For Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz, achieving success between the lines has allowed him to make a meaningful impact off the field.
By Kirby Arnold
The following article is from the April issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2016 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.
With every weight Nelson Cruz lifted in the offseason, every ball he hit off a tee and every stride he took to keep his body in shape, the Mariners star slugger pushed himself with much more than his baseball career in mind.
Sure, the cheers of the crowd and high-fives of teammates are a sweet product of his powerful swing. But so is one heartwarming word he loves to hear, perhaps more than any other: thanks.
Thanks for providing a wheelchair that allows a person the freedom of mobility. Thanks for buying the fire truck that protected a home from burning down in his hometown in the Dominican Republic. And thanks for the ambulance that helped transport the sick to a hospital when there was no such transportation before.
Those things drive Cruz to keep his game at the highest level. He connects his success on the field with the impact he is able to make on his community, especially in Las Matas de Santa Cruz in the Dominican Republic, where fire, ambulance and medical services are badly needed.
Without baseball, Cruz wouldn’t be able to provide for his community. And because of community, he has an even greater reason to keep his game at its peak.
“Games are important, but we are talking about people’s lives,” Cruz said. “That is more rewarding than anything I can do on the field. But I work harder every year to make sure I stay in the game longer so I can help more people.”
Cruz feels such a responsibility to his teammates, fans, family and those back home that it drives him through a diligent workout regimen designed to make this season better than last. It’s a lofty goal because many of Cruz’s 2015 numbers, including 44 home runs, 178 hits and 90 runs, were the best of his career.
“I want to be even better this year,” he said. “I want to be one of the best, and to be that I have to work. Some guys have God-given talent, but that’s not my case. I have to work hard and I’ve been doing it that way since I can remember.
“But I don’t do it only for myself. I do it for the Mariners, the city of Seattle, my family, the Dominican and the fans of baseball who are always expecting good things. I know they’re always watching and when I have a bad day, it hurts.”
Cruz will turn 36 on July 1, but with age has come an understanding of how far he can push his body. And he pushed it hard during the offseason with a daily regimen that kept him on the field and in the gym nearly nine hours.
“I try to push my body to the limit and see how it reacts,” Cruz said. “With age comes experience. You know what can help you and you know what can hurt you. You stick with the things that have helped you in the past and try to find new things and see if they give you good results.”
Model Person and Teammate
Cruz learned the value of hard work early in his athletic life not only in baseball but also as a basketball player in the Dominican Republic, where he played on the junior national team. The example set by his father, Nelson Cruz Sr., a teacher there, taught him to treat others with respect and serve those less fortunate.
Along with his ability to hit a baseball a long way, those values make Cruz the consummate teammate.
“He has a real teddy bear feel about him. He’s a big guy, but he’s really approachable,” said outfielder Stefen Romero. “He has a phenomenal presence and a phenomenal work ethic. He’s a great example of a guy who has his routine down and comes with a mission, a plan, every day.
“For a young player like me, I see that and try to emulate some of the patterns that he follows. More times than not you want to imitate guys you want to be like, and he’s really a good role model in that aspect.”
Rick Griffin, the Mariners head athletic trainer, considers Cruz one of the two or three nicest players he has worked with in 34 years with the organization.
“Every day he comes to the clubhouse, he says hello and greets everyone,” Griffin said.
Rick Waits, the Mariners minor league pitching coordinator who was the Big League pitching coach last year, marvels at how respectful Cruz is to others.
“He reminds me of David Wright when I was coaching with the Mets,” Waits said. “I told him he didn’t need to call me Mr. Waits every time he saw me.”
For Team and Community
Cruz learned from his father about the importance of devoting his talent and wealth to help make his community a better place.
“I saw him help people in any way he could – kids, any charity that needed help,” Cruz said. “He was always there for them.”
The need to help others became personal to Cruz four years ago when a friend in the Dominican Republic lost his home because there wasn’t sufficient firefighting equipment to respond. Cruz, playing for the Texas Rangers at the time, was determined to find a fire truck for his community.
“I saw him help people in any way he could. He was always there for them.”
– Cruz, on his father’s influence on him
At Spring Training before the 2012 season, he and some of the athletic trainers with the Rangers grabbed a computer and began their search, starting with a simple question via Google: How do you buy a fire truck?
