Carol Cruse used to hate Sundays.
She and husband Eddie Cruse would baby-sit their 3-month-old great nephew Caden O’Brien on Fridays and Saturdays, and on Sundays they had to return him to his parents.
They’d hop in their green Chevrolet Blazer — Eddie in the front seat and Carol in the back with the baby — and take the 30-minute drive from Maiden to Rhodhiss.
On the ride home, Carol would cry.
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“Every time I kept him, I loved him more and more and more,” Carol said.
But they worried about his well-being.
Caden’s parents were teenagers in high school when they had him -- Eddie Cruise’s nephew is Caden’s dad. It was apparent the infant had problems. There were days when his bottles were not clean, and he jumped at the sound of loud noises.
“He was a nervous wreck,” Carol said. “Any kind of loud noise, or if somebody cleared their throat really loud, cough or anything like that, he would jump and just start screaming.”
When Caden was 7 months old, the Cruses offered to take care of him until his parents graduated. On Aug. 31, 1999, Eddie and Carol Cruse and Caden’s biological parents signed papers granting custody of Caden. The parents never asked for Caden back, and the Cruse’s raised him as their son.
Caden O’Brien is now a sophomore pitcher at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Last season, he posted a 7-0 record and a 2.62 earned run average and played a huge role in UNC’s run in the College World Series. Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Caden was named to the Watch List for the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award, given annually to the top relief pitcher in Division I baseball.
“His potential is unlimited,” UNC coach Mike Fox said of O’Brien.
O’Brien says he could not have done it without Eddie and Carol Cruse, who he calls his real parents.
“If it wasn’t for them, then I wouldn’t be here,” Caden O’Brien said. “I don’t know where I’d be.”
Where it started
Caring for Caden wasn’t always easy. When they took him home, he would bite himself and seemed stressed.
But after two weeks, the biting stopped. He was a different baby. If there was one thing Eddie and Carol Cruse wanted Caden to know, it was that they loved him.
Before Caden came to live with Eddie and Carol Cruse, he had lived with his young mother and her parents. His father wasn’t around much and Caden has only seen him a handful of times in his 20 years of life. The Cruses did not want to be more specific about Caden’s biological parents or his life before they took him in. They say they’d rather not talk about his biological father and mother.
“I’m a firm believer that if we had not got him, he’d be somewhere — then, at his age now — he’d been in jail, or possibly even dead,” Eddie Cruse said. “That’s just the type of situation that he was in at that time.”
Efforts to reach O’Brien’s biological parents were unsuccessful.
Caden grew up in Maiden, about an hour northwest of Charlotte. The population is 3,310. There are only two stop lights in the town.
When Caden was 2, he began throwing a baseball with his mother, Carol, 57, a factory worker, who once played softball. He gravitated toward the sport. In preschool, he’d wear a baseball cap, a t-shirt and a button up with one button fastened, and pretend to be “Benny the Jet” Rodriguez, his favorite character from the film “The Sandlot. ”
The Cruses say he was a natural.
“Both of us have been without to provide him,” said Eddie Cruse, 57, who is a dispatcher. “And when it came to baseball, I gave him the best of everything because he deserved it. If he needed a $350 glove, he got a $350 glove. If he needed a $400 bat, he got a $400 bat.”
‘The love for the game’
When Caden was 9 years old, Eddie Cruse hired a pitching coach for his son. Denny Lail would give Caden lessons about twice a week.
“When I first saw him he was a little scrawny boy,” Lail said. “He was a lefty, threw three quarters. But he had the love for the game. I just started working with him and we grew from there.”
One of the earliest lessons Caden learned about hard work came when he was working with Lail. After each session, Caden would have a list of drills that he would have to do at home. Eddie Cruse always made sure his son did his work, but one week he decided to see if his then 10-year-old son would do them on his own.
Caden didn’t and when he showed up to his training session with his pitching coach, Lail noticed. He sent him home. Caden has done his drills ever since.
“That resonated in his head,” Lail said. “When you’re not working, someone is working twice as hard as you.”
