After almost five seasons in the minor leagues, Jim Bruske is finally making his big pitch for a job in the majors.
His former coach at Loyola Marymount University, Dave Snow, always told Bruske that his ticket to the major leagues was as a pitcher. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately as he develops his pitching skills, the Antelope Valley native was also a good hitter.
Always noted for his strong throwing arm, Snow used Bruske in right field. That way, Bruske could hit four or five times a game.
The Lions went on to win the West Coast Conference championship in 1986 and traveled to Omaha for the school’s only appearance in at the College World Series.
Bruske was selected outstanding player of the NCAA West Regional that season when he hit four home runs and drove in 11 runs in the five-game tournament. In 54 games that season, he batted .321 with 12 home runs and 50 runs batted in.
Snow also used Bruske in the starting rotation, but the right-hander injured his throwing hand in an early season start against Cal State Fullerton and saw limited opportunities as a pitcher. Bruske was 3-1 with a 4.56 earned-run average for the eight games in which he pitched.
The Cleveland Indians, who drafted Bruske in the first round of the second phase of the major league draft in 1986, made note of Bruske’s offensive contributions to the Lions.
Bruske joined the Indians organization in mid-season in 1986 as an outfielder, alternating between right and center field. That was the routine until a year ago.
Just prior to Instructional League play at Baseball City, Fla., in September, the Indians told Bruske of the decision to let him pitch.
“It was a mutual decision (to try pitching), in that I said I’d go to Instructional League and find out if I was capable of pitching in double A,” Bruske said. “I did pretty well. Learned a lot, that’s for sure.”
It has paid off with a winning record for the Eastern League affiliate of the Indians. Bruske, 25, has an 8-2 record, two complete game shutouts, and a 3.57 ERA in 103 innings of work.
The pitching-poor Indians might call him up for the final month of the season, or have him join them for spring training in March.
Bruske knew he would need some refinement, so he reported to Baseball City following the ’89 season to work on his pitching flaws.
“Basically I started from the beginning (as a pitcher),” said Bruske, who has pitched in 30 games this season, 11 in the starting rotation. “Mechanics-wise, I was not even close to what I should have been. The pitching coach there, Will George, really helped me a lot. And he still is.”
George handles the Canton-Akron (Ohio) pitchers, as well as those in the organization’s instructional league.
A year ago, Bruske was named the Eastern League outfielder with the best throwing arm in a poll of observers by the monthly publication, Baseball America. So he knew he could throw hard. But he might have been trying to get the ball to home plate too quickly.
“I had had trouble rushing everything out with my pitching motion,” Bruske said. “Few coaches had ever worked on my mechanics before, although Coach Snow did a little bit at Loyola. I was always worried about hitting more than pitching back in my college days.”
Bruske hit .406 his sophomore at Antelope Valley Community College and impressed scouts enough to get selected by the San Diego Padres in the seventh round of the January 1985 draft. He was also selected by the Seattle Mariners in the third round of the June 1985 draft.
He also pitched at Antelope Valley and struck out 101 batters in 69 innings with a 2.50 ERA.
Snow initially listed Bruske as a pitcher on the Loyola roster. When Snow called on him to relieve in the ’86 regional victory over UCLA, Bruske responded with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief--allowing only one hit--and was the winning hurler.
The current Loyola baseball coach, Chris Smith, Snow’s top assistant in 1986, said that Bruske was one of the best all-around athletes the team has ever had.
“He is such a good athlete, it was difficult call as to what position was his best,” Smith said.
After the Indians signed Bruske, his destiny seemed to be as an outfielder. During his first three professional seasons, he played for rookie league and Class A teams at Batavia and Kingston (N.Y.) and double-A teams at Williamsport (Penn.). His highest was .243 at Batavia. At the start of the ’89 season, the Indians demoted him back to Kingston, and he hit .290 with five home runs and 38 RBIs in 63 games. He was promoted to Canton-Akron, but didn’t get much playing time.
“It’s funny, but I was having the best year of my career (as a hitter),” Bruske said. “They wanted me to go back to Kingston and get my confidence level up and hit for a higher average. I got called up to Canton and started off well there, too. I was doing well, but the next thing I knew, I was only in the lineup two times a week and my average started to drop.”
But Bruske has always remembered what Snow told him about his best chance of making it to the big leagues.
“I guess, right now, I’m throwing in the high 80s,” Bruske said. “I’m working on a change-up right now. That’s what I have to throw for strikes.”
Previously, his repertoire of pitches included only a fastball and a slider.
"(The Indians) are trying to get more of our pitchers to throw the split-finger fastball,” Bruske said. “At this point, they haven’t mentioned it to me yet, but I expect that when I’m at the instructional league in September, they probably will.”
Two of Bruske’s ’86 Loyola Marymount teammates have already played in the major leagues--Cincinnati Red relief pitcher Tim Layana and Dodger outfielder Billy Bean. Bean is currently playing for the Dodgers’ top minor-league squad at Albuquerque, N.M., but played half the ’89 season with the Dodgers and parts of ’87 and ’88 with the Detroit Tigers.
“After 4 1/2 years (of trying), I still love it,” Bruske said. “But it’s a job, and you learn that. I don’t miss hitting as much as I thought I would.”
But he doesn’t like all aspects of life in the minors.
“The bus rides from town to town on road trips are pretty brutal,” he said.
In the past few seasons, he’s hit against Layana in the Eastern League.
“I faced him 10 times--didn’t do too well, but I hit the ball pretty hard a few times,” Bruske said.
This season he’s pitched to Loyola alumni Bobby DeJardin and Don Sparks, playing in the New York Yankees’ organization at Albany, N.Y. After the season is over, and each of the Loyola baseball alumni have returned to Southern California, they stay in shape by working out together at Loyola.