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Julio Cruz, 1954-2022

The catalyst of the Winning Ugly division winners has died.

Sports Contributor Archive 2019 Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The sparkplug of the 1983 Winning Ugly Chicago White Sox, Julio Cruz, has died. Cruz’s family made the announcement on Wednesday.

A couple of years ago, a number of pennant-winning 1959 White Sox passed away, and unfortunately it seems like these days, the 1983 division winners are in the line of fire, with Roland Hemond, LaMarr Hoyt and now Cruz gone.

Cruz came to the White Sox from the Seattle Mariners on June 15, 1983 for Tony Bernazard, in a swap of starting second basemen. Bernazard had put up 3.7 WAR in strike-shortened 1981, 2.9 WAR in 1982, and was off to a 1.1 WAR start over 59 games in 1983 when he was dealt, so this was in every sense a brash, challenge deal made by Hemond. The move was genuinely controversial in the clubhouse, as manager Tony La Russa considered Bernazard the “heart” of his White Sox clubs.

But the White Sox were 28-32 at the time, and had been hovering at four games under .500 for a couple of weeks, begging a change. Cruz arrived in Chicago, and while his performance was no better statistically than Bernazard’s would have projected to be, the club won six of seven and nine of 11 in the immediate aftermath. With Cruz on the club, the White Sox would finish 1983 at 71-31 (69-30 in games Cruz played in). In his 99 games with the White Sox, Cruz had seven game-winning hits.

He scored the winning run that clinched the division for the 1983 White Sox — against his former team, the Mariners:

“The ’Cruzer’ was the catalyst of that 1983 Western Division championship team,” White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said on Wednesday. “When Roland Hemond acquired him that summer, the team just took off. Julio became our igniter, and his positive energy was contagious in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the field. Sox fans will always remember him dashing across home plate with the [1983] division-clinching run. The White Sox organization sends its heartfelt condolences to Julio’s family and many friends.”

Cruz was not much of a hitter, but brought enormous value to the White Sox lineup with his fielding at second base. He also was a fierce baserunner, swiping 24-of-30 bases with the South Siders in 1983 and giving the team, with Cruz in the 9-hole, a “second” leadoff hitter. His importance as the catalyst of the winningest team in the majors placed him 24th in the 1983 AL MVP voting.

In the 1983 ALCS loss to the Baltimore Orioles, Cruz stepped up his offense and was one of the few White Sox players to hit well in the series: .800 OPS, with two steals.

After the season, Cruz was on the verge of signing as a free agent with California, the team that originally signed him in 1974. But in part due to the persuasion of broadcaster Ken Harrelson, Cruz returned to the White Sox, signing a somewhat unique deal that paid him roughly $370,000 per year through 2009.

Cruz returned to the White Sox in 1984 and had another incredible season defensively, providing 2.6 WAR overall in what was a very disappointing year for the team following up its 1983 division win. On offense, however, a turf toe injury was slowing “Juice” down; Cruz would undergo three surgeries during his career with the White Sox, never solving the issue. Tellingly, he had just 29 steals over his final 315 career games after swiping 314 in his first 841.

Thus in the 1985 and 1986 seasons, Cruz was reduced to a part-time player with the White Sox, with his final game in the majors as a ninth-inning defensive replacement in a 3-1 win on Aug. 31, 1985. Interestingly, his major league debut had come on July 4, 1977, with a 2-for-3 game against the White Sox as part of the inaugural Mariners club.

Cruz was released in spring training 1987, ending his career; Chicago GM Larry Himes, who managed Cruz in his first season of rookie ball in 1974, admitted he’d brought Julio back simply in hopes of finding a trade for him. Cruz had opted for his third toe surgery in the offseason, with an eye toward a comeback at age 32, rather than getting an artificial joint that medically would have ended his career.

For his career, Cruz produced 16.9 WAR, spilt roughly equal between his offensive and defensive contributions. His 10.3 career defensive WAR ranks 238 all-time among major leaguers and is tied for 28th among second basemen. He was an incredibly efficient base-stealer, with a 343-of-421 success rate (81.47%) that ranks 49th all-time among players with at least 50 steals.

Cruz had 916 hits over 10 seasons with the Mariners and White Sox. In 2003, he became a Spanish-language broadcaster with the Mariners, a job he still held as of his passing.

Cruz was 67 years old. His family’s statement was that Julio “passed away peacefully” at home on Tuesday while “surrounded by his loving family.”

Cruz is survived by his wife, Mojgan, and three sons, Austin, Alexander and Jourdan.

Let’s end this with a smile. An extraordinary story from Ron Kittle, via Bob Nightengale, this afternoon:

Mark Liptak also contributed to our coverage of Cruz’s passing.