SEATTLE -- Mariners chairman John Stanton has seen Nelson Cruz go about the business of baseball in impressive fashion for the past three years. He's seen the 37-year-old slugger interact with fans in Seattle and play ball with kids and get involved in charity causes for those in need.But Stanton
SEATTLE -- Mariners chairman John Stanton has seen Nelson Cruz go about the business of baseball in impressive fashion for the past three years. He's seen the 37-year-old slugger interact with fans in Seattle and play ball with kids and get involved in charity causes for those in need.
But Stanton wanted to see where the Mariners' big designated hitter grew up and how he became such a gentle giant in the community, so he made the trek to Las Matas de Santa Cruz last month to visit Cruz in his hometown in the Dominican Republic, where he and Cruz helped deliver balls, bats, baseball gloves, hats and jerseys to hundreds of youngsters on the north side of the island.
And the experience only reinforced the notion that Cruz is like Santa Claus in a baseball jersey to kids everywhere, but none more so than back in his home country.
"It was a little like being in Memphis with Elvis," Stanton said. "He is just such a genuine human being. And he's about the size of a small mountain, so everybody sees him coming."
Cruz returns every offseason to his hometown and does what he can to help out the community. He holds an annual Christmas gift giveaway. He helped rebuild the local ballfield so youngsters have an opportunity to play. He bought a fire engine and ambulance to provide better safety for the area.
And this year, with Stanton's help, Cruz flew in a plane loaded with 1,000 pounds of baseball equipment to distribute to Little Leaguers in native Monte Cristi province. Within minutes, every kid was wearing a No. 23 Cruz shirt and bearing a new glove or bat or whatever was needed.
"He drives up in this monster-sized truck and every kid has a huge smile on their face, just seeing him," Stanton said. "It's not like when he shows up in an elementary school in Seattle and it's the first time they've met him. He goes back there every year and is connected with them. He knows a lot of their names. He takes batting practice on that field in January. And that fence is not far enough, I'm going to tell you."
For Cruz, having the chairman of the Mariners come down to share in his offseason experiences was special as well. Cruz took Stanton to a Dominican Winter League game. He spent another day showing him his home, his workout facility, the fire station where he'd donated the truck and ambulance, introducing family and friends at every opportunity.
"It was awesome," Cruz said. "He'd told me he wanted to come to my hometown during the season and I said, 'Of course.' Once he did, he brought a lot of stuff for the kids. They were all happy and he was really excited, too.
"Every one of those kids, there were at least 150, got hats and jerseys and pictures. And we gave equipment to the manager of each team there. It was amazing."
Clearly Cruz has not forgotten his roots. And Stanton believes firmly in his heart that another Nelson Cruz or Robinson Cano could be among the crowd of youngsters with big eyes and wide smiles as they looked up to their hometown hero, the generous big man who came from their midst.
"He connects with those kids in a way that is very powerful," Stanton said. "He was one of those kids. And there are some players there, I'm convinced, that will at least make it to the academies and maybe one of them makes it to the Major Leagues themselves some day.
"If they do, the fact they didn't have to stay home to take care of mom because there's a scholarship program or they were able to get that bat and glove to participate in a tryout, that's something that changes a kid's life."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.