The home run is baseball’s majestic moment, and never was there more magic than in 2019, when balls flew over fences in record numbers.
As unlikely as it might have seemed when the season began, the Minnesota Twins finished with the major league record after 307 slow trips around the bases, home runs that meant 101 victories and the American League Central title.
It all started last offseason, when the Twins were looking for a power hitter to anchor their lineup, a veteran who could guide a group of young players looking for leadership.
They found that leader in Nelson Cruz who, approaching 40 years of age, wanted to prove he could still be one of the most feared sluggers in baseball.
The Twins were high on analytics, launch angles, pitching high in the zone; they were establishing a relaxed culture under young manager Rocco Baldelli and seeking to increase the comfort of a large number of Spanish-speaking players.
Cruz gave them everything they wanted — a “messiah” in the clubhouse, soaring home runs, an incredible calmness, a miraculous recovery from a completely torn wrist tendon.
On behalf of the “BombaSquad,” Nelson Cruz is the Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.
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The baseball part is astonishing.
Cruz, who turned 39 during the season, was limited to 120 games because of two trips to the disabled list for a wrist injury that ended up being a complete tear of a tendon. Still, he hit a career-high .311 with 41 home runs and 108 RBI. He hit his 400th career home run in September, batting in the middle of a lineup in which teammates across the board were setting their own personal home run records.
“He was an animal,” said Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria, who intentionally walked Cruz three times during the season, including twice in one game.
In the clubhouse, the bilingual Cruz dressed in a corner stall and played the role of the wise sage, providing guidance to a group of players who were just realizing how good they could be. Pitcher Taylor Rogers, who has been with the Twins since 2016, joked at an awards show that Cruz was the “messiah,” someone who brought the team together. The locker room was full of fun as Baldelli kept rules to a minimum, and it worked under Cruz’s watchful eye.
Miguel Sano, whose enormous potential had gone unfulfilled because of injuries and lack of discipline, had the locker next to Cruz and found a sense of calm. No longer forced into a leadership role on the field, Sano belted 34 home runs in 105 games. Cruz’s influence on Sano was substantial, as the young slugger often gushed about Cruz helping him be a better player as well as a better person.
As the Twins roared off on a torrid home run pace, outfielder Eddie Rosario dubbed them the “BombaSquad,” and Cruz was the fulcrum of the most destructive offense in the history of baseball, the unquestioned general on and off the field.
Cruz is now beginning workouts at his home in the Dominican Republic, eager for a season in which he believes the Twins can duplicate their home run prowess and make a playoff push after being swept out in 2019 by the New York Yankees.
Another 101 victories?
“Yes, it is going to be hard to match that,” Cruz said. “Hopefully we can get to 100, at least.”
That statement was followed by his familiar high-pitched laugh.
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Cruz, who was not a major league regular until age 28, is the epitome of a late bloomer.
He was born in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, a town about 30 miles from the border with Haiti. His parents, Nelson and Dominga, were schoolteachers and were very strict.
“I was a kid and had to put forth the example at school,” Cruz said. “And I ask why I had to do this and that, and they said, ‘How can I discipline my students if I don’t discipline you?’ You have to be the example all the time.”
When Nelson was old enough, his father made him work at his uncle’s auto repair shop after school, leaving only a little time for his No. 1 sport, basketball, and less for baseball.
When asked what he liked the most — baseball, basketball or working on engines — he said: “Definitely not working with my uncle. I used to have nightmares [about the shop], even for years after I signed. I’d wake up sweating like, ‘Oh my God, I’m still working.’ ”
On Sunday, his one day off, he could play baseball, but he wasn’t in an organized league until he was 16, an age at which most Dominican stars have already signed. He joined the Mets organization at age 17 for $23,000, but it would take 11 frustrating years and four organizations before he would stick in the major leagues.
At the end of spring training in 2008, Cruz was taken off Texas’ 40-man roster after the other 29 teams declined to claim him off waivers.
And worse … “They asked me to pitch,” Cruz said.
Before the pitching request gained traction, he worked with minor league coaches on his stance. He was shown video of hitters who had open stances in the batter’s box.
“When a player gets to that point, they are kind of at rock bottom,” said Seattle manager Scott Servais, then the Rangers director of player development. “They are open to change, and I wanted to try some things. And to Nelson’s credit, he was open to it. He opened up his stance and tried to do some things with his swing plane to get him more consistent and get to more balls through the strike zone.”
The stance Cruz still uses today clicked right away. He was MVP of the Pacific Coast League that season, batting .342 with 37 home runs and 99 RBI in 103 games for Oklahoma City. After the season, Cruz was approached to play in the Japanese leagues and take his career down a different path.
“The Rangers said no,” Cruz said.
Cruz landed on the AL All-Star team as an injury replacement for Angels center fielder Torii Hunter in 2009, finishing the season with 33 home runs and 76 RBI. A year later, he picked up the nickname “Boomstick,” the result of a video game commercial he shot with Athletics pitcher Andrew Bailey, the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year.
Cruz’s 2019 season with the Twins was his fourth of 40 home runs or more, and he won the Edgar Martinez Award as baseball’s top designated hitter.
“I know what he meant to the Twins this year,” Servais said. “You could see it in their dugout. Again, one of those guys I root for … except when we play against him.”
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Cruz has delivered motivational speeches to young Latin players through his journey, a shining example of how a player can prolong his career through dedication and effort.
He also is an example of what not to do.
