THE REDS were back in Cincinnati, and that included the freshly minted member of baseball's 600 Home Run Club. It was the day after Ken Griffey Jr.'s milestone shot had landed in the rightfield seats of Dolphin Stadium, and inside the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati media were making the rounds and soliciting reactions to the historic night. They descended upon the locker of leftfielder Adam (Big Donkey) Dunn, the team's Will Ferrell look-alike and clubhouse clown. But before a question could be asked, Dunn, wearing a black T-shirt with a yellow smiley face atop the words I HATE YOU, began, "He's a special player. It's exciting to watch what he's doing. But I've always known Jay Bruce was destined for greatness." Dunn paused, then—his words overflowing with sarcasm—blurted, "Oh, you guys want to talk about Junior? What about the Next Big Thing?"
This is an article from the June 23, 2008 issue
The Next Big Thing is Jay Bruce, the Reds' 21-year-old rookie centerfielder who, in his first three weeks in the majors, was the talk of the town even as his childhood idol closed in on 600 homers, even as 24-year-old righthander Edinson Volquez was off to the best start (9--2, 1.64 ERA, a major league--leading 105 strikeouts) by a Cincinnati pitcher in nearly 100 years. Baseball America's 2007 minor league player of the year and top prospect entering the '08 season, Bruce was called up from Triple A Louisville on May 27 and proceeded to enjoy the best debut week by a rookie in three decades. Over his first seven games he had 15 hits in 26 at bats, reached base in 22 of 33 plate appearances, scored 12 runs and drove in seven more, and hit three home runs, including a walk-off shot.
"Not a bad start," says the apparently hard-to-impress Griffey, who was 19 when he made his own ballyhooed debut 19 years ago. "He's doing a good job of taking the spotlight. After all the hype, I guess the fans are kind of excited to see him here."
You think? Bruce's number 32 T-shirt sold out at the stadium store less than 24 hours after the first shipment arrived. His debut had the highest rating for a Reds game broadcast on Fox Ohio this season. One of numerous fan-produced homages on YouTube has Bruce's face superimposed atop Superman's body, which hovers in the heavens before hurtling toward Earth as the voice of Marlon Brando intones, "I have sent them you, my only son."
The 6'3", 205-pound Texas-born phenom has opponents buzzing ("If you base it on the couple games we saw, he's already an All-Star," says Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell), women at the park holding up WILL YOU MARRY ME, JAY? signs and bloggers writing things like, "Is it me or does Bruce kind of look like Tom Cruise?"
Bruce may not be Ethan Hunt with exceptional gap power, but Reds fans can agree on this: With Griffey's days in Cincinnati numbered (many believe the rightfielder will be back in a Seattle Mariners uniform next year), the new Face of the Reds is already here—and he requires a shave only twice a week.
"In my 35 years [in Cincinnati] I've never seen anything like Bruce's debut," says radio play-by-play man Marty Brennaman. "I wouldn't say Reds fans are the best fans in the country, but I think they're the most knowledgeable when it comes to playing the game the right way. You really have to do something to impress them. These are people who have seen the great ones: Rose, Bench, Morgan, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, Barry Larkin. They know what a good player is, and they know what a great player is. They know this start by this kid isn't a fluke. They know Jay Bruce is going to be a great player for years to come."
JACOB WALTON heard the greatness of Jay Bruce before he witnessed it. "It was the first day of varsity practice, and I was in the dugout getting a drink of water," says the baseball coach at West Brook High in Beaumont, Texas, who was an assistant when Bruce joined the team for his freshman year in 2002. "I start hearing this loud whack, whack. I look up, and it's this sort of chunky kid, and he's only hitting pop-ups at this point, but you could see the sweet swing and the great bat speed that would produce that kind of sound. [Coach] Kevin McDonald looks at me from the mound with this stare that says, We've got someone who's going to be pretty damn good."
