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Ageless Nelson Cruz is powered by naps

'Don't disturb King Nelly'
(Art by Tom Forget)
@MattMonagan
September 20, 2020

It was late, maybe too late for dinner, but six people gathered in a downtown Minneapolis hotel restaurant for a meal in early January 2019. Celebrations were in order. Around the table sat Twins GM Thad Levine, president of baseball ops Derek Falvey, senior director of communications Dustin Morse, newly

It was late, maybe too late for dinner, but six people gathered in a downtown Minneapolis hotel restaurant for a meal in early January 2019. Celebrations were in order.

Around the table sat Twins GM Thad Levine, president of baseball ops Derek Falvey, senior director of communications Dustin Morse, newly signed free agent superstar Nelson Cruz, Cruz's agent Bryce Dixon and Cruz's cousin/manager Adiel Rodriguez.

Cruz, coming off a 37-homer season in Seattle -- his fifth straight 35-plus home run campaign -- had flown in to take a physical for the Twins in order to become their new designated hitter. At 38 years old.

Results had come back that Cruz passed all his tests and the dinner was planned to commemorate it. He was officially a Twin.

The group talked about the upcoming season, the city and what the home run champ could expect in his first season in Minnesota. And then, the topic of naps came up. Cruz's daily rest regimen had been documented in the past, but Twins executives weren't exactly sure how serious the slugger was about it all. Everyone kind of joked and laughed about the idea until Cruz's cousin interrupted the back-and-forth.

"No, no, Nelly naps," Rodriguez said.

Cruz, also wanting to reiterate his seriousness about his naps, deadpanned the table.

"Yeah, so where is the nap room at Target Field?" he asked.

The three Twins employees more or less froze, knowing they didn't have a nap room ready to go at the stadium. Nobody had ever needed one before. But when a hulking 6-foot-2 slugger, who you just signed as your prized free agent, asks you where he can take naps before games -- you should really have a place for him to take naps before games.

"I think it was Thad Levine, who quick-wittingly said, 'Oh Nelly, we're building it, we're building it. It's in progress,'" Morse recalls. "And then I think after that dinner we called Matt Hoy, our stadium operations VP, and said we gotta get creative: Nelson Cruz needs a nap room."

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Nelson Cruz turned 40 years old this season. He's tied for third in the AL with 16 home runs, is fourth in slugging (.623) and second in OPS (1.026). He's batting a career best .314. He's in the running for an AL MVP and leading his team to the playoffs -- at an age when most players are retired and back at home watching the same games on TV. And it's not just this year: from ages 35-38, he's averaged 40 homers and 109 RBIs.

His late-career surge puts him up there with the likes of Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

"He's obviously a tremendous talent ... prodigious power," Levine, who also worked in the Texas Rangers front office when Cruz played there, says. "He continues to have success past a point where most players decline or retire."

Levine and Morse both talk about Cruz's whole body regimen that includes a personal chef to make him nutritious meals, stretching techniques, hours of batting practice, video work and ample time in the weight room.

But a key ingredient to go along with all of that is a pastime maybe many of the more senior members of society can relate to: Naps. At least 20-30 minutes before every single game.

"It's part of his routine," Morse says. "He comes in, he'll go to the gym right away. He'll lift and do his band exercises. He'll get about 15 minutes of cage work, does some video work (this, Morse tells me, is after already watching video the night before) and then nap. And then he'll go back to the cage."

And then, he'll sometimes go out and hit three home runs that afternoon.

“Twenty-five minutes,” Cruz told The Seattle Times a few years ago. “Research tells you that power naps are the best. You wake up with a lot of energy. It’s like a boost.”

It's hard to pin down when Cruz's pregame napping habit started. He definitely did it during his time with the Mariners, where he had dreams about Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners even installed a nap room at T-Mobile Park. But Levine believes the slugger could've picked it up in Texas during his late-20s or early-30s. It was just one of the gameday prep lessons he learned from some of the older veterans on the ballclub.

"He was a guy who was sponging leadership skills off some of the players in the clubhouse," Levine remembers. "He gravitated toward Michael Young initially and then, ultimately, Adrián Beltré. Josh Hamilton was on that team, Josh Hamilton was definitely a guy that subscribed to the benefits of napping before games. I think Nelson has drawn skills from all these guys to be the kind of leader he is today."

