Advertisement

O's fans rightfully appreciate departed slugger Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz has triumphantly returned to Baltimore and it's pretty hard to make a case at the moment that the Orioles did the right thing letting him walk over the one extra year he got from the Seattle Mariners. Whether they did won't be known a while, but the team's fans rightfully appreciated last year's Most Valuable Oriole.

It seems like such a no-brainer in hindsight. Nelson Cruz has triumphantly returned to Baltimore and it's pretty hard to make a case at the moment that the Orioles did the right thing letting him walk over the one extra year he got from the Seattle Mariners.

Of course, it's a pretty easy second-guess when the guy comes back to town leading the major leagues with 15 home runs just six weeks into the new season. He's on pace to hit even more than he hit for the Orioles last year, and he hit a boatload. But, to be fair, it'll be quite a while before anyone can say with certainty whether the O's or the M's made the right decision.

Advertisement

Instead, the big question going into Tuesday night's game was what kind of reception Cruz would get when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat against Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez.

The answer was unambiguous. There may have been a few boos, but it became obvious most of the fans were saying "Cruuuuuz" because the reaction quickly morphed into a loud and approving ovation.

That's what Cruz said he was hoping for when he met with the local media before the series opener at Oriole Park.

He also said he expected the tone to change if he did anything to tick the fans off Tuesday night, then singled in his first at-bat and launched a three-run homer into the Orioles bullpen to give the Mariners a 4-1 lead in the third inning.

There was really no reason for Orioles fans to be anything but kind to Cruz. He signed with the Orioles for a bargain-basement price last spring and was voted the Most Valuable Oriole after helping to lead them to the American League Championship Series.

"What we did last year was really special," Cruz said. "We had not won the division since '97 and to be able to do that for the fans was really nice."

Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs and also led the Orioles with 32 doubles and 108 RBIs. Not bad for a guy who was still unemployed when spring training opened last year and ultimately settled for a one-year deal worth a relatively modest $8 million.

He accepted that deal because it provided him the opportunity to come back from a 50-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension and re-establish his reputation as a premier power hitter. Once he did that, there was no question he would go into the open market this past winter trying to maximize his value, which is exactly what he did.

"He handled himself with a lot of class here and everybody would have liked to have him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We're very lucky he passed our way."

It's probably fair to assume he would have come back to the Orioles if they had offered him a contract equivalent in dollars and years to the four-year, $57 million deal he signed with the Mariners. But the O's were only willing to guarantee three years for a player who will turn 35 this July 1.

Considering the uncertainty facing the Orioles roster beyond this season, maybe they should have gambled that additional $14.25 million. They stand to lose both Chris Davis and Matt Wieters to free agency, so having someone like Cruz under a long-term deal to bat behind Adam Jones is sounding pretty good right now.

Cruz clearly has no hard feelings and he remains a very popular guy in the Orioles clubhouse, where no one denies that he is missed. Steve Pearce said over the weekend that the O's would "love to have him still on our team" and speculated that they would have a few more victories at this point with Cruz in the lineup.

That isn't exactly a stretch, considering what he has done so far for the Mariners, but Cruz wasn't in an I-told-you-so mood.

"I don't think so," he said. "I'm just one player. To win baseball games, you have to have a whole team — 25 guys — to make the team win. So, I just play on the team and what I'm doing now for my team is what's important and I just want to focus on that and hopefully we find a way to get it going."

Advertisement

The Mariners and Orioles are off to similar starts. Both entered Tuesday night's game three games under .500 and performing below preseason expectations. The Orioles, in particular, have struggled to replicate last year's offensive attack, leaving Cruz to preach calm from the visitor's dugout.

"I think last year, around this time we kind of struggled as a team and we found a way to get it done," he said. "So, it's early and they still have a pretty good team. They are missing Wieters and maybe myself, but they still have a good team."

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

Advertisement
Advertisement