Bruett tries to rebuild his pro career with the Saints

Scott Bradley

He was a freshman playing for the Gophers baseball team, and J.T. Bruett had barely turned 18 years old. To top things off, he was the team’s starting center fielder.
Minnesota coach John Anderson doesn’t experience those circumstances too often. Although he may have felt the urge to close his eyes whenever the ball flew toward his rookie in center, he soon learned Bruett had the hustle and talent to play with the best.
In an early spring game against Michigan at the Metrodome in 1986, Bruett got his chance in the spotlight. The game featured future professional players including Wolverines’ pitcher Jim Abbott, and the game was nationally televised on ESPN.
But Bruett, playing in his first career conference game, stole the show. There was one play in particular that Anderson remembers.
A Michigan player hit the ball deep toward center field. Then Bruett, the Gophers’ “Charlie Hustle,” raced to the edge of the warning track, climbed the Metrodome’s flexible wall and robbed the batter of a home run.
“It was a sensational play to watch,” Anderson said. “In a major league stadium on national TV. It was just a great athletic play, and I’m sure he still remembers it well.”
Bruett, who has experienced brief stints in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins in 1992 and 1993, may not be the authentic “Charlie Hustle” — that distinction goes to former Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose. But Bruett’s love of baseball makes him unique to the sport.
It also makes him a perfect fit for the St. Paul Saints. Bruett, 27, signed with the fan-friendly Northern League club earlier this spring, and he’s hoping to make it back to the majors by next year. He shares that goal with Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry, who are also playing in the intimate 7,000-seat Midway Stadium next to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
That’s quite a contrast to the big stadiums, which all three players have experienced, and the high salaries and convenient plane travel associated with major league ball.
“It’s obviously a whole different atmosphere here than the majors,” Bruett said. “It’s much like a Double-A situation here. Long bus rides. Small parks. I’ve been though it all before. I would prefer it otherwise, but I’ll make the best of it and go from there.”
Bruett is trying to make a comeback after several seasons with the Kansas City Royals’ and Cleveland Indians’ minor league teams. While playing for the Triple-A Royals team in Omaha, Neb., last summer, Bruett suffered a stress fracture in his leg, which forced him out of the lineup.
“Injuries are always frustrating,” Bruett said. “You can’t make an impact and do well when you’re sitting on the bench with an injury. Hopefully I can stay away from that this year.”
The Saints began their short exhibition season Monday and will begin their regular season May 31 in Duluth. Bruett is ranked second on the Gophers all-time stolen bases list with 77, and he has always been known for his defense.
Anderson said it seemed like Bruett made an impact on the field every inning.
“When he got on base, he could create some opportunities for us,” Anderson said. “His speed was big because it helped us score runs, but it also helped take away runs from the opposing team. He was able to run down some extra base hits.”
Making the transition from the college level to the major leagues has proven an overwhelming feat for the former Gophers star from Milwaukee. Saints first base coach Wayne Terwilliger also coached Bruett with the Twins, and said he’s pulling for Bruett in his pursuit of getting called up by a major league team.
“When I was asked if J.T. could help out the team I said ‘Damn right,'” Terwilliger said. “I knew he was an excellent outfielder. I’ve always liked him defensively. He has good hands and a strong arm.”
Even if Bruett doesn’t reach his goal of returning to the pros, he can always reminisce about his days in the majors and be proud that he never gave up. But perhaps one of his finest baseball moments will always be the catch he made as a freshman in the Dome.
“That was a big thrill,” Bruett said. “Especially being only a freshman. Obviously I had never been in a situation like that before playing in a big stadium on national television. It was a special occasion and a special memory that I’ll always have.”