As Tom Hanks famously said in A League of Their Own, “There is no crying in baseball.” But this is not about baseball.
Little of the weekend of March 16 was about baseball for the USC baseball team. In the early morning of Saturday, March 17, just hours after the team was swept in a doubleheader by Utah, tragedy struck the program. Mike Cruz, brother of head coach Frank, died of colon cancer at the age of 62.
As the head coach of one of the marquee college baseball programs in the country, Frank’s commitments are extensive. During the season, he works seven days a week, be it at the field for a practice or a game, or on the road recruiting players.
Mike was first diagnosed with colon cancer in July 2008, just one week after Frank was fired from his head coaching job at Loyola Marymount University. Mike had emergency surgery, and moved in with Frank not long after. Jobless, Frank had more than enough time to care for Mike. The two lived together for six months, and after surgery and chemotherapy, Mike’s cancer was in remission.
Frank was named the interim head coach at USC in August 2010. One week later, Mike’s cancer came back.
“It’s ironic because it came at a difficult time in my life in being fired, and came in one of the most ecstatic times in my life in being hired [at USC],” Frank said. “It really kept me balanced in terms of what’s important. (Being) hired or being fired is not what’s important. Life is important. Life and support are what’s important.”
Mike again started treatment when his cancer returned, and once it started to affect his daily life, he moved back in with Frank.
That was at the end of the 2011 season, when the season was already long lost for the Trojans. Frank’s commitments were more limited. There would be no postseason; he still had time to devote to Mike. But when this 2012 season started, Frank knew things would be different.
“When the season started, the number one priority was that (Mike) was comfortable,” Frank said. “So I always told him ‘Hey, if you want me to stay here I’ll stay with you.’ But he would always chase me out and tell me to go to practice. He’d say, ‘Go take care of the guys.’ That was his big thing.”
Frank and Mike were also comforted by the Trojans’ performance on the ball field. USC won seven in a row to open the 2012 season, their best start in 24 years. The Trojans dropped three straight, but reeled off five wins in a row. Their 12-3 record earned them a No. 24 national ranking.
But all throughout the Trojans’ success, Mike’s health was worsening. While Frank never missed a game and only a handful of practices, it was clear he had other commitments.
“I wasn’t able to either appreciate [the wins] or reflect much on the losses we had at that time because as soon as the game was over it was really over.” Frank said. “I’d go home to a bigger part of life.”
On Monday, March 12, Frank’s team was 12-3, getting set to start Pac-12 Conference play on Tuesday against UCLA at Dodger Stadium in an annual event known as the Dodgertown Classic. Before Frank left for work that Monday, Mike said he wanted a new USC hat because he planned on attending the game at Dodger Stadium the next day.
“I get home Monday night and I give him the red hat and he’s just as happy as can be,” Frank said. “He was so alert I told someone I was scared because he was doing so well. And then at about 11:30 at night I guess the adrenaline must have worn off, because he took a turn for the worst. And he hardly slept at all that night.”
Mike was simply “too out of it” to make it to Dodger Stadium. As he did with every game he couldn’t make, he watched online, and was disappointed with the Trojans 7-2 loss. On Wednesday, Frank was scheduled to go to a couple of high school games to see potential recruits. He went to one game in the afternoon and planned to go to another that night.
“But then I got a call from home saying [Mike] was having trouble breathing, so I went home,” Frank said. “And it just didn’t get better.”
On Thursday, Frank and his family took Mike to the emergency room “one last time.”
That Friday the Trojans played a doubleheader at home against Utah. Game one started at 2 p.m., with Frank arriving just in time. Game two wrapped up around 8 p.m. After being swept in a doubleheader, a coach might have any number of things to say to his team. And no doubt Frank did, but he also had other things on his mind.
It is that Friday that Frank regrets most of his handling of the situation with the team. He admits that, for perhaps the first time all season, the team knew how difficult things were at home for Frank, and he believes it affected their play.
“That’s my biggest regret,” Frank said. “Not only that I didn’t stay … with [Mike] that day. I think the team knew what I was feeling, and I wasn’t really and truly into it 100 percent and I don’t think they were. And I really felt responsible for that. I probably would have been better off staying away and allowing them to compete and do what they do.”
The team would never admit that their play was affected by Mike’s condition. But Frank was right about at least one thing: his players knew.
“[Frank] tried to keep it as much away as possible,” freshman pitcher Nigel Nootbaar said. “He did a really good job of staying positive and trying not to let it affect him. But I always tried to keep Mike in my prayers, like during the national anthem and whenever else I could. Because we knew the situation wasn’t good.”
Mike Cruz was given his last rites on that Friday, March 16. His family laid him down at 11 p.m., and he passed away at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Because they played a doubleheader on Friday, USC did not have a game Saturday.
“That was typical Mike,” Frank said. “He chose a day to pass away that we didn’t play and wasn’t going to affect the schedule.”
With no game on Saturday, the team instead had batting practice. No one would blame Frank for not coming to this particular practice. But he did.
“I came Saturday to get all the mourning and sadness out of the way with the team,” explained Frank.
On Sunday the Trojans again hosted Utah in the series finale, trying to avoid a sweep. There was a touching moment of silence before the game, and Frank threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“It was difficult Sunday,” Frank said. “But I knew that I had to be focused into the game with the players. And nobody ever said, ‘Win the game for Mike,’ or anything like that. But that was obviously in my heart, and it was definitely a way to help me grieve at that time.”
With heavy hearts, the Trojans responded, jumping out to a 4-0 lead and cruising to a 10-5 win.
“We never talked about it,” said pitching coach Dan Hubbs on playing the game in Mike’s honor. “Frank told the team to just play their game. But I can’t honestly say we weren’t thinking about it. How could we not have been?”
For two consecutive weekends after Mike passed, the Trojans played on the road, first at Stanford in Palo Alto, then at Washington State in Pullman.
“It kind of delayed some of my emotions,” said Frank. “Because when we finally got home for a home series, and you’re at your home for more than a couple of days, it really started to sit in. But you get through it. … And the team was my support.”
And for everything Frank gave to Mike, Frank said he has taken many valuable lessons from his brother’s struggle, plenty of which he shared with his team.
“I’ve always told the team was that this guy’s incredible,” said Frank of Mike. “He doesn’t let his illness affect others. And I tried to tell them, you can’t let your problems affect others as well. Those are the type of lessons I would share with them periodically.”
Now that Mike has passed on, Frank is a little more open with his players. He continues to share the lessons he has gathered in dealing with this great challenge.
“He’s a great faker,” said Frank of his brother. “Even if he’s in pain, he’ll fake like he’s feeling better and make me feel comfortable leaving the house. So he always acted different than he felt. And I try to tell the team that often: act different than you feel. If you struck out, you got to act different, because you’re going to come up again later.”