Cruz, Astros join Clemente family to give back

Volunteers pack meals at Houston Food Bank to help families in need after Hurricane Harvey

Cruz, Astros join Clemente family to give back

HOUSTON -- There is an iconic image of Jose Cruz sitting forlornly on the Astros' dugout bench after they lost to Philadelphia in the 10th inning of the deciding game in the 1980 best-of-five National League Championship Series at the Astrodome.

Cruz had singled in the eighth to drive in the run that sent that thriller into extra innings, and in that moment, he refused to leave.

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"It was not too good for me because we played so hard and we were so close to being a champion," Cruz, 70, remembers now. "That's why I was the last player in the dugout. I wanted to stay there until everybody left.

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"We fought the Dodgers the next year, and then in 1986, we played 16 innings [against the Mets] and lost. I'm looking to win all three games now and be the champion for the first time. The Astros need it, the fans need it, and I think we are ready to be world champions."

Cruz says "we" with pride, because as Astros community outreach executive and an eager year-round member of their outreach, he is part of this organization's heart and soul today. On Friday morning, he was at the Houston Food Bank, leading the way as Major League Baseball, members of the Astros' front office and the Clemente family packed 400 individually wrapped shelf-stable meals in just one hour to help families in need after Hurricane Harvey impacted so much of the Houston area.

The 19-year MLB veteran and two-time All-Star filled clear bags with breadsticks, Ocean Spray Craisins and packages of Chex to go along with other items passed his way. He focused on it intently, with the same passion he used to show at this time of year. He was even cheered by other volunteers, the way he heard cheers in Octobers of the 1980s.

"Everybody loves him," said Twila Carter, executive director of the Astros Foundation. "Whenever you ask him if he can help with something in community, he asks, 'When do you need me?' We were surprised when we got here today because Jose is usually the first one to show up. It turns out he had been sitting in his car waiting for all of us. That's Jose Cruz."

In a happy coincidence, this month marks the 25th anniversary since the Astros retired Cruz's No. 25 jersey. The 113th World Series is tied at 1 entering Friday night's Game 3 at Minute Maid Park, and now Cruz is in line for what could be that elusive ring.

"It's beautiful," Cruz said. "I'm so happy, because I played so many years and never had a chance to play in the World Series. Now I work for the Astros. We win, I'm going to go out on the field and celebrate."

In addition to Cruz and Carter, dignitaries at the volunteer packaging event included: Vera Clemente, MLB's goodwill ambassador and wife of the late Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente; Roberto Clemente Jr.; Reid Ryan, the Astros' president of baseball operations; Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs; Houston Food Bank president and CEO Brian Greene; and MLB Network host and Houston native Robert Flores.

Volunteers packed meals to help those in need in the Houston area.Mark Newman

"We're really grateful for the partnership with the Astros," Greene said. "The Astros are great community partners, making a great difference in our community as well as putting a quality product out on the field. We're trying to do the same thing, to make a difference in the lives of our community. Even in affluent society, we see problems. The volunteers make it possible to help that [student] so she's not thinking about how she can eat, she's thinking about the things she should be thinking about, maybe becoming an architect."

"All through the years I've worked in the game of baseball, you see the World Series, you see the volunteer opportunities, and you say, 'I want to be that team, I want to be in the World Series,'" Ryan said. "Here we are in Houston, Texas -- we have our Astros in it. And we're at the Food Bank, one of the charities that our organization works with on a monthly basis. Our players and staff come out here once a month and work at this wonderful place. We're able to raise awareness for the Food Bank."

Cruz said it is "important for me to help in any way I can." It has been an emotional year for him. Houston is his home, and he is part of the #HoustonStrong movement as the region continues to recover from the August hurricane. His native Puerto Rico is continuing to suffer after the devastation left by Hurricane Maria. Baseball continues to help so many disaster-torn areas in 2017, including the Game 2 event in Los Angeles, where MLB and the Dodgers worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles to aid Northern California wildfire victims.

"The Houston people have been great," Cruz said. "We've been helping Puerto Rico, helping everybody. Harvey, a lot of people got hurt. Now people are going to forget what happened, and they are going to remember this World Series. They're ready, I'm ready, and I just want to be a champion. The Houston Astros this year, they mean something."

Cruz's son Jose Jr. had an impressive career from 1997-2008 (finishing with Houston), and now there is the possibility of a third-generation Major Leaguer one day. Shortstop Trei Cruz, grandson of the Astros legend, was drafted in the 35th round this June by Houston. He has chosen to attend Rice, where his father went. Cruz Sr. said Trei has been hobbled by a knee problem recently, but "he's a week or two away" from being back.

Cruz was talking about Trei while dropping more food items into the bags and moving them down the line for boxing. Once the supplies were exhausted, there was applause among the volunteers. Cruz had batted .400 in that 1980 NLCS, and .300 in the '81 NL Division Series against the Dodgers. Now "Cheo" was back in October action, making an impact in a different yet meaningful way.

"To see so many people excited, talking about the World Series, talking about the Astros, I can't wait to be a world champion," he said.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him on Twitter @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub. "http://www.mlb.com/blogs">MLB.com/blogs hub. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.