ST. PETERSBURG -- Growing up in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Nelson Cruz had to show up early for school and maintain a certain appearance while there. He had to work after his classes were done, taking on multiple jobs -- cleaning shoes, separating cattle on his grandfather’s farm, doing mechanical work with his uncle -- while playing sports in his free time.
That was life for a young Cruz, the son of two teachers. When Cruz agreed to his first professional contract with the Mets, his father told signing scout Eddy Toledo that Cruz couldn’t start playing until he finished the 11th grade. During his first season in the Dominican Summer League, Cruz said he worked out and played games during the day then took classes at night.
His parents, Nelson Sr. and Dominga, encouraged hard work and discipline, mindful of the maturity he would develop and the impact his behavior would have on those around him.
“I had to really be the example at my school, in and out of school,” Cruz said recently in the home dugout at Tropicana Field. “Even the way they cut my hair to be clean -- I was complaining one time, ‘Why?’ And my dad was like, 'If I want to talk to other kids about it, you have to be the example.’
“It was tough, but now looking back, it was worth it. Definitely, everything that they asked me to do was the right thing.”
The Rays acquired the 41-year-old Cruz this summer with sights on winning a World Series, first and foremost. On Thursday, he will return to the postseason stage in pursuit of a long-awaited championship. He’s hit 17 homers and driven in 37 runs in 46 career postseason games, and he was one out -- one David Freese fly ball to right field -- away from winning it all with the Rangers a decade ago. Seventeen years into his big league career, the pursuit of a championship still motivates him.
“That's what I play for,” Cruz said. “That's what I've been preparing myself for the last 10 years. So imagine now, to be able to go to the playoffs the last two years with Minnesota without a win, that definitely hurts. Because I feel like time is ticking, so I have to take advantage of every single opportunity that I have, especially in the playoffs.”
For the Rays, having Cruz around this season will also pay dividends years after this postseason run ends. More than 30 years after keeping his hair clean-cut for school, he’s still counted on to set an example for his peers.
Cruz is beloved by former teammates, so much that the Twins’ Miguel Sanó asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Danea. He was so highly respected in Minnesota that the Twins named him their deserving nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award nearly two months after he was traded. He’s an icon in the Dominican Republic due to the success he’s enjoyed on the field and his extraordinary community work through his Boomstick23 Foundation.
“I told him, like, 'Hey, I want to be like you.’ But he told me, 'You want to be like [me as] a baseball player or like a person?'” Sanó said. “And I told him, 'I want to be like you as a baseball player and like a person, too.'”
The Rays understood that was part of the deal when they paid a hefty price -- highly regarded pitching prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman -- to acquire Cruz from the Twins on July 22.
He was an obvious fit for a team with World Series dreams like his own: an everyday designated hitter for the American League’s top-seeded Rays and a proven hitter who’s helped them improve against left-handed pitchers, even though his overall numbers since the trade (.226 average, .725 OPS, 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 55 games) aren’t up to the standard he’s set for himself.
The night of the trade, though, the Rays made it clear that they coveted Cruz for more than just his power numbers. His well-known status as a powerful clubhouse presence played just as big a part.
“That is clear as clear can be. We would not have made that deal if not for everything we know about him, the example he sets, the influence he can have -- especially on younger, malleable players,” general manager Erik Neander said last weekend at Yankee Stadium. “With respect to that, [he’s been] everything as advertised.
“It's easy to be those things when your results and your performance is exactly where you want it. It's another thing when you're not quite firing on all cylinders and where you want to be. To still have that influence, to still be that example, that shows you that much more. Really, really appreciate him, and I think it's pretty clear the effects and the benefits that he's had on this group.”
As much as they’ve earned their analytical reputation, the Rays often consider unquantifiable factors like that when acquiring veteran players.
Starter Charlie Morton, for instance, made a lasting impression on their young staff in 2019-20 after signing as a free agent. Tampa Bay typically relies on young players more than most contending teams, using 18 rookies this season alone, and young players tend to look to the club’s veterans for guidance.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that rookies Randy Arozarena and Wander Franco saw their performance improve after Cruz came aboard. Or that, in 43 games with Cruz and Franco in the lineup together, the Rays averaged 6.12 runs per game compared to their overall season average of 5.29. Or that teammates rave about the immeasurable influence Cruz has had.
“He's so locked into every pitch. He has the most fun out of anybody I've ever played with. So to be able to see that on every pitch, you see guys on the team sort of mold to that,” said catcher Mike Zunino, who also played with Cruz in Seattle from 2015-18. “Guys are paying attention more. Guys are seeing little intricacies of the game and not taking pitches off, even on the bench. It's just because his enthusiasm for playing this game and just the knowledge that he has, and it's wearing off on everybody.”
On Labor Day at Fenway Park, Cruz legged out a wild “Little League grand slam” in the fourth inning, homered over the Green Monster in the eighth then hustled his way into scoring position after a 10th-inning single in the Rays’ 11-10 win in Boston, their most memorable win of the season.
Afterward, third-base coach Rodney Linares raved about Cruz’s baserunning and hustle more than anything else.
“He's 41 years old, a sure Hall of Famer. Doing that at that clip, [teammates] look at that and go like, 'Yeah, I better bust it when I'm on the bases,’” Linares said. “So that's a pretty good example for the guys to see. The impact that Cruz has, it's far beyond what you see as a player. Like what he does inside, the way he works, the way he works with the players, the way he talks with everybody.
“He's always talking to everybody, and everybody's always trying to pick his brain. And he does not say no. I told him the other day, I said, 'You know what? I don't know how you've got time, man, because you talk to everybody.' He's just spreading the knowledge, and that's good. You don't see that with guys of that caliber.”
Rays outfielder Austin Meadows described the “very personable, really easy to talk to” Cruz in a similar way. Tampa Bay’s primary DH before Cruz arrived, Meadows obviously wanted to ask Cruz about his routine before and during games. It was the first conversation they had, Meadows said, and Cruz told Meadows everything he could’ve hoped to learn.
“I just have to be myself, just do what I do on a daily basis,” Cruz said. “Show up and do my work, make sure I'm ready for the game and walk around and see whatever my teammates need.”
He doesn’t know how to go about it any other way.
“He really takes his time to talk to you,” Meadows said. “He's just a leader. I mean, he just leads by example, goes out there and does the right thing, puts the work in.”