“I’m sure that was one of the most challenging things in his life,” said right-hander Darren O’Day, one of Cruz’s former teammates in Texas. “Obviously, he made a mistake, an error in judgment, and he paid his dues and did his time. I’m sure he regrets it, and I’m sure he probably didn’t know how his teammates were going to accept that and us coming in that first day and showing support, it probably made it easier on him.”
Manager Buck Showalter, who also managed Cruz in Texas, said players continued to see his positive impression throughout the spring.
“You’ve kind of got to earn your way into what our guys are about,” Showalter said. “They finally figured out about two or three weeks into spring training that this is a pretty sincere guy. They saw it was real. It wasn’t some eyewash.”
While Cruz arrived in Baltimore with the reputation of being a hard worker, the Orioles have been impressed with his pregame routine. He rarely remains idle in the clubhouse before games, usually retreating to the indoor batting cages or workout room.
“He’s so locked in,” Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. “He’s got a great approach. I’ve told him, if I was going to take a video of hitting and how to prepare, with his load and how he gets on a tee and the soft toss and how he goes into BP, I would video him and show it to all my hitters, because he does everything correct. … He gets the bats through the zone as quick as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Cruz was on pace to hit 40 homers last year, but the 50-game suspension derailed that. It also hurt his hopes of landing a multiyear deal when he hit the free-agent market in the offseason. It didn’t help that teams would have to give up a draft pick to sign him after he declined the Rangers’ $14.1-million qualifying offer.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette signed Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal, one that now looks good for both sides. If Cruz continues to play well, he’s in for a payday when he re-enters the free-agent market after this season.
“We thought he’d be a real good fit for our ballclub,” Duquette said. “His record in the American League in playoff games, that was attractive. He’s a real professional, and he has a routine he follows. He has a lot of discipline. His track record is one of a plus hitter. He’s a terrific role model for the young hitters. He’s selective at the plate. He works in the strike zone. He works hard on his defense and his base running.”
Growing up in the Dominican Republic in the coastal town of Monte Cristi, Cruz said he learned the value of hard work as a kid, working in an auto shop owned by his uncle, Uirgilio. While other kids were playing baseball, he was cleaning parts and making 20 to 30 pesos per week.
But thinking back to those days brings a smile to Cruz’s face. He saved up and used the money he made there to buy his first bike.
“If I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d probably be doing that,” Cruz said. “It’s something I did most of my life when I was young. It wasn’t like I loved it, but I had to do it. … It wasn’t for the money, it was more to keep myself out of trouble, [and] at the same time, to teach me how to work to survive.”
He didn’t play organized baseball until he was 15. He was more of a basketball player because he could play on lighted courts at night. Still, his father, Nelson Sr., wanted to keep Cruz close to keep him out of trouble.
“It wasn’t very easy,” Cruz said. “Your friends would go around and play baseball, be a kid, and you’re working. You want to be a kid. But I did what my dad told me. He said, ‘If you keep busy doing stuff, you’re not going to be doing bad stuff.’ So I kept myself busy and my mind busy.”
Now a father, Cruz keeps his family close. His 5-year-old son, also named Nelson, often can be seen by his father’s side before games. At a recent home game, Cruz was seen picking his son up and playing with him between rounds of batting practice.
Part of the family
And Cruz quickly has become a part of the Orioles family in Baltimore.
He appreciates that his teammates let him play his Christian music in the workout room, even though O’Day joked that his singing is lacking. Cruz’s Twitter feed includes photos of him and fellow Latin players, like Ubaldo Jimenez, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, out at dinner together on the road.