He worked six days a week and usually played basketball over baseball, because the courts, unlike the fields, had lights.
When he was a teenager, he finally found a baseball team that played on Sundays, the one day he didn't work for uncle Uirgilio. Just six months later, Mets scout Eddy Toledo observed Cruz training in the nearby city of Mao. He didn't think much of it when the older man introduced himself, but Toledo told Cruz's manager he wanted to see the kid in a game, Cruz recalls.
"I did really, really bad," he remembers. "I think I struck out like three times."
Toledo wasn't dissuaded. He liked Cruz's big frame and the way he ran to the outfield with enthusiasm, even after a disappointing at-bat.
When they met to discuss a contract, Nelson Sr., in typically strict fashion, insisted his son complete the last few months of high school before leaving home to train with the Mets' Dominican summer team. Toledo says he hadn't heard that from too many fathers. But they agreed on a deal and just like that, Cruz was a pro.
"I remember everybody saying, 'Nelson signed,'" Cruz recalls. "And it was like, 'Nelson? He plays basketball. How did he sign?' People couldn't believe it. It was so quick."
That would be the last time Cruz's ascent felt quick. He was so raw that he spent his first three seasons playing on developmental teams in the Dominican. He didn't make his way to the U.S. until after the Mets traded him to the Oakland Athletics in 2000.
He climbed through Oakland's system but never seemed to rise to the top of prospect lists and in 2004, the A's unloaded him to the Milwaukee Brewers. From there, he was traded to Texas in 2006.
Managers and coaches loved him.
"It's hard to find young players who can accurately evaluate themselves," says Orv Franchuk, who managed Cruz at Single-A Vancouver in 2002. "They think they're either Babe Ruth or they're really bad. They like to work on their strengths but not on their weaknesses. Not Nelson. He came to the ballpark early and left late."
He mastered minor league pitching, but he couldn't crack a big league lineup for more than a few weeks. The Rangers even put him on waivers in 2008, meaning any other club could've had him for $20,000.
Cruz says he never abandoned hope during his long odyssey, though he explored the possibility of playing in Japan.
"He always persists," his sister, Nelsy, says in Spanish. "He always knew he could do it."
At age 28, he finally became a regular. And the home runs flew — at least 22 in each of the five full years he played for the Rangers and an amazing 14 over the 2010 and 2011 postseasons.
So Cruz was no stranger to life's ups and downs by the time he got himself in hot water with Biogenesis. He admits last season was the most difficult of his career, though he tried to maintain an upbeat facade, sending the Rangers encouragement over Twitter even while he was suspended.
He says he didn't spend the offseason agonizing over the scandal or his difficulty finding a long-term deal. Instead, he went back to the Dominican, as he does every winter. The children of his hometown always crowd the local ballfield in anticipation of his arrival. He takes 10 or 15 at a time to hit in his personal batting cage and work out in his gym. Other days, he plays dominoes with friends or takes his fishing boat out to catch dinner for the family, which now includes wife Solanyi, 5-year-old son Nelson and 1-year-old daughter Jiara.
"It feels natural," he says of being back in the Dominican. "Everything is more calm [in the U.S.] You have more peace. But I miss my people."
When Cruz finally signed a one-year, $8-million deal with the Orioles in late February, he wasn't sure what to expect.