Nelson Cruz presents a deep rooting dilemma for the modern baseball fan.
Is the Orioles outfielder the well-mannered son of teachers who built himself into a slugger step by painstaking step? In this version of the story, Cruz is the perfect baseball hero — a humble guy from the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic with Popeye forearms and a beatific countenance, one who belts home runs at a league-leading pace and still takes time to say hello to his young fans.
Or is he just another in the stained mass of baseball stars who seemingly took the easy way out by turning to performance-enhancing drugs? In that narrative, his 2013 suspension for drug use looms over everything else, always ready to bubble to the surface, as it did last weekend in Boston.
Perhaps the truth encompasses all of the above. That's why Cruz is among the most intriguing stories in his sport as he prepares to start at designated hitter for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game.
Ask the man himself and he'll tell you he's the same considerate family guy and dogged worker his parents raised, a person who owns up to his mistakes but refuses to be derailed by them.
"I think you should realize nothing is forever," Cruz says on a recent afternoon, cradling his 31-ounce bat in the Orioles dugout at Camden Yards. "The bad stuff cannot be forever. Even the good stuff is not forever. So why are you going to be miserable about something that can't last forever? "
That perspective has helped him through the wild swings his life has taken over the past year.
Even six months ago, few could have imagined Cruz as one of baseball's triumphant figures for 2014. As a central character in the sport's latest drug scandal, he had been suspended for most of the Texas Rangers' 2013 postseason push and labeled a selfish fraud by dissatisfied fans. In the offseason, no club saw fit to risk long-term money on a player who was entering his mid-30s, whose true skills were in question and who would cost a draft pick in return.
But then, success has never come free and easy for Cruz.
From the time a New York Mets scout signed him as a slender teenager in the Dominican Republic, he needed 11 minor league seasons with four organizations to establish himself as a regular in the majors.
The greatest stretch of his career, a record eight-homer barrage in the 2011 playoffs, was overshadowed by a missed catch that contributed to the Rangers' loss in the World Series.
And last year, he saw his dreams of another playoff run scuttled by his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, which also led to suspensions for former Most Valuable Players Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Major League Baseball suspended 14 players last summer after investigating their ties to the South Florida anti-aging clinic and its founder, Anthony Bosch. The penalties ranged from a 50-game ban for Cruz to 211 games for Rodriguez.
If there was any question about Cruz's ongoing association with the controversy, Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey reminded everyone last weekend, responding to a 5-for-5 outing from Cruz: "I've got nothing to say about him. There are some things I'd like to say, but I'm not going to. You guys forget pretty conveniently about stuff."
The next day, national headlines focused on Cruz's rebound from Biogenesis bad boy to All-Star selection.
It's not a subject he relishes discussing. Cruz's words become halting, his gaze distant as he answers questions about his 50-game suspension. The ubiquitous smile is nowhere to be found.
"I know what I did and what I didn't do," he says. "So it's something I have to live with. The people who care and the people who really love me, they know. They know who I really am."
The episode pained his close-knit family. "Our hearts were broken," says his father, Nelson Cruz Sr., in Spanish. "We suffered a lot. We worried. We asked God why."
Cruz, 34, sticks by his explanation that he turned to Biogenesis to regain weight after a gastrointestinal infection drained him of 40 pounds heading into the 2012 season. Skeptics have noted that Biogenesis documents published by the Miami New Times reference dealings with the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Cruz in April and May 2012, several months after his stated timeline for the illness.
Regardless, he has repeatedly said he made a mistake. He accepts that he'll always face scrutiny and more frequent testing — an additonal six urine and three blood screens every year — mandated by the sport's drug policy.
Mando Gutierrez, a friend from Texas, recalls a community service event last year where a high school senior asked Cruz to explain his drug suspension.
"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."
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.
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.
But teammates, including several who'd spoken out strongly against drug use, crowded into Cruz's introductory press conference to show their support. He was touched by the gesture and by the immediate embrace of Orioles fans, who serenaded him with "Cruuuz" chants on Opening Day.
He fit right in with the easygoing club, becoming a mentor to younger Spanish-speaking players such as Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. He bounds into the Orioles clubhouse, cracking jokes, a far cry from the shy kid he was in the Dominican.
"He's easy to like," says manager Buck Showalter, who also managed Cruz briefly in Texas. "He's got a good heart, a good way about him."
It's entirely possible, however, that Cruz, who's renting a downtown apartment, will be with the Orioles only one season. He's producing such a strong year that he seems likely to attract a larger pack of suitors when he becomes a free agent again at the end of the season.
He swears he didn't feel any extra need to prove himself this season. After all, he's been fighting to prove himself for 15 years. Instead, he attributes his blistering first half to a gentler type of fuel.
"I'm happy," he says. "I think the main reason is just happiness."
Baltimore Sun reporters Mike Klingaman and Alejandro Zuniga contributed to this article.
Born: July 1, 1980
Hometown: Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Dominican Republic
Family: Wife Solanyi, 5-year-old son Nelson, 1-year-old daughter Jiara
Signed by: New York Mets in 1998
Major League Debut: 2005 with Milwaukee Brewers
Signed by Orioles: Feb. 2014 for one year, $8 million
Honors: Playing in third All-Star Game July 15, 2011 ALCS MVPCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun