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A big grin crossed Philip Estrella’s...

A big grin crossed Philip Estrella’s face when a reporter asked

for that perfect word to describe his good friend and fellow Tornado

sidekick, Tito Cruz.

Ghetto.

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“Ghetto?” responded a dumbfounded Cruz. “Talk about ghetto. You’ve

got two TVs in your living room, and the one in the bottom doesn’t

work.

“But maybe you’re right. I am ghetto, because I work with what

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I’ve got and try to make the best of it. Ghetto Teto, that’s me.”

Estrella’s fresh answer to a not-so-fresh question summed up Cruz

-- known as Roberto Jr. on his birth certificate -- perfectly.

Because the Hoover High catcher and Long Beach State-bound 17-year

old is as “ghetto” as they come. But in a good way.

Nothing in Cruz’s life has come easy, not even the game at which

he is so dominant at now. But here he is, being recognized as one of

the premier players in all of Southern California for his

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unbelievable senior season, and with a scholarship to play the sport

he loves at the Division I level.

The sports writers and editors of the News-Press and Burbank

Leader are one of the many who simply could not ignore Cruz’s

achievements. That is why he is our All-Area Baseball Player of the

Year, after being a second-team honoree last season.

He might seem like he came out of nowhere the be the area’s best,

but his rise to stardom has a long and emotional past.

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*

Cruz has three people to thank for where he is right now. God, his

mother Maria, and his youth baseball coach, Mickey Moreno.

“He has taught me everything,” Cruz said of Moreno, a

well-respected coach in the area for many years. “He gave me my

foundation in baseball. I thank God, I thank my mom, and I thank him,

because without them, I wouldn’t be here.”

Moreno coached Cruz from the age of 6 until he entered high school

at 14. His influence over Cruz ran so deep that he got Cruz to stop

playing one of his favorite sports growing up, basketball.

“He told me, ‘you’re never going to see a Mexican playing in the

NBA,’ ” Cruz said jokingly. “Since that day, I haven’t touched a

basketball.”

That was back when Cruz was still in youth baseball, playing for

the Bombers in the Vaquero Little League. He was the star of that

team, along with Estrella, as the two went on to lead the Bombers to

the Tri-Cities Major Baseball title in 1997.

But when Cruz got to the high school level, baseball wasn’t so

easy anymore. Cruz struggled his freshman and sophomore years at St.

Francis, both on the field and off. All his life, he had gone to

Catholic schools, but suddenly, he wasn’t fitting in anymore.

It was clear, he needed a change in surroundings. Hoover provided

the perfect alternative.

Playing with the friends he grew up with -- most notably Estrella

-- Cruz began to shine again. He hit .469 with two home runs and 19

runs batted in his junior year, earning first-team All-Pacific League

honors from his shortstop position.

But Cruz’s name was still fairly obscure among those in the

baseball circle. That is, until the summer of his senior year.

That’s when Cruz participated in the Junior Olympics with his ABD

Bulldogs travel squad and started to get the attention of the scouts.

And that attention carried well into his senior year, where it was

nearly impossible to ignore him.

Cruz finished the season with a .518 batting average (41 of 79),

with five home runs, 27 runs batted in and 30 runs scored. His

slugging percentage was .924 and his defense behind the plate was

even more impressive than that.

Cruz threw out 19 of 25 (76%) would-be base stealers and picked

off 11 others.

“He was awesome,” Estrella said.

Added Hoover Coach Jim Delzell: “Tito obviously had talent, but

the most impressive thing about him was that he never once talked

about himself and his accomplishments. He’s a very humble kid.”

Cruz had plenty of accomplishments to talk about.

He was named Pacific League co-most valuable player, along with

Crescenta Valley’s Trevor Bell and Arcadia’s Brent Dohling. What’s

impressive about that is the fact that Hoover (15-10, 8-7 in league)

barely finished in front of Glendale in third place in league, yet

opposing coaches still felt Cruz belonged with the league’s elite.

The same goes for the rest of the CIF Southern Section. The

Tornadoes were bounced by Palmdale in the wild-card round of the

Division I playoffs, but Cruz was still named first-team All-CIF, an

honor reserved for players on teams that make a lot of noise in the

postseason.

But the accomplishment that is closest to Cruz’s heart is not

baseball related.

It’s the fact that he will become the first person in his family

to go to college, something his mother Maria can’t help but smile

about.

“I’ve always told him that you have to have your education,” said

Maria of Tito, who finished high school with a 3.5 grade-point

average. “I made sure that it was his grades first, then baseball.”

Maria not only guided Tito on a straight path, but she was also

his biggest -- and only -- family supporter.

Tito’s dad, Roberto Sr., has been more like a stranger in his

son’s life. Despite living just down the street from him, Tito says

his dad has seen him play baseball just once in the 12 years he’s

been playing.

“He says he’s busy, but my mom has always been there, and as long

as she’s there, everything is great,” Tito said. “It bothered me at

first, but I’m fine with it now. It’s no big thing.”

Said Maria: “He’s done a good job, considering he didn’t have his

dad around. Everything he has done, he has done by himself. He has

worked for everything he’s gotten.”

And that’s what being “ghetto” is all about.


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