over his head and inside, and he goes to right." Moans Dodger Pitching Coach Ron Perranoski, "All you can do is mix him up."
"My swing is natural," says Cruz. "Most lefthanded hitters are low-ball hitters. I can hit anything. I see the ball, I hit it. If I take a close pitch, the umpire calls it a strike, and I don't like to fall behind on the count. So I go up there hacking." Through Sunday he had hit 13 homers and driven in 82 runs—notable figures when half your games are played in the capacious Astrodome. Only once this season had he gone more than two games without a hit. And last Friday against the Reds he got his third four-hit game of the year. (He also had seven three-hit games.) On Saturday, he spoiled Johnny Bench Night with a two-run game-winning homer in the sixth inning. Says Houston Batting Coach Denis Menke, "I just tell him to watch the ball and not swing at too many bad pitches."
The only time Cruz's freewheeling ways betray him is when he's on the bases. Though Cruz had 28 steals, he'd been caught stealing 16 times and, because of bad judgment, had been nailed several times more trying for extra bases on batted balls. In press boxes all around the league, blundering runners are referred to as graduates of the Cruz School of Baserunning.
That's a fault the Astros have learned to accept. Says Lillis, "The thing about Cruz is he works hard, he's all business, and he has fun doing it."
But how does Cruz do it so well at 36? His trim physique and nonstop conditioning—he has only 8% body fat on his 6-foot frame—are undoubtedly two factors. During the season, most players are content to lift some light weights and do some stretching. Cruz does those things and also, when his schedule permits, runs with Victor Lopez, the women's track coach at Rice University. "We go two, three miles and do sprints—100, 200,400 yards," Cruz says. "I get tired doing nothing around my house." Between games he also enjoys tinkering with vintage cars. In Houston and in Puerto Rico he maintains about a dozen, but his favorite is a 1946 Cadillac.
When the season ends, he takes his wife, Zoraida, and children, Jose Javier, Jose Cheito, Shakira and Jose Enrique, home to Puerto Rico, where he plays winter-league ball—as a rightfielder—from late October to mid-January.
"With the long schedules you can get mentally tired," he says. "I like to do things different. I'll wear high socks, low socks, fool around with teammates...." Anyone who has been around Cruz can finish his sentence: "...show up for interviews early, late or even on time; sneak up behind teammates and make them jump." Says Garner, "He does a lot of crazy things, but he does one thing right—hit to all fields."
The eldest son of a grocer-farmer, Cruz played four different sports at Arroyo High. Two of his four brothers, former big-leaguers Heity and Tommy, are playing in Japan, and Tommy was at week's end leading the Pacific League with a .336 average for the Nippon Ham Fighters. "Imagine that," says Cheo, thinking positively, "two batting champions in one family."
But Cheo is unquestionably the pride of Puerto Rico. "Everywhere he goes people yell, 'Cheo, Cheo,' " says Kenny Hand of The Houston Post, who accompanied the Astros to an exhibition series in Puerto Rico two springs ago. "He's the most popular ballplayer in Puerto Rico since Roberto Clemente." With his dashing good looks, he's also a hit in the Astrodome, where crowds roar to the P.A. announcer's introduction of "Crooooz!"
Early in the season, with Ryan hurt, Dawley still in the minors and various on-field difficulties, Crooooz was one of the few things Houston fans had to cheer about. But the front office never panicked, even when it looked as though the team might never win a game, and the Astros began their stunning about-face. "You have to give management credit for not making wholesale changes after the bad beginning," says Garner.
"We concentrated on improving areas that had been costing us games, especially fielding and moving up runners," says Lillis, who, along with his coaches, received a new two-year contract last week. "There was no finger-pointing. We told the players that we had faith in their ability and set .500 as our first goal. We made it by the All-Star Game. Then we concentrated on climbing each rung of the ladder until we got into contention."
As for Cruz, he just kept cruising along. Wham!