After a distinguished high school career—he was a Baseball America national player of the year finalist—Bruce was picked at No. 12 in the famously stacked 2005 draft by the Reds, who gave him a $1.8 million signing bonus. Two years later Louisville manager Rick Sweet was already begging the Cincinnati front office to promote Bruce to play in the Bats' injury-depleted outfield. The Reds did so grudgingly; though Bruce was slicing up pitchers at Double A Chattanooga, he was still a 20-year-old with only 66 at bats above Class A. In an e-mail to Sweet last July, Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky wrote (in all capital letters): FOR ONE WEEK ONLY. Bruce, however, quickly made the Reds think twice after he homered in his first game, then had a two-homer game a week later against Triple A pitching, which brought back sweet memories for Sweet.
In 1987 Sweet was the young manager of the Mariners' Class A Bellingham (Wash.) affiliate when a brash 18-year-old arrived fresh out of high school, ready to take professional baseball by storm. "I always wondered if I'd ever see a talent like that again," Sweet says of Ken Griffey Jr. "After two or three weeks of seeing [Bruce] in Louisville, I started thinking, Gosh, this kid is in the same category as Junior." In fact, Bruce wound up hitting .305 with a .567 slugging percentage in 50 games with the Bats last season. "In terms of all-around physical talent, he was there," Sweet says. "What impressed me most was his opposite-field power. The other thing was how he went about the game—always having fun, always a smile on his face. Just like Junior."
Like many young fans of his generation, Bruce grew up idolizing the 13-time All-Star who played his first 11 seasons and clubbed his first 398 homers for Seattle, but Bruce's admiration went much deeper. He modeled his swing after Griffey's, wore Griffey's line of Nike spikes and, at age nine, called the Seattle Kingdome hoping to talk to the superstar. (He ran up a hefty long-distance charge but never got past the switchboard operator.) Even after he went 3 for 3 with a double, two RBIs and two walks against the Pirates in his major league debut, Bruce says that his welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment came "when I walked by Griffey in the dugout on my way to the on-deck circle for my first at bat, and he kind of patted me with his bat. That was when I was like, Wow, here I am."
Bruce is still pinching himself—"The other day we were talking about paintball and go-karts," he says, "and I'm sitting there thinking, I'm talking to Ken Griffey Jr. about paintball and go-karts!"—but he doesn't hesitate to go to the future Hall of Famer for advice on topics ranging from pitchers' tendencies to the best way to lace up cleats. After a recent road game Bruce spent two hours in Griffey's hotel suite, talking to the 10-time Gold Glove winner about playing the outfield at Great American Ball Park. Says Walton, "Jay will call me and tell me all these things he's talked about with [Griffey], then he'll pause and say, 'You think I'm bothering him too much? I hope I'm not.'"
Griffey, 38, embraces his new role as Bruce's mentor. "It makes me laugh when I think that Jay is just seven years older than Trey," Griffey says, referring to his 14-year-old son. "I'll have to hit Jay up for some babysitting." Griffey has little doubt about Bruce's future in the game. "He doesn't let all the hype get to him, and when you're 21, trust me, that's not easy," Griffey says. "The other thing is, he's willing to learn and listen, and he's always getting better."
Ask any of Bruce's current and former teammates, and they'll tell you that what has made Bruce so good so soon is his ability to adjust. After a game last month in Louisville, for example, Bruce walked up to infielder Jolbert Cabrera and asked, "You think I'm ready for the big leagues?" Replied Cabrera, a nine-year veteran with four big league teams, "You need to work on your pitch selection. They're throwing you changeups away, and you're chasing them." The following day Bruce hit a home run and two doubles, and walked twice. Says Cabrera, "He totally changed his approach. After that he wasn't chasing pitches and started taking walks. Look it up: He already has [almost as many] walks in the big leagues as he had in the minors."
