Celebrating 42nd birthday, Cruz plays in 1,955th game

July 2nd, 2022

WASHINGTON -- Nelson Cruz celebrated his 42nd birthday by going to work -- to appear in his 1,955th Major League game.

“You don’t play on your birthday every day, so it’s a lot of excitement, maybe like Opening Day,” Cruz said. “It’s a special day.”

On Friday in the series opener against the Marlins, Cruz became only the 13th player dating back to 1901 to start on his 42nd or older birthday at least once. The designated hitter is the first to do so since 2011.

“It’s remarkable,” Cruz said prior to the Nationals’ 6-3 loss. “You don’t see many players [do it], it’s not that common. When I started playing, I never thought, ‘I am going to still play this late.’ I guess I’ve been doing a good job taking care of my body and staying productive. Those are the two keys.”

Cruz made his Major League debut two-and-a-half months after turning 25 in 2005 with the Brewers. He did not establish an everyday playing role until his age-28 season in ‘09, when he earned his first All-Star selection as a member of the Rangers. This spring, he signed with the Nationals -- his seventh club -- to bring esteemed veteran leadership, in addition to his bat.

“It’s really impressive,” said 23-year-old right fielder Juan Soto. “It’s a big example that you’ve just got to keep your body healthy and just keep doing things the right way, and you’re going to be here for a long time.”

With an evening game scheduled on his actual birthday, Cruz took advantage of the Nationals’ off-day on Thursday and had some teammates over to enjoy an early birthday dinner with his family. Cruz wanted to extend the invitation beyond relatives because “it’s a special day, so you want to have your closest friends by your side.” The celebratory night left an impression.

“His dad has a bunch of stories about everything, [he] knows about everything,” Soto said. “So it was really nice and really, really helpful to talk with him.”

It’s with that hospitable spirit that Cruz has welcomed teammates into his encyclopedic world of baseball as well. He offers them a vast anthology of knowledge and advice, channeled by a career resume that includes four Silver Slugger Awards, seven All-Star nods, an American League Championship Series MVP Award and a Roberto Clemente Award for his dedication to the community.

“I learned a lot of things from him; he’s a guy that’s like the leader here,” said 22-year-old shortstop Luis García. “The first time I came in here … he said, ‘Come in early everyday here. Go to the cage early. Go to the gym after that. And [when you] go to the game, the first person to go to stretch is you.’

“He said, ‘Do you know why?’ I said, ‘Why?' He said, ‘Ask me that question 20 years later.’ … Whatever he does, I say, ‘OK, if he does it, I’ll do it.’”

In less than half a season, Cruz has given Nationals’ hitters a firsthand look at how to achieve dominance at the plate paired with longevity. After a slow start to his 18th season, in which he hit .155 in April, Cruz batted a combined .293 with six home runs and 12 doubles in May and June. He also has reached base safely in 30 of his last 38 games.

“How he’s swinging the bat, how much power he has, it’s just impressive how he’s doing it,” said Soto. “I’m glad to see it and see it with my eyes how he swings the bat and how smart he is at the plate and outside of the field. It’s just incredible.”

Cruz’s influence goes beyond the position players, too.

“He’s been great for the clubhouse,” said 29-year-old right-hander . “I feel like he’s been in the AL for so long, all you see is highlights of him mashing homers. To actually get to see him in person, it’s great.”

So it’s no surprise that, following the game, players and staff energetically dashed to the dining area of the clubhouse for a collective singing of “Happy Birthday” before they left the ballpark for the evening.

“You want to always try to be someone that’s an example,” Cruz said. “You’re always looking for people that do something special in their career. In my case, I’ve been playing for a long time. Especially when you love the game, you never want to leave.”