ARLINGTON, Texas — From the first time Nelson Cruz stepped into the batter’s box at Camden Yards this season, he has heard that unmistakable sound from the home crowd — the long, steady chant of his last name.
With the success he has had so far this season, the Orioles outfielder has heard the cheer many times, but he still takes it in each time.
It’s a reminder of the twisted road he has taken through his major league career, a journey driven by hard work that has now landed in Baltimore, where he’s emerged as one of the top offensive players in baseball.
It takes him back through last season’s Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal, which cost him a 50-game suspension. It takes him back to before the 2008 season, when every team in baseball passed on him when the Texas Rangers put him on waivers.
And it also takes him back to his hometown of Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic, where he worked fixing tractors and trucks at his uncle’s auto repair shop starting at age 9 because his father wanted him to stay out of trouble. It was a job he held until the day before he signed his first professional contract at age 17.
“I go back far, back to my country, when I was a kid and working at my uncle’s shop,” Cruz said before a game in Houston on Friday. “If you want to stay humble and stay in the present, you have to realize you’re just another person and not to get a big head or anything.”
Cruz, 33, led the major leagues in home runs (20) and RBIs (52) through Sunday. He was named American League Player of the Week on Monday, the same day it was announced that he passed the Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz as the leading vote-getter for next month’s All-Star Game among AL designated hitters.
Known over his career as a streaky hitter, Cruz has been remarkably consistent at the plate this season. Through 55 games, he has driven in more than one-fifth of the team’s total runs (22.2 percent).
“He's the same Nelson Cruz I know,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington, who managed him for most of his eight years in Texas. “He's a guy who has power, and he's showing that. We've seen it before, so I'm not surprised to be seeing it again.
“They got a guy who can drive in big runs. They got a guy who loves to play the game. And he gets to play in that small park. … He's a tremendous teammate, has all the qualities that you look for in a player.”
Returning to Texas
When the Orioles open a three-game series in Texas against the Rangers on Tuesday, it will mark Cruz’s first time back in Arlington, where he developed into one of the game’s top sluggers, was a two-time All-Star, played on two World Series teams and hit 14 postseason homers.
Cruz’s return to the starting lineup could be delayed by a bruise on his left hand that he sustained after being hit by a pitch Sunday, but he hopes to play in the series opener. The Orioles said he was day-to-day on Sunday, but Cruz was able to grip a bat Monday.
The last time Cruz played in Arlington was Sept. 30, 2013, in the Rangers’ postseason play-in game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was his first game after serving the 50-game suspension for being part of the Biogenesis scandal.
Before last season started, Cruz was first tied to the South Florida anti-aging clinic, so he played the first month with a cloud hanging over his head. In August, he was suspended and accepted the punishment, issuing a public apology and saying that a gastrointestinal infection before the 2012 season that made him lose 40 pounds had led him to seek out the assistance of PEDs.
But from his first day with the Orioles in February, Cruz has said that he has put that in the past.
“No doubt, it’s in the past,” Cruz said. “I remember the stuff when people ask me about it, the fans yelling and screaming. But it’s been a smooth ride this year. The rough part was last year, going through the process. From Day 1 in spring training, it was rough. During the season, every day, something new would come up, all the media, all the fans. This year has been easy. It’s not even close at all.
“I guess going through a tough process has made me a better player, a better person. It makes me realize I love the game. It’s been good. As a player, you always want to have as smooth a career as you can, but unfortunately, that’s not my case, and I have to live through that.”
Fitting in on a new team
The Orioles welcomed Cruz from the beginning. Several of the club’s veteran players, including some of his former teammates from the Rangers, attended his introductory news conference in Sarasota, Fla., in February.
“I’m sure that was one of the most challenging things in his life,” said right-hander Darren O’Day, one of Cruz’s former teammates in Texas. “Obviously, he made a mistake, an error in judgment, and he paid his dues and did his time. I’m sure he regrets it, and I’m sure he probably didn’t know how his teammates were going to accept that and us coming in that first day and showing support, it probably made it easier on him.”
Manager Buck Showalter, who also managed Cruz in Texas, said players continued to see his positive impression throughout the spring.
“You’ve kind of got to earn your way into what our guys are about,” Showalter said. “They finally figured out about two or three weeks into spring training that this is a pretty sincere guy. They saw it was real. It wasn’t some eyewash.”
While Cruz arrived in Baltimore with the reputation of being a hard worker, the Orioles have been impressed with his pregame routine. He rarely remains idle in the clubhouse before games, usually retreating to the indoor batting cages or workout room.
