Junior John Cruz has come back from a devastating ankle injury to help inspire Marriotts Ridge team with his bat, arm and heart

True diamond grit

Baseball

May 16, 2007|By Glenn Graham | Glenn Graham,sun reporter

Legging out a triple, pushing off the pitcher's rubber and pivoting around second base to turn a double play were all things Marriotts Ridge junior John Cruz took for granted, having played baseball since he was 6 years old.

But that abruptly changed one afternoon in late September when the 17-year-old was driving home from football practice in a heavy downpour.

Cruz didn't see the car that had just turned in front of him on Route 99 until it was too late. He smashed into the back of it, and the next thing he knew he was at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, being treated for an open fracture dislocation of his right ankle.

Knowing how much his son loved playing baseball, Paul Cruz asked Dr. Jason Nascone that night whether John would be able to play ball again, but there were more pressing concerns.

"It disrupted the entire ankle and was a limb-threatening injury. The bones came out through the skin and there was concern for infection. The first goals were to save his leg and then get him walking again," said Nascone, an assistant professor at Maryland's Department of Orthopaedics, who treated Cruz.

With a 9-inch plate and a number of screws piecing the ankle back together, he spent anxious early weeks being a couch potato, keeping his leg elevated. Months of tedious rehabiliation followed before Cruz - cleared to play in early March - found his way back on the baseball field to have a fine first season of varsity. As tough as some of the days were, he simply would have it no other way.

"When the doctors asked me what it would be like, if I couldn't play, I told them I wouldn't be able to answer that because it never came to my mind," Cruz said. "Throughout physical therapy, my main goal was just to be able to play again. I don't know what I would have done, if I couldn't play. I just love baseball."

This season, Cruz has made a smooth transition to third base, where there is less traffic than at second. He has pitched a complete game under the lights at Joe Cannon Stadium, beating Long Reach, 2-1. Batting first or second in the lineup, he is hitting .333 for the Mustangs' first-year varsity program, which finished the regular season with a 5-12 mark. But most important, Cruz has learned a lot about himself and inspired everyone around him.

"The only thing that he and I agreed on was that I needed him to be very honest with me," Marriotts Ridge coach Paul Eckert said. "My thing with any injury is: I'd love to have you play for us, but I really want you to be able to play with your grandkids. To John's credit, he was both tenacious with his rehab and also smart enough to know when to back off."

Unable to bat or run for the first four games, Cruz's first varsity action came on the mound in the team's second game against Oakland Mills. His weeks of frustration, lying on the couch and not even being able to get the remote for the TV, seemed far off to Cruz at that point.

"It felt like I was playing baseball for the first time - it was the greatest feeling," he said. "I just felt like I made a great achievement and there was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders - stuff I was carrying around not being able to play and help the team."

Co-captain and junior catcher Kyle Feldman, who has played with Cruz the past five years, was not surprised to see his best friend work his way back on the field.

"Everything he does, he works so hard for," Feldman said. "Not everyone says it, but you could tell how much he has inspired the team. When he went out there the first time, he was still hobbling quite a bit running to first base and was trying to leg out an infield hit, which he knew he probably couldn't get. But he still hustled and that was amazing. It got me pumped up."

Returning from a serious injury was nothing new to Cruz, who broke his collarbone playing junior varsity football during his sophomore year. Determined to get back on the field, his father said, John returned for the second-to-last game and broke the collarbone again.

"I don't know where he gets his grit from, but I admire him for that," Paul Cruz said. "He's resilient, and I think it helped him this time being in that position before. He's got the determination to make an impact and doesn't like to sit back and not do anything. He just wants to make a positive impact on everybody."

Eckert, who coaches third base, recalls the first of two triples Cruz hit this spring that proves a telling tale.

"I think our kids were surprised that I sent him, and I think I was a little bit, too," he said. "A month earlier, I know I wouldn't have sent him. But I thought, he's made enough progress and in that split second I waved him over. Once I sent him, I kind of thought: `What did I just do?' But he slid in safe."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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