SCOUTS PROJECT Bruce to be a perennial .300 hitter with 25- to 30-homer capability who will move to rightfield after he fills out. Many liken him to a young Larry Walker, the former All-Star rightfielder and 1997 National League MVP who four times hit .350 or better and more than 35 home runs with the Colorado Rockies. "They see the sweet lefthanded swing, the speed around the bases, the great arm," says Walton. "But if you look closer, you'll see that [Bruce's] swing is actually much closer to Barry Bonds's. We teach kids to start their swing with their hands first, in front of their body, but Bonds uses his hips first. Jay does the same thing—that's how he generates his tremendous bat speed."
After his first 19 games with Cincinnati, Bruce had batted first, second and third in the order, but he was clearly the No. 1 target of abuse. Teammates have razzed him on everything from his buzz cut ("You don't even want to know how much he spent on that," says first baseman Joey Votto, a fellow rookie who has also gotten off to an impressive start) to his ill-fated attempt to grow a mustache. ("He's not capable of doing it, and he shouldn't even try," says Dunn.) Bruce has been duped into reporting to the ballpark four hours earlier than everyone else, and he has sprinted onto the field alone while the rest of the team remained in the dugout cackling.
But this was the best prank of all: Before a Reds-Yankees spring training game, Dunn told Bruce that Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter had requested baseballs signed by him. "He was real convincing about it, so I figured, hey, maybe those guys do collect baseballs," says Bruce. "So I sign them, TO ALEX... TO DEREK, FROM JAY BRUCE. Dunn had the balls delivered to the New York clubhouse. When Bruce came out for batting practice, he spotted Rodriguez and Jeter holding the baseballs, standing with Dunn and laughing.
The absence of a big ego is why Bruce is universally liked. "In Louisville we get every game the Reds are playing, and I have never seen a team follow a player like [the Bats] follow him," says Sweet. "When something good happens for Jay—and it was happening all the time that first week—I hear cheers go out everywhere, from the training room to the weight room to the TV room to the locker room. Everyone who's played with Jay roots for him because he's such a nice kid."
THE SON of a retired plumber and a special-education aide, Bruce had a humble upbringing in Beaumont. "We didn't have much," he says. "We lived paycheck to paycheck." To raise money that would allow him to play in Houston summer leagues as a teenager, Bruce walked door-to-door asking for donations and occasionally sat outside supermarkets selling Chick-fil-A coupons. "Jay didn't have his own car," says former high school teammate James Ewing, a second baseman at Southern Mississippi, "so when he went out, he drove his dad's brown rusty truck. We called it Old Brown. We drove it everywhere, to practices, to the gym."
Bruce grew up with two older sisters, Amy, now 32, and Kellan, who is 26 and mentally disabled. "Jay and Kellan, as long as I've known him, have been really close," says Ewing. "He'd do anything for her. I think she grounds him and gives him perspective. That's part of the reason why it's not the end of the world for him when he has a bad day at the ballpark." Flush with his signing bonus from the Reds, Bruce still did not make his first purchase—a new Chevy Tahoe—until after he had sent $50,000 to Amy and her family, and $100,000 to his parents so they could pay off their mortgage and, as Ewing says, "finally get rid of Old Brown and get a car that runs. "
Ewing recalls long walks home with Bruce after baseball practice. "We'd talk about someday getting to the majors," Ewing says, "and then we'd go to his house, sit down and have some ramen noodles and talk some more about getting there. We didn't know anything back then, definitely not how hard it is to live that dream."
Bruce is making it look easy—through Sunday he was hitting .342—though after his torrid start, he had to battle through a 3-for-19 minislump. Last Thursday, Reds manager Dusty Baker gave Bruce the day off after a second straight 1-for-4 game, but the following night Bruce led off with a home run against the Boston Red Sox. When he stepped to the plate for his next at bat, the sellout crowd at Great American howled, "Bruuuuuuuce." It's something he'll have to get used to. "Every day I feel more settled here," says Bruce, who recently moved with his longtime girlfriend into an apartment in Covington, Ky., across the Ohio River from the ballpark. "But everything's happening so fast."
So fast that he has barely had time to notice that he's no longer the Next Big Thing in Cincinnati—Jay Bruce is already the Big Thing.
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