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Bruso at ease with decision to retire

Steve Yingling

Once a tantalizing pair of rungs from the top of the major league ladder, Greg Bruso has every reason to be bitter about his unfilled dreams on the diamond.

But he isn’t.

After climbing out of a Sierra winter wonderland more conducive to a snowboarding or skiing career, Bruso became the ace of the UC Davis pitching staff in 2002 and then a minor league star in the San Francisco Giants’ organization. He set a precedent for a community where baseball is often confined to a gymnasium until the unrelenting winters give way to late springs.

Despite his unparalleled successes on the diamond, the 1999 South Tahoe High graduate’s decision to retire earlier this year wasn’t a cumbersome decision. Bruso tired of the long bus rides and nomadic lifestyle, which contradicted the way he was brought up in South Lake Tahoe.

“I don’t miss it right now and I thought I would,” Bruso said. “I’m enjoying time off, nights free, living a normal life. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.”

Bruso, who will turn 26 next month, decided to retire in December, informing Gary RailCats’ skipper Greg Tagert of his decision. Tagert asked Bruso delay his retirement for a month to see if his choice was final. Bruso never wavered.

“It was all my call, my decision and no one influenced it at all,” he said. “I just decided it was time to move on. It was fun, but it can’t last forever.”

Bruso left professional baseball with a lasting memory. The RailCats captured the Northern League championship last summer. Bruso made two relief appearances in the final series with Fargo, and Gary rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to claim its first championship.

“I played on some good teams. Last year, that was a great team all the way around – a lot of good ballplayers who pushed each other to win,” Bruso said.

In his final season in a pro uniform Bruso compiled a 5-7 record with a 4.69 earned run average – hardly numbers that compared to his first two minor league seasons when he was with an major league affiliate. But like his previous seasons Bruso demonstrated expert command, striking out 71 while walking just 12 batters in 94 innings.

Gary used him exclusively as a relief pitcher late in the season after he began the year in the starting rotation.

“Jamie (Bennett), Greg, and Mike (Schaefer), along with Randy Vanderplow and John Gonzalez, have all expressed that the satisfaction from winning the championship in 2005 was something they don’t think they could ever repeat as a player,” Tagert said. “All five are high-quality characters and will be extremely successful in their future endeavors.”

What kept Bruso from making a big leagues roster? Luck, his upper-80s fastball, a shoulder injury and a trade from the Giants to the Brewers’ organization all contributed to derailing what looked like a fast track to the majors when Bruso began his minor league career in 2002.

After an All-America season at UC Davis in 2002, the Giants drafted Bruso in the 16th round. He pitched more like a first or second-rounder that summer. Bruso tore up the short-season Northwest League, registering a league-best 1.99 ERA for Salem-Keizer. His coaches marveled at his work ethic and conditioning.

That fall, Bruso was selected as co-MVP of the Giants’ Arizona Instructional League.

The Giants must have sensed that Bruso had something special because they nearly used him in a spring training game the following year. Bruso was all set to pitch the 10th inning against the Royals, but the Giants were able to hold onto a one-run lead in the ninth.

“When they called my name down there to follow Felix Rodriguez, I got extremely nervous,” Bruso said at the time.

Starting the 2003 season with the Giants’ Single-A team in San Jose, Bruso overcame a slow start to earn a spot in the California League All-Star Game. His 4-0 record and 1.38 ERA in May for the last-place Giants earned him organizational player of the month. But before he could join the all-stars, the Giants promoted him to their Double-A team in Norwich, Conn. He quickly adapted to the higher level of play in the Eastern League, registering five wins and a 3.42 ERA in 11 starts.

His enormous early success made him a hot commodity and the Giants couldn’t resist dealing him to the Brewers late in the season. The trade, which sent veteran infielder Eric Young to the Giants, was reported on ESPN’s SportsCenter. At the time of the trade Bruso was 12-9 with a 3.27 ERA in 25 games between Norwich and Class-A San Jose. He has allowed only 22 walks while striking out 122 batters in 160 innings.

The Giants’ front office seemed to regret the trade.

“We gave up another good kid in Bruso, who’s going to pitch in the big leagues,” said Giants’ General Manager Brian Sabean. “It’s tough to give up kids, because sooner or later, we’re going to need these guys.”

The trade was tough on Bruso, mainly because he pitched well wherever the Giants placed him.

“At first I was a little disappointed because I enjoyed playing for the Giants’ organization,” said Bruso, who grew up rooting for the Giants. “As I thought about it more, I realized I might get a better chance in this organization. The name of the game is to get to the big leagues. I’d like to do it with the Giants, but it’s a business and you have to learn to go with the flow.”

Milwaukee retained Bruso at the Double-A level, sending him to Huntsville, Ala. Bruso continued to get it done on the mound, posting a 1-1 record and 3.60 ERA in the final weeks of the regular season. He also delivered in the posteason, winning a decisive game of a playoff series before losing the final game of the Southern League championship series.

Although Bruso made the adjustment to Double-AA ball that summer, the Brewers quickly lost faith in the right-hander following a shoulder injury during spring training in 2004.

Bruso suffered a scapula injury and remained in Arizona until the first week in July. The plan was to have him pitch for Single-A High Desert for up to six starts before returning him to Huntsville. The promotion never came as Bruso labored for the last-place Mavericks, compiling a 1-7 record with a 5.48 ERA.

That Bruso fell out of a favor was evident during his next spring training. He was given only four one-inning relief stints during practice games.

“It was totally different as far a my prospects went,” Bruso said. “I felt at home with the Giants … they drafted me and kept pushing me up through the levels. I respected that. When I got with the Brewers I felt like I came to a screeching halt.”

The Brewers waived Bruso in late March, telling him that he wasn’t in their future big-league plans.

“That doesn’t mean we’re right or wrong. It’s just with the players we have in our system we didn’t think he could help us at the major league level,” said Scott Martens, the Brewers’ assistant director of player development.

Gary, a member of the 12-team independent Northern League, signed Bruso more than a month later.

Sensing that his career was nearly over, Bruso indicated that he would retire if he finished the season with the club.

“I’ve known for some time, but not last year,” Bruso said. “If I was in affiliated ball, it might be different. I definitely feel I can compete at that Double-A level. For me, though, it feels like a long road to get back there.”

The time-consuming travel scheduled also played a major role in not returning to Gary. Long bus rides are the norm in the Northern League. When the team plays in Canada, the bus ride from Gary typically takes 16 hours one way.

“I thought about it a lot this fall, going back and forth, then decided it was best to retire and start something new,” he said.

That new career will be one that he’s actually very familiar and comfortable with. He’s been working at Ernie’s Coffee Shop, learning the restaurant business from his father, Paul. Later this year, Bruso plans to begin looking for a place in Sacramento to open his own restaurant.

“He’s always done really well with it,” Bruso said. “While I was growing up I got to see him all the time. You can do restaurant business and have family at the same time. That really stuck out for me.”


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