When he was 12, Lail had him playing two age groups up, and he was just as good, if not better, than his older opponents.
Caden ate, breathed and slept baseball. His parents told him that his top three priorities were school, baseball and then everything else. When a former girlfriend tried to get in the way of his baseball, Caden told her “see ya.” He was focused on a dream. To make it big some day.
Caden, who was a dominant pitcher in high school, committed to play baseball at UNC when he was 15.
The last time Caden O’Brien saw his biological father was at his high school graduation dress rehearsal.
His father was seeking forgiveness for not being in his life, and asked for tickets to Caden’s high school graduation. He said he wanted another chance to be in O’Brien’s life.
Caden was on his way to UNC-Chapel Hill to play for one of the best college baseball programs in the country, where he would eventually become one of the team’s key players this past season as a freshman. Caden said he doesn’t know why his biological father was there, whether it was because of his success, or whether he had really changed.
He told his biological father it wasn’t up to him to decide.
“God is the only person you need to answer to,” he said he told him. “If your intentions are good, he’s going to see that regardless if you are able to see me on a consistent basis or even come to this graduation. I’m sorry if that upsets you but you made the decisions in your life and I’m just being honest with you.”
With tears in his eyes, his biological father said he understood. He gave him a hug and left.
And that was the last time Caden saw him.
The Tar Heels were in a jam this past June. It was win-or-go-home in the College World Series, and UNC had found itself down by three runs in the third inning against a tough Oregon State team. UNC’s starting pitcher was struggling.
The night before, the coaches had talked about what they would do in this situation. If they had to switch pitchers early in the game they’d go to their left-handed freshman relief pitcher Caden O’Brien.
A quiet kid in the locker room, as Fox describes him, the 6-1, 190 pound O’Brien had shown throughout the season and the College World Series that he wasn’t scared of a big moment. As one of the hardest workers on the team, he had earned the trust of his coaches.
So they put him in.
“There was probably not a more prepared pitcher on our staff at the time, from being fresh and being able to give us some innings,” Fox said. “Of course his velocity that game was like we’ve never seen before.”
O’Brien was nearly flawless. During the regular season, he threw an 88 miles per hour fastball. In this game, his fastball reached 96. He retired nine consecutive batters before giving up a hit. After each inning, he pumped his fist a little harder. Meanwhile, UNC had caught up and took a 6-3 lead.
O’Brien had been preparing for this moment for most of his life.
“That’s adrenaline, that’s preparation,” Fox said. “Everything mixed together it just came to a perfect head in that game. And you know, probably should have finished it, quite honestly. Hindsight is always 20-20.”
Giving his best
In the top of the eighth inning, after pitching 4 1/3 innings, his longest outing of the season, O’Brien had finally run out of gas. He gave up a lead-off double, before Fox pulled him from the game. With two innings remaining and a three-run lead, the Tar Heels had what they thought was a comfortable lead.
“My arm was hanging at the end,” O’Brien said. “That’s like the most exertion I’ve ever given, and one of the longest outings I’ve had all year.”
But things began to unravel for the Tar Heels.
Oregon State scored four runs in the eighth and ninth innings to win 11-6.
“I’ve said to myself like 20 times I wish I would have told Fox that I felt better so I could stay in and give us a chance to win,” he said.
Oregon State would eventually advance to the College World Series Finals and win it all. But Fox said he knew he had something in O’Brien. He said what he did for the Tar Heels in that game was pretty special.
This season, O’Brien’s role will increase. Fox said the staff will use him in a number of different situations, and could use the sophomore pitcher as a starter.
“We haven’t ruled that out,” Fox said recently. “He can pitch in pretty much any scenario for us.”
O’Brien’s goal is to one day make it to the Major League Baseball. He knows he’ll have to continue to work hard to get there. His parents are a big reason why. They put a baseball in his hand and provided for him. When they didn’t have much they sacrificed.
That’s also why Caden works so hard.
“So if God and my parents have done all of this for me to be here, then what right do I have to take it for granted and not give my best every day,” O’Brien said with tears in his eyes.