But it didn't really matter whenever or however it started, the Twins needed a nap room in their stadium. And they needed one fast.

Clubbies cleared out an old luggage room adjacent to the team clubhouse and family room, put up some drywall and placed three sleep stations inside -- a bunk bed and queen-sized mattress. Dim lighting was installed and Morse says a sound machine was used at some point, although he's not sure who brought it in there. Cruz also wears an eye mask alarm that buzzes when sleep-time is over.

The Twins officially had a nap room. It was simple, but it was Nelly-approved.

"The first year it was Nelly's room," Morse says. "I don't think anybody had the courage to go in there because it was the Nelly Nap Room. But he has opened up his room to everybody or anybody who wants to catch a nap."

Starting pitchers might use it to relax and listen to music before a start and teammates like Miguel Sanó have been known to frequent the area. Josh Donaldson, who signed with the club in 2020, even inquired about the nap room while committing to the Twins. He told MLB.com's Do-Hyoung Park just as much.

"That was something that I started doing last year. There has definitely been some research into having a 15-20 minute power nap before the game where it helps focus and energy as well."

Since more and more nappers have joined the fray, the Twins have expanded their rest and relaxation services.

"This year, we built another one," Morse tells me. "We had some additional space because of no fans and no employees. The photo workroom is our second nap room. [Napping] is something Rocco Baldelli stands by 100 percent. He's huge on rest and recovery."

During the COVID season, Cruz and others have the opportunity to pretty much nap anywhere now -- even in the luxury boxes.

"We can nap everywhere now," Cruz tells MLB.com. "We have the whole stadium to nap ... I think we can use the suite. It should be a good spot, the suites."

But what about on the road? Not every ballpark has a nap room. Cruz, a professional at the craft, can turn it off and rest pretty much anywhere.

"This year, it's been more challenging for Nelson because they took most of the furniture out of the clubhouses for COVID," Morse says. "He's mostly in the training-room style chairs. I've seen him even lay on the ground in front of his locker with a towel as a pillow."

"You can find him right in the middle of the training room with headphones -- noise-cancelling headphones," Levine says. "Towels draped all over his body. He doesn't need an absolutely silent place, he creates silence on his own."

Morse recently caught Cruz mid-snooze before an away doubleheader in St. Louis.

And it's not just midday naps, Cruz also believes in the power of a good night's sleep. Hotels on the road know to prepare when Cruz is on the way.

"Every hotel we stay at, the request from Nelson Cruz is blackout shades," Morse says, laughing. "Every little crack is covered. His room is pitch-black. They give him the quietest room or the corner room or the farthest room up so he doesn't hear traffic down below. They've got it down."

Morse even recalls a funny moment after a walk-off win one night last year.

"It looked like we were gonna go to extra innings, but we won it," Morse says. "We had a day game the next day and he was like, 'OK now I can go home and get some sleep!' while all the other guys are still jazzed up and jumping around."

Art by Tom Forget

It may sound funny, but Cruz's strict rest regimen -- along with weights, eating right, BP, stretching, nightly homework on opposing pitchers and positive attitude -- is a large part of the daily training that has kept his quadragenarian body in productive shape. It's also a leadership quality that others have copied and found useful.

"He's not the type of guy that jumps on a soap box and preaches," Levine says. "He's the type of guy that if you want his help -- he will help you to almost any end. I think Nelson has been an amazingly positive influence for guys like Miguel Sanó and others on our team. There's no better example set for a person who prepares to the 100th percentile off the field and then subscribes to the theory that on the field you should make sure everybody in the stadium, including the other team, know you're having fun winning baseball games. I think that's spread magnificently to our other players."

"Nelson's taught us that resting not only your body but your mind to visualize what you're gonna do that night should be part of your routine," Morse says. "And who can argue with his results?"

With Cruz having the best year of his life and the Twins in the playoffs for the second straight year he's been on the team, I'm not sure anybody can.

Matt Monagan is a writer for MLB.com. In his spare time, he travels and searches Twitter for Wily Mo Peña news.