Nelson Cruz took part in a Zoom interview three weeks ago with two producers from ESPN as they recorded content in advance of the ESPY Awards on Sunday night.
The Twins designated hitter was one of five finalists for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, and had the opportunity to discuss the extensive charity work he does in his native Dominican Republic as well as the United States.
But the sports network threw him a curveball. They informed him that he had won.
Cruz, a six-time All-Star who has hit 401 career home runs, likes curveballs when they are served over a plate. This one, he wasn’t ready for.
“I was crying, man,” Cruz said. “It was really emotional. It was like an interview and they asked all the questions and they asked me if I won the award, what it would mean. And I said it would be great, it would be special, and with that money it will help out a lot of people in my country and in the States. But if anyone else wins it I will be happy because it would be the right call.
“Then they told me, ‘Congratulations you won the award.’ I just started crying man; it touched me pretty good.”
A few of Cruz’s relatives were in the room as well, leading to a big celebration.
The award, named after the late boxing and social icon, is given to an athlete who has had an impact in his or her community through sports while sharing the same principles that Ali did, including confidence, conviction, dedication and respect. The winner of the award receives $100,000 donation to his or her charity.
The other finalists, a group Cruz was very impressed with, will receive $25,000 for their charities of choice.
It includes former Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love, whose history with panic attacks has led him to support mental health management, and won the Arthur Ashe Award for courage. Lynx forward Maya Moore, another finalist, put her basketball career on hold as she fights for criminal justice reform as well as the release of Jonathan Irons, who has served 22 years of a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault. The conviction was overturned in March but is under appeal.
WWE star Titus O’Neil, another finalist, is active in education, health and wellness initiatives in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., and has helped more than 200 student-athletes in the area attend college. And there are twins Devin and Jason McCourty, both defensive backs for the New England Patriots, who have pushed for criminal justice reform for juveniles as well as eliminating disparities in educational funding.
While Cruz waits, and hopes, for the 2020 season to begin, he’s been active in his community, donating food and medical supplies to the needy as recently as two weeks ago. His past endeavors include donating a fire truck and building a police station for his hometown of Las Matas De Santa Cruz, in the Dominican Republic. And he dreams of building an education and wellness center for children there. The money that comes with the award could be the start of fulfilling that dream.
“I definitely feel blessed,” Cruz said. “Never in my dreams I felt like I was going to win this. I don’t think we do it to be recognized. We do it because we feel is the right thing to do. That is what our heart is telling us to do. It’s always nice to be recognized that what you are doing is the right thing.
“Just to be nominated is a great thing but to win it, it just fills your heart of joy and you feel blessed.”
The year 2020 has not been kind to the world, as it continues to grapple with COVID-19. And the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has led to outrage and demands for change.
Cruz could not help but to think of what Ali would be doing today.
“Especially these days, with what is going on with the racism and the strife and all the things that are going on right now,” Cruz said. “He would have been the first one fighting for the cause. That makes the award even more special.”