Loyola Marymount University (LMU) baseball coach Frank Cruz has international acclaim to bring to his position this season.
Cruz, 45, was awarded the Mizuno Coach of the Year Award by the International BAseball Federation (IBAF) Tuesday, January 18th.
The international group chose Cruz as its 2004 International Coach of the Year for his role as head coach of the 2004 USA Baseball National Team, which captured its first gold medal at the World University Championships in Taiwan in August.
“Anytime you throw the international title in front of something, it’s pretty exciting,” Cruz said. “I’m very honored to be considered because of the number of Olympic coaches last year.
“For some reason they (IBAF) chose me, and I’m thankful to be recognized.”
Cruz will enter his ninth season as LMU baseball coach this spring. He received the top honor over managers from all 112 participating member countries in the International BAseball Federation and all team levels.
He was also given the award over all Olympic baseball coaches in a year when the U.S. failed to qualify in the sport for the Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The LMU baseball coach has joined a select few American coaches to be given the award in the history of the International BAseball Federation. Cruz is the first American since 1995 to receive the honor, and only the fourth American ever. He is the only Team USA coach to earn the award in an Olympic year.
Cruz said he thinks a main reason he received such an honor was the success of the national team, which defeated Japan 4-2 for the World University Championships gold medal.
Japan had beaten the U.S. five consecutive times earlier in the year, but Cruz’s team “beat them (Japan) twice when it counted,” he said.
The U.S. team, which was composed of the best college players in the country, entered the World University Championships with a 10-7 record, but cruised to an eight-game winning streak to earn the gold medal.
Since the U.S. missed the chance to compete in the 2004 Olympics in baseball, there was additional pressure on the national team to do well at the World University Championships, he said.
“When the U.S. didn’t make the Olympics, I think the U.S. baseball organization took a lot of heat because they’re not there, so there’s quite a bit of pressure,” he said. “Anytime you put on a U.S.A. baseball uniform you’re a target because they all want to beat you.”
The other countries may have wanted to beat the U.S. in its national sport, but the U.S. came out on top by sticking together and having a strong pitching performance, he said.
“When we won the tournament, everyone was not only elated but also relaxed because the pressure was taken off,” Cruz said.
Cruz was instrumental in choosing the gold-medal squad by helping to narrow the field of 36 players to the team of 22 after a week of trials in North Carolina.
The gold medal victory last summer was not the first time Cruz has risen to baseball glory. He was also an assistant coach on the 2000 USA National Baseball Team, which won the gold medal at the 2000 Haarlem Baseball Week Championships in Holland.
The experience of leading a gold-medal caliber team offers a different opportunity than coaching at the collegiate level does, he said.
“It’s kind of like coaching your best two players and having everyone’s best two players,” he said. “To be able to deal with the elite was a great and valuable experience for me.”
Cruz, who has been coach of the LMU Lions baseball team since 1996, previously coached at University High School and was also an assistant coach at the University of Southern California.
During his time at LMU, Cruz has led the Lions to many impressive feats, including three consecutive West Coast Conference (WCC) Championships and three straight appearances at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Regionals from 1998 to 2000.
Cruz said that while he may have been able to coach for international competitions, the position at LMU is a “perfect match” for him because of the location and community.
“Coaching at the college level is a dream and it’s exactly what I want to do,” he said.
Cruz’s ability to lead his athletes to such major accomplishments relates to his method of trying to influence each player on his team.
“I try to get the most out of every player I have and I get that by being organized,” he said.
One athlete who knows firsthand the coaching style of Cruz is LMU junior pitcher Stephen Kahn, who was also a pitcher for the 2004 USA National Team.
“It was an honor to be on that team and play with players from all around the country,” Kahn said. “I had the chance to see Coach Cruz from a different perspective because they’re not his players.
“It was good to see how he handled that situation, and he handled it perfectly.”
The IBAF Coach of the Year award for Cruz is also an honor for the players and it may bring more talented athletes who will want to play for the LMU program, Kahn said.
“To be able to play for a coach who receives the award is not only an honor for me, but a plus for this organization,” he said.
Some of the keys to Cruz’s success as a coach are his decision-making ability, eye for talent and approachability, Kahn said.
The LMU Lions will open the 2005 season at home with a three-game series against the University of California-Berkeley Friday through Sunday, February 11th to 13th.
Cruz said a team strength this year will be its pitching, and the Lions will aim for another trip to the NCAA Regionals.
“Everyone is excited,” he said. “It should be an exciting year for us.”
Although Cruz has become the international pick as Coach of the Year with his success at the global level, he said he will continue to do his favorite job closer to home at LMU.
“I hope to be consistent and I hope to be here a long time,” he said. “I want to continue to put out quality teams.”