Cruz always seeking opportunities to help

September 16th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- is constantly on the lookout when he's in his hometown of Las Matas de Santa Cruz.

Even after providing a health clinic, a police station, an ambulance, a fire truck, police motorcycles, medical supplies, police supplies, firefighting equipment, annual visits from doctors and dentists, and medical care and food during the COVID-19 pandemic, among countless other resources that have helped to transform the remote town in which he grew up without consistent electricity, reliable water or infrastructure -- he's still always on the lookout.

Especially when it comes to the kids.

It's those big quality-of-life resources for the residents of his town that rightly generate the headlines and cause the accolades to pile up, from the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award as part of the ESPYs and the 2020 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, as voted on by his peers, to his second consecutive nomination by the Twins for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award this year.

But he's there to listen for anything else the kids of his community need, too. This spring, he quietly worked behind the scenes with the Twins and Daktronics, a South Dakota-based scoreboard company, to design and deliver a new scoreboard for use in a youth basketball tournament at his community's court, another example of how he won't hesitate to leverage his connections and resources to help the young people of his town.

"My dad always told me, 'If you have your mind busy doing work or doing sports, you're not going to think about doing bad stuff in the streets or getting in trouble,'" Cruz said. "So the more time you keep those kids occupied and doing all this stuff, it will definitely be better for their future. That's the goal. That's what we're working on for the kids."

For the last few years, Cruz's town has hosted a small amateur tournament at the community court to promote basketball among the local youth. He's particularly fond of the games, because he used to play on one of those teams himself, and they'll often bring in players from different cities to attract more people, too.

Until this year, the scoreboard was an old, hand-operated, metal contraption -- "Like the Fenway Park scoreboard on the Green Monster," Cruz says -- that would take four kids to operate: one to change each team's score, one to watch the game and one to relay information. Seeing that, Cruz went over to the tournament organizers and asked what they needed to improve that. It's just what he does.

And when he came to the Twins before Spring Training with the need for a simple, digitally operated scoreboard, the organization turned to one of its local partners to help make Cruz's request a reality.

"Daktronics was the one who gave us that beautiful scoreboard," Cruz said.

Daktronics, based out of Brookings, S.D., is responsible for the various scoreboards around Target Field, Bat & Barrel, Target Field Plaza and the CenturyLink Sports Complex where the Twins host Spring Training. They don't often field requests from individual athletes, but as the Twins' go-to provider for special projects, they didn't hesitate when it came to Cruz, who sat down with the company himself to communicate his needs.

"It was unique in that aspect," said Daktronics regional sales manager Tony Mulder. "Most of our relationships and most of our communications really aren't with the players at all. They're usually with ownership and management and those teams and what they're trying to do. So it was certainly a fun process, getting invited in to speak with Nelson and work to fulfill what he was trying to do."

It wasn't a complicated request, with scores for each team, a timer, a period marker and markings in Spanish alongside a scoring console -- but it'll make a big difference for the youth of Cruz's community, and he won't hesitate to go out of his way for those things.

"Just a great opportunity just to work directly with an athlete for something that's near and dear to their heart," Mulder said. "It wasn't something that Nelson was trying to gain personally. It's something where Nelson was trying to give back, so there's certainly a big distinction there, and we were happy to be a part of it."

The new scoreboard isn't up yet and is sitting in Cruz's home for now, because this initiative snowballed -- as things often do.

Cruz also talked to the Dominican government, which will now help to renovate that facility before the new board goes up, replacing the cement court with a hardwood surface for the community. The hope is that the work will get underway next month.

And, of course, this is just a small piece of the puzzle for the local youth.

Cruz got a small sum of money from the Twins after hitting his 400th career home run in 2019, and he's using that to build a second baseball field in his town for the seven Little League teams and handful of baseball academies that previously had to share one diamond.

As for the $100,000 grant he received for the Muhammad Ali Award? That's going right back into his town, too. He identified at the time that he wanted to put those funds toward building a computing center that would help provide education and professional training for young athletes in his community who cut their schooling short for their athletic pursuits.

Cruz has a site picked out, and once he holds a few events to collect the remainder of the money, construction will get underway, with the Dominican government having agreed to provide teachers and the curriculum for the programs hosted at the facility.

And though much of his work has centered on his hometown, he's also gone out of his way to send school supplies for nearly a decade to a small town in the southwestern Dominican Republic called Elias PiƱa upon the request of an old Dominican Summer League teammate named Miguel Valdez.

Even without fully knowing about the schools or teachers to which those supplies would go, Cruz dutifully sent box after box, year after year, of backpacks and school supplies, because, again, it's just what he does.

He finally had a chance to meet those people for himself a few years ago, in a helicopter -- and he was reminded of why these causes are so important to him, coming from a family of teachers.

"It's literally 20 minutes from the border and it's a really remote part of the country, where the government can't really reach there," Cruz said. "It was touching. It was touching."

Even as Cruz continues to bolster his town's fundamental needs, he's also investing heavily in the future of youth in his community and elsewhere, hoping to provide better resources for them to build successful lives than he had four decades ago, in those same streets. Whether it's little things like a new scoreboard, school supplies or a facility like the computing center, he's always looking for more -- and the Twins wanted to acknowledge that, even after his departure from the organization.

"[It's] the same way I view the organization," Cruz said. "First-class all around. All the work they put out in the community, also, we help each other in some different ways. And also, it talks about the relationship that we have not only on the field, but off the field."