“He’s so locked in,” Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. “He’s got a great approach. I’ve told him, if I was going to take a video of hitting and how to prepare, with his load and how he gets on a tee and the soft toss and how he goes into BP, I would video him and show it to all my hitters, because he does everything correct. … He gets the bats through the zone as quick as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Cruz was on pace to hit 40 homers last year, but the 50-game suspension derailed that. It also hurt his hopes of landing a multiyear deal when he hit the free-agent market in the offseason. It didn’t help that teams would have to give up a draft pick to sign him after he declined the Rangers’ $14.1-million qualifying offer.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette signed Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal, one that now looks good for both sides. If Cruz continues to play well, he’s in for a payday when he re-enters the free-agent market after this season.
“We thought he’d be a real good fit for our ballclub,” Duquette said. “His record in the American League in playoff games, that was attractive. He’s a real professional, and he has a routine he follows. He has a lot of discipline. His track record is one of a plus hitter. He’s a terrific role model for the young hitters. He’s selective at the plate. He works in the strike zone. He works hard on his defense and his base running.”
Growing up in the Dominican Republic in the coastal town of Monte Cristi, Cruz said he learned the value of hard work as a kid, working in an auto shop owned by his uncle, Uirgilio. While other kids were playing baseball, he was cleaning parts and making 20 to 30 pesos per week.
But thinking back to those days brings a smile to Cruz’s face. He saved up and used the money he made there to buy his first bike.
“If I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d probably be doing that,” Cruz said. “It’s something I did most of my life when I was young. It wasn’t like I loved it, but I had to do it. … It wasn’t for the money, it was more to keep myself out of trouble, [and] at the same time, to teach me how to work to survive.”
He didn’t play organized baseball until he was 15. He was more of a basketball player because he could play on lighted courts at night. Still, his father, Nelson Sr., wanted to keep Cruz close to keep him out of trouble.
“It wasn’t very easy,” Cruz said. “Your friends would go around and play baseball, be a kid, and you’re working. You want to be a kid. But I did what my dad told me. He said, ‘If you keep busy doing stuff, you’re not going to be doing bad stuff.’ So I kept myself busy and my mind busy.”
Now a father, Cruz keeps his family close. His 5-year-old son, also named Nelson, often can be seen by his father’s side before games. At a recent home game, Cruz was seen picking his son up and playing with him between rounds of batting practice.
Part of the family
And Cruz quickly has become a part of the Orioles family in Baltimore.
He appreciates that his teammates let him play his Christian music in the workout room, even though O’Day joked that his singing is lacking. Cruz’s Twitter feed includes photos of him and fellow Latin players, like Ubaldo Jimenez, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, out at dinner together on the road.
“He’s got a magnetic personality,” Showalter said. “He’s real calm, and there’s a quiet confidence. This isn’t anything about showing baseball this or that. It’s not about that. He likes to contribute. Any time someone talks about Nelson, in the first two sentences they’re going to say about how he’s a good teammate. He is sincere. He’s easy to pull for.”
Cruz said he worried about changing teams, but he quickly felt at home inside the Orioles clubhouse.
“If I had come back to Texas, they know who I am, they knew me well enough,” Cruz said. “But coming to a new team, you think, what kind of impression do they have of me? They’ve embraced me well. The owners, the coaches everybody.”
“The way they all go about their business. The way Buck gives you the freedom to be who you are. Overall I think the guys all the teammates, they’re pretty friendly. They’re all hoping to help. As a new guy, trying to fit in with a new team, when you have that kind of situation, it makes everything more easier.”
Turning boos into cheers
Even though the Orioles have embraced Cruz, that hasn’t been the case on the road, where fans have heckled him for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal.
Cruz said nothing compares to what he heard last season before his suspension. And you can tell he even uses it as motivation.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Cruz said. “The only way you can shut it down is to do good. If they’re screaming at you, and you do bad, they’ll go after you more. … They’re not going to love me everywhere. But they’re not going to hate me as much. I try to be a good guy. And I get it, they have to make you feel miserable if you go to the ballpark. That’s part of their job, to make you feel bad, and make you feel guilty. But I understand it’s part of the game. We’re here to entertain. I get it.”
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t irked Cruz’s new teammates. Multiple players remembered fans being particularly rough on Cruz during the team’s first road series in Detroit.
“There’s a rally around that with his teammates, too,” Showalter said. “We’ve all had that happen to us for different reasons. When one guy’s being singled out, trust me he’s a smart guy. He knows what was coming.”
But when Cruz returns to Texas this week, he likely will receive a warm reception. In his first at-bat after the suspension last year, he received a standing ovation and heard one of the loudest “Cruuuuz” cheers that he has ever heard.
“Remembering it, I still have chills,” Cruz said. “I was overwhelmed with what the reception was. … If you go back and see the video, it was electric.”
Even though Cruz will be wearing another uniform, he thinks he will be welcomed in Texas. After spending most of his career there — and going through the highs and lows — he knows they will appreciate him.
“Maybe the first time they will cheer, but after that?” he said with a smile. “If not, I understand it’s part of the game. You’ve got to move on. But you always hope the fans know what you do, no matter what.”