CLEARWATER, Fla. – As kids, they rode their bikes to each other’s houses. They played Little League and high school ball together.
As adults, they hunted and fished together, always washing it down with a cold beer and a few laughs.
Jay Bruce and Justin Hoose were boys, as the saying goes.
“We started playing together in tee ball,” Bruce said. “And we were always close. I had my first sleepover at his house. Toothpaste in the ear, shaving cream, you name it, we did it. He was the first person I ever ding-dong-ditched with.
“We did everything together. And regardless of whether you wanted to have fun or wanted to laugh or wanted to have a good time, when he came around you were going to do all of those things.”
The phone call came in December when Bruce was in Idaho picking up a hunting dog. Back home in Beaumont, Texas, his lifelong friend Justin had been hospitalized with a sudden and serious illness. A few days later, he was gone, way too young at the age of 32.
“It floored me,” Bruce said. “We have a tight group of friends from high school and it floored all of us. It still stings. I still can’t believe it. It’s something no one would have imagined.
“I always believed we’d one day be old men talking (crap) on each other and then …
“It’s really made me understand and realize that life is precious and can be taken from you so quickly and to just love the people you’re close with.”
Justin loved the Dallas Cowboys so much that friends were encouraged to wear Cowboys’ colors to his memorial service. A few years ago, Bruce arranged for sideline passes at a Cowboys game.
“We had a blast,” he said.
In 12 seasons as a major league outfielder, Bruce has played in Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Seattle and Philadelphia. Justin supported his friend, and rooted like crazy for him, in every one of these towns.
So, as Bruce prepared for spring training this year, he decided to do something for the old friend that supported him so much. He phoned Phillies equipment man Phil Sheridan and asked if he could change his number from 23 to 9. That was the number Justin wore when they were teammates on the baseball team at West Brook High School in Beaumont.
Changing numbers in the big leagues is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it requires league approval. Merchandisers often object because they have existing stock with the player’s number already on it. But everything lined up favorably for Bruce because he’d only been a Phillie for a few months after being traded from Seattle last season.
“I got here in June so there’s not a lot of stuff out there,” he said. “But if there was merchandise out there, I would have been willing to buy it to do this.”
There aren’t many Bruce jerseys with No. 9 on them in the merchandise stores yet. But there is another one out there. Before he left for spring training, Bruce, a husband and father of two young sons, made sure to order one for Joseph Hoose, the 10-year-son of his old pal Justin.
Bruce took batting practice with his new number on his back Tuesday and felt as if his old friend was looking down on him.
“Justin was special,” Jay Bruce said through misty eyes. “He was an incredible person. Wearing this number doesn’t fully honor who he was a person, but it brings a little bit of him with me.”