They searched for two weeks and found a lot of information, most of it delivering the reality that firefighting equipment is expensive.
“The prices were sky high,” he said. “We saw one that that was $180,000 to $200,000.”
The Rangers put Cruz in contact with fire officials in Arlington, Texas, and together they found not only a fire truck – a used one that Cruz said cost about $40,000 – but also two ambulances that were badly needed in his hometown. The vehicles were delivered in September 2012.
“The ambulances were very important,” Cruz said. “You don’t know how important something like that is until one of your relatives gets sick and they need a vehicle to take them fast to the hospital. I live one hour from a big hospital, so that is definitely huge.”
Cruz says it’s difficult to imagine here how great the need is for such equipment in the Dominican Republic.
“I know people whose house burned completely because they didn’t have a fire truck. Now, they can know their house is safe,” he said. “The challenge in my hometown is that the roads are not that good. We had to find trucks that could fit on every road and go into the small communities. We had to find trucks that could go over good roads, bad roads and places the big trucks don’t go.”
Last year, Cruz worked with officials from the Seattle Fire Department to have rescue equipment, including uniforms, helmets, boots and gloves, sent to the Dominican. Seattle fire chief Harold Scoggins also has offered to host firefighters from Cruz’s hometown for training.
“These are things that were needed not only in my community but all over the Dominican,” Cruz said. “They sent a lot of things and I totally appreciate everything they did.”
In January, Cruz made a donation though Major League Baseball’s “Baseball Cares” initiative to purchase wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and canes for disabled residents near his hometown.
“Without wheelchairs, there are people who don’t have any transportation,” Cruz said. “We found a way to get a few of those. The first time we got 12 wheelchairs and I thought that was enough, but it wasn’t even close. So this year we bought 26 wheelchairs. We also did some clinics, went to schools and talked to the kids there who got good grades.”
The words of appreciation touch Cruz as deeply as any adulation he gets for his heroics on the baseball field.
“I have been stopped by people who’ve said, ‘Thank you. Because of the ambulance my parents are still alive,’” he said. “That is something that makes you want to keep doing good things.”
“I have been stopped by people who’ve said, ‘Thank you. Because of the ambulance my parents are still alive.'”
– Cruz, on the importance of giving back
Primed to Produce in 2016
Speaking of doing good things, Cruz is looking to continue the tremendous success on the field that he achieved last season for the Mariners. During Spring Training, manager Scott Servais said that he wants to play Cruz 150-160 games this season, including time as designated hitter for many of those. Cruz is open to anything that helps the team, but admits the DH role is a challenge.
He batted .337 in 313 at-bats last year while playing 80 games, in the outfield compared with .263 in 278 at-bats over 72 games at DH.
“I just want to play. It doesn’t matter where he puts me,” Cruz said. “I don’t worry about me, I worry about my team. Whatever they call me to do, I’ll be ready for that.”
Cruz hopes to find a game-day routine that allows him to settle better into the DH role, and he has spoken with some of the best about it – Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and, of course, Mariners hitting coach Edgar Martinez.
“Everybody is different,” Cruz said. “They all had to pick from their routines the things that helped them. It’s kind of difficult, especially if you struggle. You can think too much about hitting, and in this game if you think too much it’s not good. You have to trust what you have and let your ability and talent take over.”
Martinez is confident Cruz will adapt well to DH duty because he knows his swing and remains consistent with his preparation.
“The key is to stay in the game mentally, anticipate situations and be involved in the flow of the game,” Martinez said. “I had to have routines and I stuck with them every day, and he does the same thing. Nelson is very consistent in his approach, he knows his mechanics well and he sticks with it. He studies the pitchers and works really hard on his swing. He is very consistent in everything he does. Everything has a purpose.”
Cruz says he has personal goals for this season, although he prefers not to talk about them. His main objective is to help the Mariners win, which will make any individual accomplishment more worthwhile.
“You definitely want to develop and compete, not only as a team but as an individual,” he said. “The numbers look better when your team wins.”
When Cruz can help his team win, and then focus on real-life issues that benefit people in need, there’s no better feeling.
Kirby Arnold, a sports writer and editor for 42 years, covered the Mariners from 1999-2011 for The Herald in Everett, WA.