Nelson Cruz has had success in his age-38 season because of his routine. He gets his swings in, he takes his naps and he doesn’t rush anything. It not only keeps his body loose and his mind focused, but puts him in position to have the best at-bat possible every time he gets to the plate.
“Every time we go out, I tell him, ‘Just make sure you go early so you can prepare yourself. Don’t rush for anything,’” says Cruz, who just hit his 40th home run of the season, the 400th of his career. “That’s the same way when you go at-bat, you want to slow everything down, so you don’t want to rush.”
He being Miguel Sano, who views Cruz as an older brother figure on the team.
Things happened fast for Sano. He became a well-known name in the baseball community after having his signing documented in the film Ballplayer: Pelotero, was the subject of a Sports Illustrated profile championing him and Byron Buxton as the Minnesota Twins’ saviors and was an All-Star at age 24.
But for as much hype as there was surrounding him, he appeared to be falling out of grace last season.
He was accused of sexual assault before the season, and the details of the accusation turned some of the Twins fanbase against him. He also appeared overweight last year, was injured and hit .199/.281/.398 with 13 home runs in only 71 games.
Suddenly the player who had gone through a trying signing period, appeared to be part of the Twins turnaround and looked like a perennial All-Star had become a pariah. His character had been called into question, and people felt he was lazy or at least not preparing himself to be the star he could be.
He needed someone like Cruz to help slow things down for him.
“That’s big brother for Miggy, man,” said hitting coach James Rowson, who has seen how Cruz has mentored Sano.
“Nelly takes to it so easily, kinda corrals him and has fun with him and jokes with him. But yeah, Miggy’s a sponge around Nelly. I’m sure he’s probably told you how much he’s learned from him and just watch him and the way he goes about it.”
Rowson says allows players to jump in on his instructions in the batting cage, creating an atmosphere where Cruz can offer his input in real time.
“We have a pretty open environment down there, so everything’s up for grabs,” says Rowson. “There’s a lot of conversation and a lot of thoughts on everything that we do down there. That’s one of the ways we kind of go about it. So, he absolutely shares with players when he sees certain things.
“Guys will go to him and ask him questions on certain things, as well. Sometimes guys will ask me something and I’ll tell them to go ask Nelson because I know he’s going to give you a little bit of a different perspective, and the perspective that they’re looking for at that time. He’s definitely another coach on the field and a set of eyes for us.”
“We have a good relationship,” Sano said early this season. “Everybody is family here. Those guys called me more to see how I’ve been and how I feel. Cruz asked every day how I feel and how I’ve been and been doing. He told me how I need to be good at my program on hitting so I can see more pitches.”
Cruz has emphasized the importance of sticking to a routine with all the young Twins players, including Sano.
“Be prepared for every game. Make sure you do your routines on a steady basis,” says Cruz. “Anyone can get one hit one day. The hard part is just to stay consistent throughout the year, to be able to put the work in on a daily basis without excuses, you know? Because you definitely don’t feel good every day, and the body changes up and down.
“I want to teach him to do everything in the daytime. Whatever you do in the daytime, take your time, you don’t have to rush anything when you’re hitting.”
Rowson acknowledges that it can be hard for younger players to approach a player of Cruz’s stature. But Cruz himself was a late-bloomer, and wants to instruct others using his major league experience.
“Sometimes it can be intimidating to approach a guy who has the numbers on the back of his baseball card,” says Rowson. “Even for some of these players, to go in there and ask him some questions and approach, sometimes it’s intimidating, but he makes it really easy because if you don’t go get him, he may go get you or he’ll find a moment to talk to you one on one. He’s kind of got a special way of doing it. Charisma and his personality is one of a kind.”
Cruz hit his first home run in the Metrodome during the 2006 season. He was 26 at the time; Sano is currently 26. Cruz didn’t become an All-Star until 2009, his age 28 season, and earned five of his six All-Star appearances from age 32 to 37.
“He’s grown up, so it’s really not only happy, but it feels like when I hit a homer, it’s special and good. But when I see him do it, it’s even more special,” says Cruz, “because it feels like it’s part of my” — he stops to search for the right word — “son, I guess. He’s my friend.”
“But what he went through last year and bounced back this year, I mean he’s clutch for us. Definitely a huge part of the team.”
Sano, 26, is back to where he was two years ago, slashing .245/.344/.565 and joining the 30-homer club in a season where he started slow (.236/.321/.574 in the first half) and slumped in August (.218/.313/.505). Cruz’s mentorship is a big part of that, meaning that his impact on the Twins should last long after he leaves the team.
“Miggy would be one of those guys that’s probably gonna have a really long, lasting affect about how he goes about his game from here on out,” says Rowson, “and hopefully at some point later in his career, he’s kinda trading places with him, and people are saying these things about him.”