In 2013, 14 players, including Cruz, were suspended for their involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Alex Rodriguez was front and center in the drama, eventually drawing a 211-game suspension. Cruz was among players who had gone to the anti-aging clinic founded by Anthony Bosch. There are no records of Cruz failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs, but documents showed he purchased products from the clinic.
Cruz was given a 50-game suspension that was a blow to the high-flying Rangers, were forced into a one-game tiebreaker against Tampa Bay for the second AL wild card. Game 163 was Cruz’s first game back, but Texas lost.
He moved on to Baltimore for a season, then joined Seattle in 2015. At each stop, Cruz acknowledged that he made a mistake and used poor judgment. He has told minor leaguers not to head down the same path he did.
“I’ve talked to them and I talked to a few guys with Texas, particularly the minor leagues, every year,” Cruz said. “My last year in Texas, I spoke to them during instructional league, then in Baltimore and then Seattle.
“When you make mistakes and you are really sorry about it, you want to go out and just talk and go and make sure you do that right thing. When you are out of the game like I was, it makes you really appreciate the game. I feel like every game and every inning that I’m playing, I have to be that way.”
Cruz addressed his role in the scandal and vowed to move forward when he joined the Twins. Post-suspension, he reached the 40-home run mark in 2014 in Baltimore, followed by 44 and 43 in his first two seasons with the Mariners. His 346 home runs in the past decade are more than any major leaguer.
“Nelson is the same guy every day, contributing on the field or not,” Servais said. “That really helps out in your clubhouse. We saw the same thing.”
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Cruz is fresh off a European adventure, with Instagram posts from Italy, France and Monaco. One photo includes the caption “Nelson Bond” as he holds a martini at a bar.
But now it’s time to get back to work. Cruz, who is married to Solani Genao and has two children, has returned home and, on Dec. 15, walked into an expansive workout facility built on his ranch to start swinging off a tee. The building includes a long batting cage and a well-equipped weight room, and players are invited to work out with him.
After the holidays are over, Cruz will move his workouts outdoors and go through as many as three hitting sessions a day.
“He’s honed his routine and his life really well, and it’s great for the rest of the players to watch that,” Baldelli said. “Their life is going to be different from Nellie’s and their routine is going to be different, but they see it done in a very good way. Nellie does everything in a good way.”
Cruz believes his routine is the best way to remain productive as long as possible.
“Nelson was the master of time management,” Twins baseball communications director Dustin Morse said. “He came in, he got to work. He did his stretching, then his weights, his conditioning, his diet, his nap, address you guys. Then he also wasn’t afraid to say, ‘No, I have to do X. I have to go out and hit the velo machine with Sano.’ He really set a good example.”
Yes, that does include a daily nap. Sometimes it is 20 minutes, sometimes an hour, but usually 30 to 40 minutes.
When he reached the majors with Texas, Cruz would enter the players’ lounge and steal the cables and video game controllers so teammates wouldn’t wake him.
“That was big with him,” said former Twins closer Joe Nathan, who played with Cruz in Texas. “I think [Adrian] Beltre did it. I would go in there and play ‘Golden Tee’ and they would come in next to me and go to sleep.
“He was ahead of his time. Now you’ve got every college in America trying to build nap pods.”
In Baltimore, Cruz napped in a chair in a meeting room, with pitchers waking him so they could have their strategy sessions. He requested a nap room before signing with Seattle and did the same with the Twins. The Twins put one across the hallway from the entrance to their clubhouse, near the waiting room for players’ families and friends.
On the road, Cruz is at the mercy of furniture. Reporters walked into the clubhouse in Cleveland during a July series and found him under a blanket on a sofa.
“Cleveland has a pretty good sofa,” Cruz said. “Kansas City, you have to go into the laundry room, and that one is a little hard.”
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Cruz initially did not know he had such a kindred spirit in Baldelli, who is on an incessant quest to make sure his players are well-rested. But Cruz is a huge supporter of Baldelli’s plans, which include reporting to the ballpark later and flying into road cities before an off day when possible.
“I didn’t know anything about him,” Cruz said of Baldelli. “Once he started talking to me, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, me too.’ I know how important it is. It played a big role for us because we all understand and he understands how rest can help.”
While in Texas, Cruz learned about professionalism from Beltre and Michael Young. In Baltimore, he shared that knowledge with Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado. In Seattle, there was a mix. He had Robinson Cano as a contemporary as well as such youngsters as Ketel Marte and Mike Zunino. While with the Mariners, he launched his Boomstick23 Foundation to support education in the Dominican Republic.
With the Twins, this well-traveled power hitter made an instant impact.
“To my view of it, the thing that he brought to our organization which really had a huge impact was the fact that his work ethic is sensational,” said Twins General Manager Thad Levine, who was with Texas during Cruz’s time there. “It’s very specific. It’s very targeted. And I think he instilled that with the guys. Get your work done because he knew that to be the right way to win.
“But he also knows the grains of sand are slipping though the hourglass for him and there is only so much time he has. So he, I think, elevated their sense of urgency around the point of getting their work in such as when they get to game time, they are ready to impact. He wasn’t going to have those teachings take three years to sink in. He wanted to deliver those pretty emphatically.”
Cruz’s next goal is success in the playoffs.
“It would be nice to have another starting pitcher, you know,” he said. “Pitching is the difference, even with the type of offense we have.
“If not, I think it still can be enough to go to the playoffs. We know what it takes to get to playoffs, but that is not enough, take care of the next step.”
As he begins to work up a sweat in the Dominican Republic, that next step would be easier if Cruz delivers another 40-home run season in a season in which he will turn 40.
“I should be taking care of everything this year, if I am healthy,” he said.
After the magic of 2019, why not?