His summer job provides occasional euphoria, the bliss of hitting long home runs and winning baseball games. But Nelson Cruz's winter vocation, in his Dominican Republic hometown, furnishes thrills that he says are just as rewarding.
"Just seeing people coming without teeth, and they're really uncomfortable talking to you. They don't look you in the eyes, they don't smile," said the former Twins slugger, whose foundation funds a free dental clinic in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, in the far northwest corner of his island homeland. "And once they leave the place, you can see the joy. They're really comfortable. They can smile. They can talk. … It's definitely really, really stuff that makes me proud."
For benefaction like that, and countless other examples, Major League Baseball is proud of Nelson Cruz. On Wednesday, the sport held him up as the best humanitarian among current players, endowing Cruz with the Roberto Clemente Award. He is the fourth Twin to be so honored, joining Rod Carew (1977), Dave Winfield (1994) and Kirby Puckett (1996). Each of the previous winners is now a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Wait a second, you're saying — Cruz isn't a Twin. And it's true, the 41-year-old designated hitter was traded to Tampa Bay on July 22, shortly after the Twins made him their nominee for the prestigious award. MLB informed the Twins they could choose a different nominee, but the team stood by its nomination, believing the veteran, who also won ESPN's Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award in 2020, was long overdue for recognition by his sport.
"No one is more deserving," Twins President Dave St. Peter said. "His dedication to uplifting those around him is unmatched, and we are in awe of all he has accomplished on and off the field."
Most of those efforts are centered upon his home country and his hometown, where his Boomstick23 Foundation has provided emergency vehicles, doctors, optometrists, dentists, and many other much-needed resources, and is currently building a community and education center where, among other programs, children can receive school supplies.
But he has also donated time and money to charities in the cities he has played in, Seattle, Minneapolis and Tampa among them. He's always found willing partners, Cruz said, the Twins among them.
"We have pretty good relations here, between me and the Twins and the whole organization," he said. "It's something that they told me they'd help me with, all the events and all the stuff that I have to do in my community, in the Dominican, in Minneapolis. So they were involved."
Fittingly, the announcement of Cruz's award, named for the Pirates Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering relief supplies to hurricane victims in Nicaragua, was made by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred during a community event at the Houston Area Women's Center Shelter, where the league intends to restore a play area for children. The pairing is significant because, eight years ago, Manfred suspended Cruz for 50 games as part of the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.
"This is life, you know? We're all expected to make mistakes and we're all expected to get better," Cruz said of his second chance. "And that was my goal, to get better in all the ways that I can. I wasn't doing [the charity work] to get an award, I was doing it because I thought it was the right thing to do."
Cruz was recognized before Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday in Houston, and soon will return to the Dominican Republic to resume his off-season workouts, and philanthropic works.
He's got one more item on his to-do list this winter, too: Finding a new employer. Cruz, off a season in which he hit 32 home runs, drove in 86 runs, and slugged .497, is a free agent once more. Where might the 449-home-run hitter, 40th in baseball history, land?
"I have no clue. We cannot discuss that [yet]," Cruz said with a laugh. "But hopefully someplace near you."