Nelson Cruz wins Roberto Clemente Award

October 28th, 2021

HOUSTON -- It's been many years since first brought dentists and optometrists to Las Matas de Santa Cruz in the remote northwestern part of the Dominican Republic, as he now does every year as a service for his hometown.

He still remembers the people who would walk in with missing teeth, unsmiling and uncomfortable with looking others in the eye because of it.

"Once they leave that place, you can see the joy," Cruz said. "They’re really comfortable. They can smile. They can talk. And you impact those people right away and bring those guys, those people, better lives and [allow them to] be more confident out there. It’s definitely really, really stuff that makes me proud."

Not only does all of that make Cruz proud after a long career of providing such aid to his community, but that relentless work also makes the baseball world proud -- and that's why, following his third career nomination for MLB's most prestigious individual award, Cruz was named the recipient of the 2021 Roberto Clemente Award on Wednesday.

The honor is annually given to the player who "best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field," and is determined by the Commissioner, Clemente's children, former players, journalists and fans.

Cruz was presented with the award before Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.

"I never was doing what I was doing to be recognized or win awards, but it's always nice when people recognize the work that you put on to help others," Cruz said. "I know all 29 other players that were nominated really deserved to win it. I just thank God that I was the one."

Though Cruz was traded to the Rays ahead of the July 30 Trade Deadline, such was his impact on the Twins in his two-plus seasons in Minnesota that the organization decided to stick with him as its annual nominee for the Clemente Award for the second straight season.

With that, Cruz became the fourth Twins player to win the honor, joining Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett (1996), Dave Winfield (1994) and Rod Carew (1977).

"There is no one more deserving of this tremendous honor than Nelson Cruz," Twins president Dave St. Peter said in a statement. "His dedication to uplifting those around him is unmatched, and we are in awe of all he has accomplished on and off the field. From Twins Territory to the Dominican Republic, Nelson’s commitment to community continues to have a significant impact across the globe."

Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was heartened to see all the areas in which this year's 30 player nominees made an impact, from COVID-19 relief to social justice efforts to environmental initiatives. But even in that impressive group, Cruz's contributions stood out.

"Every community where Nelson has played, he's done good works in that community," Manfred said. "But I think the most important of his good works have taken place in his native Dominican Republic. He's been involved in providing equipment for ambulance corps and firefighting. He supported educational efforts, and he really stepped up during the COVID pandemic. I think it was 1,200 families that he made sure they had adequate economic support and were fed every day. I mean, when you read what he did over the last 18 months, it's truly unbelievable."

Clemente's son Luis told Cruz he was pleased that a Latino player was the 50th recipient of the honor, which was first awarded to Willie Mays in 1971.

"I'm very proud of how many Hispanics, how many Latino players were nominated by the clubs," Clemente said. "Dad made sure with his actions he would open the doors and he would show what we have to offer, and our contributions have been totally certified by [Cruz's] actions and all of the other players that have been nominated. Truly, truly worth naming every single player that was nominated for their actions for what they do, But Nelson, you really took the cake. The people that have benefited from what you have done -- you saved so many lives with your actions that it's truly an honor and privilege to have you."

Most who reside in Cruz's hometown, less than 20 miles from the Haiti border, have felt the impact of his philanthropy. In addition to providing dentists and optometrists, he funded a police station and clinic, donated an ambulance and fire truck and provided medical supplies, financial assistance and food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All that work put Cruz's name next to that of another legendary philanthropic sportsman last offseason, when the slugger was named the recipient of the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award as part of the ESPYs. Now, he'll also join the rare echelon of players honored with the award named for Clemente, the Hall of Famer who died at age 38 while on a humanitarian mission. The Puerto Rican star, who played his entire big league career for the Pirates, still endures as an icon in the Latin American baseball world.

"Once you start playing baseball, everybody was like, 'Oh, you have a good arm like Roberto,' 'You hit like Roberto,' stuff like that," Cruz said. "Then, I started to find out what kind of person he was and what he did for his community and what he did for all Latin Americans, and definitely, it’s something, a guy that you want to follow, an example that you want to go after."

There's plenty of work still to be done as Cruz continues both his on-field career and off-field efforts.

His current major project involves the construction of a computing center in Las Matas, funded in part by money that was donated to his Boomstick23 Foundation when he won the Muhammad Ali Award. He hopes to provide education and resources through government-provided teachers and curricula to foster paths to stable employment and success for young athletes.

And though the vast majority of this work has impacted his hometown thus far, Cruz sees this technical center as simply the first step toward the fulfillment of a grander mission of expanding such opportunities across the country that he still calls home.

"It's a project that we believe in and the first thing we have to develop," Cruz said. "Hopefully it works the way we think it’s going to work, and then we can, like I said, expand it to all the Dominican."

Considering his track record, bet on him to make that a reality.