After a tumultuous year, red-hot Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz has never been happier

Though drug scandal remains part of his story, Cruz is beloved by fans, teammates as he readies for All-Star Game

  • Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz autographs baseballs for Breyden Wright, 9 and Brock O'Day, 8 (right) while Jennifer Wright watches at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014.
Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz autographs… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
July 12, 2014|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Nelson Cruz presents a deep rooting dilemma for the modern baseball fan.

Is the Orioles outfielder the well-mannered son of teachers who built himself into a slugger step by painstaking step? In this version of the story, Cruz is the perfect baseball hero — a humble guy from the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic with Popeye forearms and a beatific countenance, one who belts home runs at a league-leading pace and still takes time to say hello to his young fans.

Or is he just another in the stained mass of baseball stars who seemingly took the easy way out by turning to performance-enhancing drugs? In that narrative, his 2013 suspension for drug use looms over everything else, always ready to bubble to the surface, as it did last weekend in Boston.

Perhaps the truth encompasses all of the above. That's why Cruz is among the most intriguing stories in his sport as he prepares to start at designated hitter for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Ask the man himself and he'll tell you he's the same considerate family guy and dogged worker his parents raised, a person who owns up to his mistakes but refuses to be derailed by them.

"I think you should realize nothing is forever," Cruz says on a recent afternoon, cradling his 31-ounce bat in the Orioles dugout at Camden Yards. "The bad stuff cannot be forever. Even the good stuff is not forever. So why are you going to be miserable about something that can't last forever? "

That perspective has helped him through the wild swings his life has taken over the past year.

Even six months ago, few could have imagined Cruz as one of baseball's triumphant figures for 2014. As a central character in the sport's latest drug scandal, he had been suspended for most of the Texas Rangers' 2013 postseason push and labeled a selfish fraud by dissatisfied fans. In the offseason, no club saw fit to risk long-term money on a player who was entering his mid-30s, whose true skills were in question and who would cost a draft pick in return.

But then, success has never come free and easy for Cruz.

From the time a New York Mets scout signed him as a slender teenager in the Dominican Republic, he needed 11 minor league seasons with four organizations to establish himself as a regular in the majors.

The greatest stretch of his career, a record eight-homer barrage in the 2011 playoffs, was overshadowed by a missed catch that contributed to the Rangers' loss in the World Series.

And last year, he saw his dreams of another playoff run scuttled by his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, which also led to suspensions for former Most Valuable Players Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Major League Baseball suspended 14 players last summer after investigating their ties to the South Florida anti-aging clinic and its founder, Anthony Bosch. The penalties ranged from a 50-game ban for Cruz to 211 games for Rodriguez.

If there was any question about Cruz's ongoing association with the controversy, Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey reminded everyone last weekend, responding to a 5-for-5 outing from Cruz: "I've got nothing to say about him. There are some things I'd like to say, but I'm not going to. You guys forget pretty conveniently about stuff."

The next day, national headlines focused on Cruz's rebound from Biogenesis bad boy to All-Star selection.

It's not a subject he relishes discussing. Cruz's words become halting, his gaze distant as he answers questions about his 50-game suspension. The ubiquitous smile is nowhere to be found.

"I know what I did and what I didn't do," he says. "So it's something I have to live with. The people who care and the people who really love me, they know. They know who I really am."

The episode pained his close-knit family. "Our hearts were broken," says his father, Nelson Cruz Sr., in Spanish. "We suffered a lot. We worried. We asked God why."

Cruz, 34, sticks by his explanation that he turned to Biogenesis to regain weight after a gastrointestinal infection drained him of 40 pounds heading into the 2012 season. Skeptics have noted that Biogenesis documents published by the Miami New Times reference dealings with the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Cruz in April and May 2012, several months after his stated timeline for the illness.

Regardless, he has repeatedly said he made a mistake. He accepts that he'll always face scrutiny and more frequent testing — an additonal six urine and three blood screens every year — mandated by the sport's drug policy.

Mando Gutierrez, a friend from Texas, recalls a community service event last year where a high school senior asked Cruz to explain his drug suspension.

"We all make mistakes and we all trust certain people," he remembers Cruz saying. "I trusted someone to take my health into consideration 100 percent, knowing there might be some repercussions. ... I shouldn't have trusted somebody, and it was wrong. I had to pay the consequence."

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