For Big Train catcher Gaby Cruz, the sight of a new school wasn't the most noticeable he saw when arriving at Bryant University.
“It’s just palm trees and avocados and mango trees back home," Cruz said. "I've never seen an evergreen or something like that. It's new to me.”
Born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father in Miami, the climate and cultural differences at Bryant, located in Smithfield, Rhode Island, were stark contrasts from his childhood.
In the Kendall area of South Miami, Cruz and his family lived amongst a heavily Latino population, speaking Spanish at home and with friends.
“It’s a different world down there,” Cruz said. “Everywhere you go you kind of need to know a little bit of Spanish. The supermarket, putting gas in your car, there’s Spanish everywhere.”
When it came to sports, it was only a matter of time until Cruz got involved. His father Oscar was a cyclist and judo fighter in Cuba. But for the younger Cruz, it was baseball that became his passion, though more through chance than desire at first.
“I actually started playing baseball because I was too big to play football when I was younger, so it was the only sport I could play” Cruz said.
Cruz eventually became a star at South Dade High School, hitting for a .401 average in his three years on the varsity squad. South Dade head coach John Burnside described him as a natural hitter and leader in the clubhouse.
Burnside memorably recalled Cruz’s final at-bat of the 2016 District Championship game his senior year. South Dade had runners on first and second with no outs, a prime opportunity to bunt both runners into scoring position.
“I was afraid to let him swing because I could just see in my mind a double-play,” Burnside said. “And I had a pretty good hitter behind him but I also knew if I bunted them over they’d probably walk the next guy.”
Subsequently Burnside made the call for Cruz to lay down a bunt. After fouling off the first two pitches, Cruz sat in an 0-2 hole and risked a third-strike call if he fouled off another bunt attempt.
On the very next pitch Cruz ripped a ball down the line for a game-winning double.
“Sometimes I wonder if he didn’t bunt them foul on purpose so he could swing at it,” Burnside said.
As his successes in Miami high school baseball began to grow, Cruz’s recruiting profile did the same.
After seeing him play in the World Wood Bat Tournament in Jupiter, FL, Bryant head coach Steve Owens and his staff provided Cruz the offer he was looking for.
“The moment they saw me they loved me, they wanted me there,” Cruz said. “They made a great offer and it was an up-and-coming program.”
Burnside also noted that Bryant’s scholarship offer was too good for Cruz to turn down.
“Gaby didn’t want to burden his parents,” Burnside said. “The offer was so huge that he kind of shut everybody else off.”
Cruz committed to the Bulldogs at the beginning of his junior year and held his pledge the rest of his high school career.
Once at Bryant, Cruz joined a rising Bulldogs squad while making adapting to the colder climate of Rhode Island.
"Back home we would go to the beach on Christmas," Cruz said. "Now it's a foot of snow. So it's definitely a lot of adjusting to do."
In his freshman season, Cruz hit .269 with one home run and 18 RBIs in 48 games as Bryant took home their sixth-straight Northeast Conference title.
“Started off hitting the ball well but struggled – I wasn’t finding holes,” Cruz said. “Turned out having a really, really strong second half of the year so it was a lot of learning going on. Got really a lot better behind the plate and going to be probably a lot better this year.”
This summer Cruz enjoyed a solid season for the Big Train, hitting .275 with seven RBIs in 19 games of action. Moving form Rhode Island to Maryland for the summer also provided another adjustment period for Cruz, but he has been nothing but positive about his time to the Bethesda area.
"I've loved my summer here [with] Big Train," Cruz said. "It's awesome. Bethesda's a beautiful area -- I was telling my girlfriend I wouldn't mind moving here when I'm older."
Behind the plate playing time was hard to come by for Cruz in a crowded catching position that included Big Train’s Most Outstanding Hitter Logan Driscoll (George Mason), LCS Most Outstanding Player Justin Morris (Maryland), and second-year player Michael Emodi (Creighton). But the Bryant man took the opportunity in stride and even played some first base to get himself on the field.
“They showed me how to be a little bit more mature, handle myself before the game, during the game, [catch] pitches,” Cruz said. “It was nice to work with guys like them.”
Now as the Big Train celebrate their sixth Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League title, Cruz has been able to reflect on his fond memories in Bethesda before heading back to Bryant for his sophomore year.
“It’s been awesome,” Cruz said. “A lot of really great guys, a lot of new friends. Hopefully I’ll stay in touch. It’s been a lot of fun.”
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