BILLINGS — The Billings Mustangs announced in a press release on Monday that their 2021 field manager is longtime minor league manager Joe Kruzel, who had started his managerial career with the Mustangs in 2007.
Kruzel, 55, has spent the past 13 years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, most recently having served as manager of the Cardinals’ AA affiliate in Springfield, Missouri, in 2019, the release said. He had signed to manage the AA club in 2020 as well, before the minor league season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kruzel had been working his way up the ladder within the Cardinals’ organization; he served as manager at their Rookie League affiliate in Johnson City in 2013, then at their Single-A affiliate in Peoria from 2014-2016 and their short-season A affiliate in State College from 2017-2018.
During his first stint in Billings, the Cincinnati Reds, then the Mustangs' parent club, fired Kruzel and pitching coach Pete Magre, with the Reds director of player development at the time, Terry Reynolds, saying, "we just felt the club needed a change in direction." The Mustangs were 11-12 in the second half of the season at the time of the firing and had finished the first half of the season 20-17 and in third place in the Northern Division.
"It’s so beautiful out there, and I really enjoyed it," Kruzel told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com on Monday. "The people out there and the fans were tremendous to us."
This year the Pioneer League is a Partner League of Major League Baseball and the teams are no longer affiliated with major league clubs as the minor league baseball system was restructured in the offseason. When the Mustangs begin the 2021 season it will be the first time they've played in approximately 20 months as last year's minor league season was canceled due to the pandemic.
"Just really, really excited about the new challenge," Kruzel said. "It’s going to be different and a challenge for all of us because it’s new. Some of the stuff we’re going to have to learn quickly."
The Mustangs open the season on Saturday, May 22, on the road against the Idaho Falls Chukars. The Mustangs kick off their season at Dehler Park May 26, against the Rocky Mountain Vibes. That first homestand of the season will continue through the Memorial Day weekend, as the Mustangs host the Vibes for six games, concluding with an afternoon game on Memorial Day Monday, May 31, when all veterans, reservists, guardsmen and active-duty military will be able to attend for just $1. Visit billingsmustangs.com and follow the Mustangs on social media for ticket information.
Kruzel’s return to Billings not only brings him back to where he first started as a manager, and first worked with Mustangs general manager Gary Roller, it also reunites him with Mustangs team owner Dave Heller. Prior to managing, Kruzel spent five seasons (2008-12) as hitting coach for Heller’s Single-A club in the Quad Cities, the River Bandits. In his final year (2012) in Quad Cities, Kruzel helped his team lead the Midwest League in home runs (109) and RBIs (649).
"I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with Gary," Kruzel said. "Dave runs everything first class, and I expect this to be no different."
Throughout his eight years as a minor league manager, Kruzel has enjoyed success. In 2017, he led the State College Spikes to five consecutive campaigns of at least 40 wins and was the manager of the winning club in the New York-Penn League All-Star Game. He also managed Peoria (A) to the Midwest League postseason in 2015 and again in 2016. Across seven seasons as a manager in the Cardinals organization, Kruzel’s squads posted a record of 392-382 (.507); he holds a career mark of 423-413 (.506), according to the release.
“Joe Kruzel is everything you could want in a manager,” Heller said in the press release. “He is smart, savvy, dedicated and determined. He’s a winner. Most of all, though, he’s a great teacher, a man who has helped shape and mold countless major league stars along the way. I could not imagine a better choice to lead the new Mustangs, since we will be for many players their first stop on the road to the big leagues.”
Prior to being promoted to the Mustangs, Kruzel was hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds’ Gulf Coast League club in 2006. Before that, Kruzel in 2005 was assistant baseball coach at Miami (Ohio) University, where he tied the school record with 45 wins. Previously, he was the head baseball coach at the University of Toledo, where he served from 1993-2003 and was named Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year in 1999. Before starting his coaching career, Kruzel played second base at Toledo from 1985-1988.
Kruzel was elected to the Toledo City Athletic League Hall of Fame in 2018 and the Toledo Central Catholic High School Hall of Fame in April 2020. He resides in Hamilton, Ohio, with his wife Amy and three children A.J. (28), Jaime (24) and Abby (22), the release noted.