Seattle Mariners' right fielder, Nelson Cruz, talks about coming back to Baltimore to play against the Orioles and take part in the Manny Machado BaseBOWL Tournament.
The perpetually positive Nelson Cruz kept using the word "excited" when asked about returning to Camden Yards on Tuesday for the first time since joining the Seattle Mariners as a free agent last December. He's excited to see manager Buck Showalter, excited to bearhug former teammates and excited to chat with Orioles fans that he says couldn't have been more supportive.
There is one thing that disappoints Cruz about this upcoming three-game series, however. He won't be able to physically attack Orioles' second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who is on the disabled list with a knee injury.
"I wanted to beat him up at second base a little bit. But I can't now," Cruz joked in a recent telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun. "Me and Schoop, we text back and forth. And I told him how much I wanted to be in there and play against him and try to get a ground ball while I'm at first base so I could throw him out of the infield."
Cruz then laughed — that big, booming cackle that echoed throughout the home clubhouse in 2014.
"His laugh is very loud and he was just always laughing and having a good time. It's definitely missed," said Orioles infielder/outfielder Steve Pearce. "He was great to me as a teammate. I loved the way he played the game. He played the game the right way. That is something I would like to model my game after."
Cruz arguably impacted the Orioles more in 2014 than any other one-year-and-done player in club history. More than Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson or Jim Thome, Bob Turley, Mike Torrez, Kevin Brown or Vladimir Guerrero.
"He made an unbelievable impact. Obviously, between the lines he made the most visual impact in terms of what you could see," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones. "But seeing him on a day-to-day basis, the guy is unbelievable. Great teammate, a positive guy every day. Always uplifting, always ready to play a game and always has that big smile on his face. There's nothing better than that to me."
In his lone season with the Orioles, Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs, topped the team with 108 RBIs, batted .271, slugged .525 and was named Most Valuable Oriole by the local media.
The Orioles didn't think it was a fluke. Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette believed Cruz could continue to produce huge numbers in the middle of a lineup.
And he has — but with the Mariners, with whom he signed a four-year, $57 million deal in December. Heading into Monday's games, Cruz was leading the American League in homers (15), slugging percentage (.694), and on-base-plus-slugging (1.089). Perhaps more important, the 34-year-old has played in all 37 of the Mariners games this year.
"I feel pretty good. I've been blessed so far," said Cruz, who has started 25 games in right field and 12 at DH for Seattle. "The main thing for me is to stay healthy and play in as many games as I can. And so far I've been able to play in as many games as we've played. That's what I'm looking for, for the rest of the season."
Although the Mariners are just 17-20 this season, Cruz has certainly done his part. His old club hasn't fared any better; the Orioles are 16-19 and have scored just 44 runs in 15 May games, fewer than three runs per game this month.
"Of course, we'd love to have him still on our team," Pearce said. "We'd probably have a few more wins. Hitting is contagious and so maybe some other people would be hitting better if he was here."
So if the Orioles and their players loved Cruz, he enjoyed Baltimore and he remains highly productive, why isn't he still an Oriole?
The answer isn't complicated. The Orioles weren't scared off by the $14.25 million annual value he received from Seattle – not after he cost the Orioles a bargain-basement $8 million in 2014 when he was coming off a performance-enhancing-drug suspension.
The sticking point was contract length. The Orioles were fine with three years at that range, but didn't want to offer a fourth to a player who turns 38 in 2018 and has had injury issues.
"Nelson did a great job for us and he is a good, solid, veteran player. We just preferred a shorter term," Duquette said. "I can't say enough about him, and he got himself a good contract with Seattle."
Cruz said he made sure his agent talked with the Orioles to see if they'd offer a fourth year.
"I knew this would be the last contract I signed and that was the situation. [Seattle] offered four and I thought the deal was better," Cruz said. "One of the things I told my agent was to make sure he gets the chance to talk about the years, but unfortunately we couldn't make it happen. I would have liked to come back, but I understand it's part of the business."
"You've got to take the fourth year, man, that's security," Jones said. "Three years or four years? I mean, come on. You've got to take the fourth year."
Given Cruz's production and how physically fit he is, Jones said he wouldn't have shied away from offering four years, but he said that's not his job.
"I'm not the GM, I'm not making decisions. If I was, I would have tried my best," Jones said. "And I know our folks had tried their best to seal him up. I know he wanted that fourth year and he got it — which he should have."
Jones isn't surprised that Cruz is again leading the AL in homers despite moving from cozy Camden Yards to spacious Safeco Field.
"Nah, put him in the Grand Canyon and he'd hit it out of there, too," Jones said.
Regardless, Jones says he's not dwelling on what might have been.
"I know exactly what could be, so it's not like I'm like, 'This could have been,'" Jones said. "I've had my fair share of the woulda, coulda, shouldas."
When the news was announced that Cruz wouldn't be coming back — it occurred the same week as longtime outfielder Nick Markakis left as a free agent for the Atlanta Braves — the close-knit 2014 Orioles club was disappointed, Pearce said.
"That was not a good day when you see him leave," Pearce said.
Cruz's departure may have had an even greater effect on the younger, Latino players that Cruz mentored, such as Schoop and Jimmy Paredes, who first met Cruz while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
"He told me how to work at this level," Paredes said. "How I have to be strong and straight, and don't do anything wrong; just be patient. … He taught me a lot."
Paredes is leading the Orioles in hitting this year, and says Cruz has sent him encouraging texts.
"He told me he is happy for me," Paredes said. "Says keep doing what you're doing and he'll keep following me."
Cruz said he watches Orioles games as often as he can and also paid attention this offseason. He said it pained him that the Orioles did not retain Markakis.
"I was sad to see him leave there also because I know how much he loved that team and how much work he did for the team," Cruz said. "But they have to do whatever things they see is in the best interest of the team. Everybody has their opinions, and I respect that."
Leaving the Orioles was probably a little easier for him, Cruz said, since he had already moved on from the Texas Rangers, a club he had played with for eight years.
"I had a chance to meet more than 25 players that I can call my teammates and I can call my friends, and also coaches I could rely on and call my friends," he said about Baltimore. "Almost 40 to 50,000 fans every day cheer for you. So any time you can have that experience it is special."
He said he is curious to hear how those fans will react when he comes to the plate Tuesday at Camden Yards. It may be difficult to tell the difference between the "Cruuuz" chants and boos he could receive. But Mr. Positive is definitely hoping for a positive reaction.
"I did give them everything I have the year that I played there. Those were some great memories when I was there, great fans," he said. "We accomplished some great things last year and hopefully they will remember me as a good player for that year and part of that team that was such a good team. And I get some cheers, hopefully.