SPECIAL TO THE BLOG: We are all on our own timeline. Just ask Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz. At age 27, Cruz had appeared in just 176 big league games and hit only 22 homers. He had been traded three times as a minor leaguer and left unwanted on the waiver wire. A decade later, the 38-year-old finds himself in Minnesota approaching 400 career homeruns.
“Well, just to be able to stay healthy,” Cruz said of his late 30s success. “I take care of my body. Getting to know your body better; definitely that’s the (key)…I mean, I change a lot of stuff (including diet). Whatever I think is going to get me feeling better and just to be a better player, I do.”
Originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Mets out the Dominican Republic in 1998, Cruz was shipped to the Oakland organization two years later and then to Milwaukee in 2004. He debuted with Brewers in 2005 as a 25-year-old, appearing in just eight games.
The Brewers, whose fans still wonder how many homers he would have launched in Miller Park, sent the prospect with Carlos Lee to Texas for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix and a minor leaguer in July 2006.
Cruz spent 2006-2008 shuttling back and forth from Texas and Triple A, providing outfield depth in the Rangers organization. After spring training in 2008, his stock had fallen so low, Cruz was designated for assignment by the Rangers. Any team could have claimed him. Nobody did. So, Cruz was sent back to Triple A. His career was on life support.
In 2009, his age 28/29 season, everything clicked. Cruz belted 33 homers in that breakout campaign and was named to his first All Star team. A year earlier no team was willing to add Cruz to its major league roster, suddenly he was a power-hitting anchor of a contending team.
In 2010 and 2011, Cruz helped the Rangers reach back-to-back World Series. The 2011 ALCS proved his high point in those runs. Cruz slugged six homers in the Rangers 6-game win over Detroit and was named series MVP. It was during this era, the nickname “Boomstick” was born.
“Definitely some memories you always remember,” Cruz, a Dominican Republic native who speaks English as a second language, commented on his World Series years. “Any time you go to the World Series and are so close to completing your goal – Hopefully this year we can get out there and finish it.”
Despite his success, Cruz’s tenure in Texas ended in controversy. In January 2013, Cruz was linked to a Miami clinic that sold performance-enhancing drugs. On August 5, despite never testing positive for a banned substance, Cruz was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. His time with the Rangers was effectively over.
All told, Cruz posted a batting line of .272/.331/.511 and averaged 27 homers per year in his five seasons with the Rangers. In 2014, at age 33, the veteran slugger signed a 1-year free agent contact with Baltimore and led the American League with 40 homeruns, helping the Orioles reach the ALCS.
Entering his mid-30s, Cruz showed no signs of slowing down, taking his power bat to the northwest, agreeing to a 4-year, $57 million contract with Seattle. In those four seasons, the veteran averaged 41 homers, was an All Star three times, won two Silver Sluggers and posted an OPS (On-Base-Plus-Slugging percentage) of .908. For the stat geeks out there, Cruz’s OPS+ with the Mariners was 148 (100 is average).
Wanted: Designated Hitter
In 2019, Cruz brought his traveling long ball act to Target Field, inking a 1-year, $14.3 million contract to fill the Twins gaping hole in the designated hitter slot. The 15-year veteran was assigned the corner locker which had been filled by Joe Mauer since the stadium opened in 2010.
“Even before I was a free agent, I thought it was a good fit to…go with the (Twins),” the 6-2, 230 lb. DH pointed out. “Definitely on the talent that we have – we’re a playoff caliber team, so definitely an easy choice.”
First baseman, C.J. Cron, who also joined the Twins this offseason, saw Cruz close-up during his Seattle days while Cron was in Anaheim. “Nelly has been great,” Cron said of his new teammate. “Having been with the Angels for (four) years or however long I was there, he pretty much killed us when he was with the Mariners. So it’s nice that he is on our team now and being able to watch him hit, watch him go about his business, it’s been a pleasure so far.”
After wearing No. 17 with the Rangers, Cruz switched to No. 23 in 2014 with Baltimore and it has become part of his professional identity. The 6-time All Star even included it in the name of his charitable organization: Boomstick23 Foundation. When he signed as a free agent with the Twins in December however, catcher Mitch Garver had already claimed the number.
“When (Cruz) signed, (Twins Senior Director of Communications) Dustin (Morse) called me,” Garver explained. “(Morse) was like, ‘Hey, Nelson wants number 23 and he’s willing to buy it off you.’ So I said okay, that’s fine.
“I think the standard protocol is kind of understood among players,” Garver continued. “I know that his foundation (has) number 23 (in it)…It’s kind of important to him that he wears that number.”
Garver hopes the changes in digits is temporary. “I like (Michael) Jordan,” he said while wearing a headband emblazoned with the Jordan “Jumpman” logo. “I like number 23. I wore it last year and had a lot of success with it. I’ll end up going back to it hopefully…But definitely not right now.”
Since Garver declined to share the details of the transaction, Cruz was asked next. “Yeah, there definitely is a tradition behind that,” Cruz confessed. “So anytime you pick a number from somebody else…I had to call and ask. And then – we worked it out.”