For Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz, a journey back and a new beginning

Signed to a free-agent contract in February, the 33-year-old returns to Texas this week

June 02, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

ARLINGTON, Texas — From the first time Nelson Cruz stepped into the batter’s box at Camden Yards this season, he has heard that unmistakable sound from the home crowd — the long, steady chant of his last name.

With the success he has had so far this season, the Orioles outfielder has heard the cheer many times, but he still takes it in each time.

It’s a reminder of the twisted road he has taken through his major league career, a journey driven by hard work that has now landed in Baltimore, where he’s emerged as one of the top offensive players in baseball.

It takes him back through last season’s Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal, which cost him a 50-game suspension. It takes him back to before the 2008 season, when every team in baseball passed on him when the Texas Rangers put him on waivers.

And it also takes him back to his hometown of Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic, where he worked fixing tractors and trucks at his uncle’s auto repair shop starting at age 9 because his father wanted him to stay out of trouble. It was a job he held until the day before he signed his first professional contract at age 17.

“I go back far, back to my country, when I was a kid and working at my uncle’s shop,” Cruz said before a game in Houston on Friday. “If you want to stay humble and stay in the present, you have to realize you’re just another person and not to get a big head or anything.”

Cruz, 33, led the major leagues in home runs (20) and RBIs (52) through Sunday. He was named American League Player of the Week on Monday, the same day it was announced that he passed the Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz as the leading vote-getter for next month’s All-Star Game among AL designated hitters.

Known over his career as a streaky hitter, Cruz has been remarkably consistent at the plate this season. Through 55 games, he has driven in more than one-fifth of the team’s total runs (22.2 percent).

“He's the same Nelson Cruz I know,” said Rangers manager Ron Washington, who managed him for most of his eight years in Texas. “He's a guy who has power, and he's showing that. We've seen it before, so I'm not surprised to be seeing it again.

“They got a guy who can drive in big runs. They got a guy who loves to play the game. And he gets to play in that small park. … He's a tremendous teammate, has all the qualities that you look for in a player.”

Returning to Texas

When the Orioles open a three-game series in Texas against the Rangers on Tuesday, it will mark Cruz’s first time back in Arlington, where he developed into one of the game’s top sluggers, was a two-time All-Star, played on two World Series teams and hit 14 postseason homers.

Cruz’s return to the starting lineup could be delayed by a bruise on his left hand that he sustained after being hit by a pitch Sunday, but he hopes to play in the series opener. The Orioles said he was day-to-day on Sunday, but Cruz was able to grip a bat Monday.

The last time Cruz played in Arlington was Sept. 30, 2013, in the Rangers’ postseason play-in game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was his first game after serving the 50-game suspension for being part of the Biogenesis scandal.

Before last season started, Cruz was first tied to the South Florida anti-aging clinic, so he played the first month with a cloud hanging over his head. In August, he was suspended and accepted the punishment, issuing a public apology and saying that a gastrointestinal infection before the 2012 season that made him lose 40 pounds had led him to seek out the assistance of PEDs.

But from his first day with the Orioles in February, Cruz has said that he has put that in the past.

“No doubt, it’s in the past,” Cruz said. “I remember the stuff when people ask me about it, the fans yelling and screaming. But it’s been a smooth ride this year. The rough part was last year, going through the process. From Day 1 in spring training, it was rough. During the season, every day, something new would come up, all the media, all the fans. This year has been easy. It’s not even close at all.

“I guess going through a tough process has made me a better player, a better person. It makes me realize I love the game. It’s been good. As a player, you always want to have as smooth a career as you can, but unfortunately, that’s not my case, and I have to live through that.”

Fitting in on a new team

The Orioles welcomed Cruz from the beginning. Several of the club’s veteran players, including some of his former teammates from the Rangers, attended his introductory news conference in Sarasota, Fla., in February.

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