"We all make mistakes and we all trust certain people," he remembers Cruz saying. "I trusted someone to take my health into consideration 100 percent, knowing there might be some repercussions. ... I shouldn't have trusted somebody, and it was wrong. I had to pay the consequence."

"It was such a humbling response," says Gutierrez, a Rangers season-ticket holder who recently showed up at Camden Yards in Orioles garb to cheer his buddy.

This brings up another unavoidable point about Cruz — people really like the guy. Whether they're responding to his upbeat nature or his professional perseverance is hard to say. But it's no accident Cruz received nearly 4 million fan votes for the All-Star Game, easily outpacing luminaries David Ortiz of the Red Sox and Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers despite the scandal.

Cruz says the honor was "more special" than his past All-Star selections because it came from the fans.

"He always has a smile," says Orioles teammate Tommy Hunter, who first played with Cruz in the Rangers' minor league system. "He has super-cool handshakes with like 32 different people, and he remembers them all. He takes the time to care, and whenever you take the time to care, people thoroughly enjoy that."

He also draws support from the Rangers' clubhouse — even though he accepted his suspension last season instead of attempting an appeal that might have kept him active through August and September.

"He never takes credit," Rangers manager Ron Washington says. "He always talks about what somebody else did. He's a quality guy. That's what Nelson is."

Family first

Certainly, that's what Nelson and Dominga Cruz set out to produce as they raised young Nelson in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, about 30 miles from the border with Haiti. The family, which also included sisters Nelsy and Olga, shared three beds in the single main room of a rented house.

They were a proud, industrious clan. Dominga taught elementary school and Nelson Sr. high school social studies. Nelson remembers how his mother would rush home from school at the midday break to have a meal waiting before she raced back for afternoon lessons.

His grandfather, Ramon, owned farmland where he raised cows and bulls and harvested rice. Nelson worked the fields as a child and now he finds comfort on the farm he owns in the Dominican. He credits his grandfather with fostering the devotion to family that seems to guide the Cruzes.

"When he passed away, he made sure we understood family is the most important thing," he says. "Even when I go to New York now, I make sure to see all my cousins and my sister [Olga]."

To this day, the family gathers most Sundays for a meal at the Dominican home of Cruz's grandmother, Lola, swapping the same stories Nelson has heard since childhood.

Cruz's recent games at Camden Yards have been veritable reunions, with cousins, friends and his parents, who are visiting through the All-Star break, packing the stands behind home plate.

Cruz wasn't one of those Dominican phenoms who ate and slept baseball from birth. He liked the sport, sure. He remembers breaking limbs off trees so he could swat rocks tossed to him by his sister, Nelsy. If he put a good lick on one, he sent it clattering across his neighbors' aluminum rooftops.

But from an early age, his life was defined more by family, school and labor. When he was still in elementary school, his father insisted that he begin working at his uncle's auto repair shop every day after classes.

"If you don't have free time, you don't have time to do wrong," Nelson Sr. says of his motivation.

He also expected his boy to maintain a neat appearance.

"He always told me, 'How am I going to tell one of my students not to come to school with that haircut when my son has it?' " the younger Nelson recalls. "It was tough, but at the same time, now that I'm grown up, I understand all the things he did were for my benefit."

So Cruz kept on the straight and narrow and mastered the inner workings of tractors, his specialty as a mechanic. Every week, he gave half his earnings to Dominga to help support the household. The other half he spent on peanut butter sandwiches at the small grocery across from his uncle's shop.