Crashed out on the couch in the visiting clubhouse is baseball’s most consistent power hitter.
Teammates are sitting all around him, laughing, joking, watching TV. The slumbering man doesn’t move.
He has a towel draped over his lower torso like a blanket and another towel wrapped around his head, shading his eyes. Look closely and you can see a sideburn, a left cheek and a massive right forearm.
All that’s missing is a beach and an ocean.
It’s the picture of contentment, of relaxation.
It’s really good to be Nelson Cruz right now.
He’s leading the American League in RBIs. His team is in a pennant race. And he continues to pound the baseball at an incredibly steady rate in his late 30s.
No player in the majors has hit more home runs since 2014 than Cruz, the former Oriole and current Seattle Mariners designated hitter.
Not Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton or Edwin Encarnacion or Chris Davis. He’s outpaced the nearest competitor by 15 homers.
Cruz has homered 40 or more times in each of the past three full seasons – only Colorado’s Nolan Arenado has done it twice since 2014 – and he has 31 this year while playing half his games at Safeco Field, widely considered a pitcher’s park.
“Like any other player, the most important thing is to play games, accumulate as many at-bats as you can and the numbers are going to be whatever they’re going to be,” Cruz said. “God blessed you with the talent and then it’s whatever you can do with the extra work. You’ve got to show up every day.”
A tremendous resurgence
There was a time when Cruz couldn’t find a proper baseball home. He was still a free agent in February 2014, hampered by a qualifying offer/draft pick attachment and coming off a season in which he was suspended 50 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis, performance-enhancing-drug scandal.
So, the Orioles took a chance on the then-33-year-old, signing him to a one-year, $8 million deal.
It was the best move in Dan Duquette’s Orioles’ tenure.
It also was the most impactful one-year contract in the history of the organization. Cruz won the 2014 Most Valuable Oriole Award and carried the team to the American League Championship Series, their first appearance there since 1997.
So, conversely, you can make the argument that allowing Cruz to leave was among the worst decisions in Duquette’s tenure.
To be fair, the Orioles tried to keep him, offering Cruz a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $14.5 million per year. But they wouldn’t go four years. Not for a guy who had persistent leg issues in the past and that would be 38 at the end of a four-year deal.
Also, to be fair, the organization wasn’t exactly split in the decision; this one isn’t on Duquette alone. No one I spoke to at the time within the organization thought a four-year contract was a good idea for Cruz. Many thought a three-year deal was a stretch, but the Orioles were willing to do that to get at least two strong years out of Cruz.
He proved them all wrong, of course – signing a four-year, $57 million deal with the Mariners, which paid him a little less per year than what the Orioles offered.
He admits now, that at the time, he wasn’t positive he had made the right call.
“Yeah, early in the first year, I was probably more thinking about it,” he said. “But now this is my home. This is where I feel comfortable.”
Still impacting ex-teammates
Cruz continues to have an impact on the Orioles. He’s still in close contact with several players including Jonathan Schoop and Manny Machado, who followed Cruz around faithfully during the 2014 season.
“Almost every day (we text). We’re always messing around, joking around,” Cruz said. “Especially with the year Jonathan is having and as many RBIs as he has and all that, we’re always talking crap about how he’s following me (in the RBI race). But I’m really proud (about) the years they are having, especially Jonathan. He has definitely come up a lot this year. And Manny, the bounce back he has had in the second half has been awesome.”
When he talks about Schoop and Machado, Cruz beams like an older brother.
“I’m really proud. I thought it was part of my job, even though they are great kids,” Cruz said. “It was part of my job to teach them a little bit how to prepare for the game.”
Schoop’s one to give credit to just about every teammate and coach who has helped him along the way. But he said Cruz made the biggest impression.
“Nelson meant a lot to me. He taught me a lot of things,” Schoop said. “He taught me the way to play the game, the way to handle myself, the way to prepare myself to be better, to be better when I’m older. To get your body stronger and work hard and get loose, He taught me a lot. I have no (sufficient) words to say thank you to him.”
Playing until he’s 40, or beyond?
Schoop said he understood the business decision the Orioles made, but he’s also not surprised that Cruz is thriving in year three of his contract. And isn’t slowing down.
“You see it. You see what he is doing. He is doing it for a reason,” Schoop said. “Because he works every day and maintains his body. I believe he can play even until he’s 40.”
Cruz, 37, laughed when asked if playing into his 40s was realistic.
“I don’t know. I just focus on an everyday basis,” he said. “If you go back to 2012, I had some health issues. But since that year. I’ve known what to do to stay healthy, especially my legs. I have found a routine that helps me. I stick with it. Even now, I try to look for different routines that can help me.”
That includes regimented workouts, eating healthy and those power naps in clubhouses before games.
But there’s more to Cruz’s success, too. It’s the work ethic and preparation that he’s perfected through the years.
“A lot of guys when they get on a team plane and are flying somewhere, they see it as an opportunity to watch movies or drink or listen to music or hang out with teammates,” said Orioles reliever Darren O’Day, who has been Cruz’s teammate in Texas and Baltimore. “A lot of times, I’d go back to the back of the plane and Nelson would be back there with his iPad studying video of opposing pitchers. Every time I walked by, I’d say, ‘Man, I’m glad he’s on my team.’”
Cruz will be with the Mariners for another year, and then who knows what happens. He’s not worried about it. He’s also not concerned that, despite being a five-time All Star, he doesn’t get the same national accolades as sluggers that he’s outhit and outhomered in the past few years.
Let other people say that Cruz is one of the most underrated players in baseball.
“That’s not my job to think about it or say it. My focus every day is to come in here and help my team win games,” Cruz said. “What happens outside of there, I don’t really think about it, even if it is there every day. It’s something as a player, your main thing should be to be prepared to win games and help your team win games.”