It’s early August 2006.
It’s deep in the dark bowels of the Metrodome, near the right-field tunnel where Minnesota Vikings players came thundering out before each of their games.
Yes, the same corner that housed the inflatable milk jug that became part of Minnesota Twins lore near the end of the team’s time at the park.
I’m in this part of the ballpark because my 18-year-old brother and I are at a game with our stepfather and grandfather, and because my brother requires special amenities because he’s a quadriplegic.
That’s paralyzed from the neck down, for the uninitiated.
While waiting what felt like an eternity to get to our seats, I spot a dimly lit batting cage with a hulking big leaguer taking what felt like countless reps of flips from a coach not too long before the game started.
“Cruz” was the name on his jersey. I don’t think much of it other than that it was cool to see a big leaguer up that close — at 20 and from a small town, my experience with MLB players has been fleeting at best, but more on that another time — and turned my attention to the seat I’d be filling and the Chicago Dog I’d be eating during the game.
For some reason, it was etched into my memory bank, and now some 13 years later Nelson Cruz is a Minnesota Twin.
Frankly, it’s nothing short of amazing that either of us is here. I’m working toward my dream of being a full-time MLB reporter, and Cruz — at that time in his age-25 season — is still around as he nears turning 39 next month.
Cruz was a late bloomer. He didn’t even get 500 plate appearances in a big-league season until he was 28. By that time, he’d already spent parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues in the Oakland and Milwaukee systems, and that was after signing with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent in 1998.
Before playing in his 10th big-league game, Cruz had been traded three times for such luminaries as Jorge Velandia and Keith Ginter. In the final trade, he was a throw-in with Carlos Lee in a deal that brought the Milwaukee Brewers Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix.
Cruz yo-yo’d up and down with the Rangers throughout 2006 and 2007, but it was in his late-season call-up in 2008 that something clicked. Cruz, a career .231/.282/.385 hitter to that point, hit .330/.421/.609 in 31 games over the final month or so of the season.
A big reason, Nelson says, is the tutelage of current Mariners manager Scott Servais. Before Servais was the head man with the Mariners, he worked in player development with the Rangers, and got his hands on the mass of talent now commonly known as the Boomstick.
But he wasn’t the Boomstick back then.
“I loved the game, so you just want to stick around and see what’s going to happen,” Cruz said of the perpetual motion between the minors and being designated for assignment. “I was really close to going to Japan at one point. I guess God has a reason for everything.”
But Cruz quickly turned the conversation away from himself, suggesting he had plenty of help to get him where he is today. That is, nearing 400 career home runs with over 1,000 RBIs.
On that day by the milk jug, Cruz had a total of one MLB home run — hit earlier in the series against the Twins.
“I don’t think you can mention only yourself,” Cruz said. “Along the way, you’ll find people who help you.”
As much as Cruz wants to give credit to others, his story is also a cautionary one. Like Carlos Gomez with the Brewers, he struggled for a while before ultimately deciding if he was going to go down with the ship, he was going to do it his way. He wasn’t prepared to come off the bench, or to play just twice a week, and he was aware of the holes in his game — but he was willing to work.
“I’d always hit really, really well in the minors — but I had trouble in the big leagues with the inside pitch. I felt like I wasn’t playing enough; I wasn’t ready to come off the bench and play twice a week. That wasn’t my role in the minors. I wasn’t ready for that.
“But Scott Servais, when I was sent down, he changed my stance. He showed some videos of Carlos Lee and Derrek Lee, and those guys. Those guys who have open stances. Since that day, my swing got better. But with that, I just had to have the determination to believe in what I had. If I got to go to the big leagues again, I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do. Let me do my own thing. If I don’t do well, just release me or let me go. At least then I knew I tried my own way at least once.
“Once I made that decision, everything changed. Just believe in yourself.”
“Nelly’s awesome,” Servais said from the visiting manager’s office prior to Tuesday’s game. “I think all the people in this room will agree with me. He’s one of the best people we’ve had in a Mariner uniform. He’s just a good leader.
