At 41, All-Star Cruz has as much fun as ever

July 12th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Nelson Cruz says he was telling people in the American League dugout that he was actually going to do it. They told him he couldn't. But oh, yes, he could.

This was, of course, two All-Star appearances ago, in 2017, when the designated hitter, then a (comparatively) chipper 37, brought his cell phone to home plate before his sixth-inning plate appearance, turned to National League catcher Yadier Molina, and casually asked him to take a photo of Cruz posing with home-plate umpire Joe West.

"It's something where I don't know who was the umpire, you know?" Cruz said. "But once I saw Joe, of course. He was the guy."

Looking back at the footage from that day, you can see West offer a slight shrug as he smiled with Cruz's right arm around him. Molina turned to the mound after giving Cruz his phone back and threw up his own hands, too.

Cruz was an All-Star the following season, too, but couldn't think of a follow-up act. He says he has nothing planned for this Midsummer Classic in Denver, either. Maybe he set the bar a little too high. Or maybe it's just someone else's turn to bring some new flair to the diamond.

"Well, I was the first one to bring the phone in the game," Cruz said.

It was worth asking -- because with Cruz, you never know.

This is the man, after all, who showed up in the Twins' dugout on his day off last September sporting a plush blue bathrobe, yielding his comfy spa outfit to any Minnesota hitter who returned to the dugout following a home run.

And the man who loudly cheers for himself (and loudly boos Willians Astudillo) during pregame introductions.

And the man who proposed that he and Miguel Sanó do a gorilla dance together following every Sanó home run, a reference to some of the younger Dominican's friends in his hometown having nicknamed him "King Kong."

Day after day, Cruz shows up to the ballpark not only ready to mash baseballs (he is an All-Star, after all), but also to give all of his teammates a constant spark with his mixture of intensity, routine and joy that usually manifests in his high-pitched cackle ringing out around the dugout more clearly now than ever -- even at the ripe old age of 41.

"There's some guys born to be a DH," reliever Tyler Duffey said. "When he's not hitting, he's in the dugout. He's getting people riled up. He's celebrating other guys' hitting. He's inside talking to people, talking about baseball, whatever it may be."

"I asked him [a few] days ago, when he had his birthday, I asked him, 'How do you feel?'" José Berríos said. "He said, 'I feel better now than when I turned 38 years old.'"

Cruz says that even when he was in the Minor Leagues, he told himself that he wanted to enjoy every moment as a big leaguer and to be himself. That wasn't always easy to do when he was a young player around established veterans -- but sometime around 2007, his third partial season in the Majors, he said he felt more comfortable showing off that personality in the clubhouse.

There's no way to get around the fact that the baseball schedule is a huge grind -- 162 games a year, plus Spring Training, plus possible playoff games, with brutal travel days -- but 17 years in, that grind still hasn't worn him down a bit. And if it has, he certainly hasn't showed it.

"He's very consistent with his own routines, and he's very consistent with his fun," manager Rocco Baldelli said.

The old man himself claims that there's no secret to it -- his love for the game has just continued to burn brightly. Maybe it's that love for his work that powers all of this personality that shines through; or maybe being able to joke around as much as he does between all of his intense work and preparation fuels his continued success in the game.

It's probably some mixture of both.

"I love the game, so I don't think the game's going to change, and I don't think I'm going to change," Cruz said. "So we'll have fun until I can't."

"I don’t think he would still be playing if he didn’t have this kind of enjoyment from showing up to the ballpark," Baldelli said. "I think he makes the most out of it. He knows that, he’s played for as long as anyone could ever hope, but he doesn’t take any of it for granted. I think what he wants to do is make sure that he kind of takes each day and gets the most out of it."

That's been more important than ever in a Twins clubhouse that, for one, didn't expect to be this low in the standings this year, and has also drifted far younger than anticipated due to a rash of injuries and underperformance around the roster.

Everything comes more naturally when you're winning. Fun comes more naturally. Smiles come more naturally. The Twins don't have the benefit of winning right now, and Cruz knows how important it is to remind the young members of the Twins' clubhouse to keep perspective and love what they do -- especially, though he might not admit it, because Cruz likely won't be in this clubhouse too much longer as a likely candidate to be moved at the Trade Deadline.

"When you're losing, it's tougher to have fun, you know?" Cruz said. "Even like that, you still have to stay positive, especially for the young guys. They look at you. You have to be the example. So you have to stay positive and at the same time, enjoy the game, you know? Don't cross the line, but enjoy the game."

Once Cruz gets to Denver on Sunday, part of that pressure will be off. He won't need to remind the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Shohei Ohtani or Fernando Tatis Jr. to have fun and relax -- though he knows he'll still be the veteran resource for them, much like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Mauer were resources for Cruz in his early All-Star Games.

Though, energy and fun-wise, Cruz might as well still have the pep of someone those youngsters' age (assuming he gets in his daily pregame nap). And even if he's not expecting to provide the antics again this year like in that photo years ago with West, he knows that there will be plenty of personalities around him that are already helping to make the game more fun -- and that's exciting for him.

"It seems like so much talent, you know, every year, you see young guys come up and it shocks you, the way they play," Cruz said. "The game is in good hands with our young guys. Definitely, I'll enjoy myself watching them play."