Sons of Astros greats look to make roster

February 20, 2008 4:39:32 PM PST
Their jerseys read "Cruz" and "Niekro" on the back, conjuring images of two of the Houston Astros' all-time greats. But these are the sons of Jose Cruz and Joe Niekro -- Jose Jr. and Lance -- and they've arrived at spring training as non-roster invitees, concerned as much with finding work as they are with honoring their father's legacies.

The 33-year-old Cruz Jr. is among a half-dozen players vying for one backup outfielding spot while Niekro, 29, is trying to nab a reserve role at first or third base.

They played together in San Francisco in 2003 and reminisced about their shared childhood, when the Astrodome doubled as their playground and the place where their fathers earned a living.

"That was pretty much my first memory of being in a big-league stadium," Niekro said. "It was the greatest thing in the world being in there."

Cruz Jr. remembers countless pickup games in the tunnels and the batting cages, where his father used to lob pitches to the kids.

"There was always a whole group of us," Cruz Jr. said. "Looking back, it was a special time for us. We didn't think of it that way, of course."

The elder Cruz played for Houston from 1975-87 and ranks among the franchise's top 10 in every significant hitting category. He's the first-base coach now and still wears his old No. 25, even though its one of eight the franchise has retired.

But manager Cecil Cooper has already told the father and son that Jose Jr. won't get any special treatment when it comes time to trim the roster, even though Cooper and Cruz are close friends.

"He has to separate and so do I," Cooper said. "It has to be based on performance. He's got to come in and he's got to show us that he can still play and help us."

Cruz Sr. has kept some distance from his son, though he can't help but do a double-take when he sees him batting or shagging fly balls.

"It's a little strange for me, seeing another Cruz," he said. "I know a lot of people in Houston are really excited to see him working out with the team. I just hope he does good so he can make the ballclub."

Cruz Jr. has been trying for years to join his father with the Astros, but his contracts and the team's priorities never dovetailed. He's played on eight teams in 12 seasons and San Diego released him in July 2007 after he hit only .234. He finished last season with the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate.

Before hitting the big leagues, Cruz Jr. starred at Houston's Bellaire High School and then at nearby Rice, where he still ranks among the school's top 10 in career batting average (.376), RBIs (203) and home runs (43).

He told his father last fall that he only wanted to play for Houston in 2008 and the Astros signed him to a minor league contract in November.

Now, the happy ending is up to him.

"It would definitely be a career accomplishment, just being able to come full circle and come back to where all my roots are," Cruz Jr. said. "Hopefully, I can retire as an Astro. It would be nice to get that trifecta -- high school, college and for this team."

Niekro faces the same challenge, well aware that what his father accomplished as an Astro won't count for much as he tries to land a job. Joe Niekro, who died in October 2006 from a brain aneurysm, played for Houston from 1975-85 and still is the franchise's winningest pitcher with 144 victories.

When the Astros signed Lance to a minor league contract in January, the team's equipment manager called him to say his father's No. 36 was available if he wanted to take it.

"Of course I said yes," Lance said.

He arrived at spring training a few days before the first full-squad workout and seeing his new uniform hanging in his locker triggered a flood of memories.

"Just walking in two days ago and seeing 'Niekro' with '36' on the jersey, that was pretty special," he said. "Just to see the Astros chair and the Astros jersey, that's when it hit me. I wore '36' a little bit in San Francisco, but it's a little different seeing it on an Astros jersey."

Wherever he plays this season, he'll carry with him a photograph of his father, a candid shot of Joe leaving a wedding.

"He's kind of looking at the camera and he doesn't want to smile," Niekro said. "He's ready to leave, he's got his shirt unbuttoned, he's got his fishing hat on. It's my favorite picture of him."

Like Cruz Jr., he wants to forge one more bond with his father by becoming an Astro.

"Even if it's not opening day, if it's any time during the season," he said, "stepping on a big-league field during a big-league game with that jersey, that would be very special for me and my family. I would definitely be honoring my dad."

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