“Back to the days when he was a young player, he was open. A lot of players get kind of stuck in their ways; he was all open to suggestions I was throwing at him. To his credit, he took it and ran with it and found something that worked for him. It’s all on the players; the players have to be open and willing to make adjustments to their game, and he certainly has been that guy.”
“He was on the outs in Texas at that time. He quickly turned it around and got on the ins, and look what’s happened to him since.”
The changes didn’t stick right away for Cruz; in fact, he said it took about a year for things to really kick in.
That timeline pretty much lines up with his 2008 season.
“Well, maybe a year down the road from there?” Cruz said for how long it took him to see changes with his new approach. “Maybe in 2007? But 2007, late in the year I got called up late in the year and I hit pretty well. Even though I wasn’t playing much, I felt my swing was there and I could play at that level. I got designated (for assignment) the next year, so I had to wait a little longer to come up and be an everyday player.”
That September (2007), Cruz hit .309/.328/.527 for Texas, and still had to go through spending nearly all of 2008 at Triple-A Oklahoma — where he hit .342/.429/.695 as a 27-year-old — before his second straight sizzling September put him on the map, and on the team to start 2009.
Now Cruz uses his experience to help mold younger players.
“It’s easy, you know?” Cruz said with a smile when asked how those experiences prepared him to be a leader. “Experience was the key. When you play, you go through a lot. Nothing can surprise you, you can put it that way. But the most important thing is to prepare for every game, you know. Make sure you’re ready? I’d also talk about all the batting practice. You have to make sure you do your workouts in the gym. Study the pitchers you’ll face. Mentally it’s most important to be ready, more than anything else.”
Ultimately the cage anecdote means almost nothing. At least not to you the reader, perhaps. But it reminded me of a time Cruz and I had something in common — we were unfinished products.
“I can remember that cage in right field,” Cruz said with a smile. “By the milk jug.”
- The Twins announced the signing of first-round pick Keoni Cavaco on Tuesday. Cavaco, who turned 18 on June 2, will be assigned to the Twins’ Gulf Coast League rookie team — a common landing spot for high school draft picks. Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline reports the signing is for $4.05 million, below the slot value for pick 13 ($4.1973 million).
- Rocco Baldelli on Cruz: “Nellie is, he’s a stabilizing force in a lot of ways, whatever that means. He’s a wonderful person. He’s tremendous in our clubhouse and he’s one of the best hitters in baseball so he does all of those things, he does them every day. That’s just the person that he is. That’s the guy that he is but I think our players certainly feel the energy that he brings when he’s out there and he’s healthy and he’s playing. The guys certainly feed off of him in every way and with Nellie, we’re going to make sure we treat him as best we possibly can going forward. I would love for him to play every single game the entire year and write his name in there, just to take care of him, we probably won’t do that but he’ll be out there a lot and he’ll certainly get more than his share of ABs.”
- Baldelli on what it means to be named an All-Star: “It means a little something different to each guy. But I think almost without exception it’s a very highly thought of, very important honor in this game. I think there’s some real validation there when you work hard. Guys are here and they play to win every day, they’re here for the team. They’re here for their teammates. They play to win. But making an All-Star team is one of those very few special moments in the game, special things that you will always hold onto. You play to become a big leaguer. You play to win games and win a World Series. I don’t see anything wrong with guys playing and wanting to be an All-Star. I think that’s a very fair goal for a lot of these guys who are very, very good players out there.”
- Baldelli on the David Ortiz situation: “Yeah, I think everything in baseball was thinking about David. He’s a very, very special person to a lot of different people in this game, and outside the game. I told a couple of friends of mine, ‘He’s an ambassador. He’s a hero to a lot of people in the Dominican Republic, all over Latin America, all over the United States, in Boston.’ He’s touched a lot of different people in his life, and because of that there are a lot of people pulling for him right now and thinking about him, and all we want is for him to just be OK. He’s a special guy to me, too.”