How B.A.T. changed Fernando Cruz's life -- and how he's paying it forward

November 15th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Mark Sheldon’s Reds Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CINCINNATI -- By the time Reds reliever  made his Major League debut as a 32-year-old rookie on Sept. 2, 2022, he had toiled for 11 years as a professional ballplayer in the Minors -- across different organizations, countries and independent leagues.

That made it even more rewarding for Cruz to finally achieve his dream after numerous setbacks, failures and bumps in the road. But none of those hardships compared to the one Hurricane Maria brought to his home and family in Puerto Rico. 

In September 2017, Maria was the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years. The destruction it caused devastated the U.S. territory's 3.2 million citizens.  

Cruz and his wife, Omaley, were separated at the time. By 2019, the couple had gotten back together, but their family home was still in disrepair from Hurricane Maria. Cruz had saved some money to fix the house, but it wasn't quite enough to complete the job. 

"We had to get our house back. It had a lot of damage," Cruz said. "We didn’t have any furniture or any appliances."

It was MLB’s Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) that came to the Cruz family's rescue. The right-hander applied for a grant and received $15,000.

"They bought everything for the house. It was a huge, huge, huge help for us. We still have everything they got us," said Cruz, who also has four children. “A lot of people don’t know about the help they can give. It can actually save families and save lives. It was life changing for me and my family.

“That got me back on my feet. After that, things started to get going.”

Three years later, Cruz reached the big leagues.

B.A.T. was formed in 1986 to help former big league players bridge the gap for expenses not covered by their pension. It has since evolved to provide aid for baseball's extended family, which includes former Major League players and coaches, Minor League players and coaches, scouts, umpires, athletic trainers, front office employees, clubhouse assistants and those who played in the Negro Leagues and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. 

A misconception is that all professional baseball players have earned big money and lifetime financial security. But Minor League pay is not big league pay. 

Not everybody reaches the Majors, and some in the game can fall through societal cracks. That's where B.A.T. can pinch-hit. In 2022, B.A.T. assisted 1,374 grant applicants and provided more than $3.1 million of assistance via grants, scholarships and aid for crisis situations. 

According to B.A.T., 88 percent of their applicants are under 50 years old and make less than $20,000 per year.

"Sometimes, people need a little jump-start to regroup and get back on track. That’s what we’re here for, just to provide a short-term bridge to help someone get back to being self-sufficient," B.A.T. executive director Erik Nilsen said.

B.A.T. also helps those experiencing drug and alcohol addiction get treatment, provides aid for mental health services, funeral expenses and medical expenses and helps Minor Leaguers lacking education get degrees and jobs.

“We do understand the transition away from baseball is a struggle," Nilsen said. "It’s not as easy as people think. Baseball players have a PhD in baseball, that’s their expertise. But giving lessons and coaching at academies are not the most fruitful things to do, income-wise. We try to work with our applicants to help point them in the right direction."

Fernando Cruz, his wife Omaley, B.A.T. PR consultants (Jayson Perez & Ivan Reyes) and B.A.T. representatives (Erik Nilsen, Eddy Tapia & Juliza Gracesqui)

Cruz's good friend Ivan Reyes is a B.A.T. consultant based in Puerto Rico and told him about the program in 2019. 

"I thought, ‘That would be great for me.’ They don’t just give that money away. They check if you really need it. They give the money to the right people," Cruz said. 

Each Spring Training, B.A.T. staff members hold meetings with each Major League club to promote their services and seek donations. 

During this year's meeting inside the Reds’ spring clubhouse in Goodyear, Ariz., Cruz came forward and shared his story with teammates. Because all aid provided by B.A.T. is confidential, many players in the game aren't familiar enough with its capacity to help. 

“I will do whatever they need me to do to help build up their organization and talk to players about it," Cruz said.

"His way of paying it forward hopefully gets more people to reach out and ask for help and get what they need," Nilsen said. “I don’t think I’ve met a more genuine, humble and grateful individual."

Cruz paid it forward with action as well as talk shortly after Hurricane Fiona delivered more catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico in September 2022. Within a month, Cruz used his pickup truck to gather four pallets of aid and supplies sent to the island by MLB. He, Nilsen and members of B.A.T. distributed those items to people in need. 

“Fernando volunteered to help," Nilsen said. "He’s just a good all-around person. We’re happy to help good people and see that he’s in a great place right now.”

Cruz pitched a full season in the Reds' bullpen during 2023 and posted a 4.91 ERA in 58 games. He also earned what was long an elusive Major League salary ($720,000).

“Now I’m donating money to them," Cruz said of B.A.T. "Anything I can do to help.”