Wednesday, October 4 2023

In late October, Nelson Cruz was strapped into an optometrist’s chair to have the extra skin on the inner corner of his left eye — inflammation that had been affecting his vision for more than a year — lasered off.

“I was awake, so you see and feel everything,” Cruz said this week. “It was scary.”

The preceding season, Cruz had been a below-average player at the plate for the first time since 2007. After 14 years of mashing, seven All-Star appearances and four Silver Slugger awards, he slashed .234/.313/.337 for the last-place Washington Nationals. By the end of the season, he was 42 years old and already committed to serving as the general manager of the Dominican Republic team in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. But Cruz was not ready to call it a career as a player because, for all that he has accomplished, he is still chasing a World Series ring. The closest he ever came to one ended in infamy.

That was 2011. Cruz was already 31 when he misplayed a ball that cost the Texas Rangers what would’ve been their first and only championship, but he was just starting to become the player he’d eventually be. Since that moment, he has hit 355 home runs — and endured a steroid suspension — but neither he nor the Rangers have been back to the World Series.

“I remember my first few years I went back-to-back to the World Series, and I thought, ‘This is easy. I’ll be back every other year,’” Cruz told Yahoo Sports in spring 2022. “And that hasn’t been the case.”

So he had eye surgery to correct his vision and, he hopes, give himself another chance. But for that, the free agent needed to find a team that he believes can win it all.

Over the winter, the San Diego Padres sent scouts to the Dominican to assess how Cruz was performing in the wake of the surgery, and in January, they signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract. Reportedly, Cruz took a discount to join the Padres. And before he signed, he spoke to players he is particularly close with on the team — after all, he has seen a lot of organizations over the years and knows what he likes. But he didn’t have any questions about San Diego’s overall direction.

“No,” Cruz said, “it was obvious.”

A million bucks for a middle-aged slugger

For much of their existence, the Padres behaved in a way befitting what Nielsen categorizes as the 30th-largest media market in the country. In other words, they ran a comparatively small budget: As recently as 2018, San Diego had Major League Baseball’s sixth-lowest payroll. Since then, however, team owner Peter Seidler has splurged, offering what he likes to call “statue contracts” to Manny Machado (twice), Fernando Tatìs Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, plus a couple of nine-figure extensions for pitchers Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove and one of the biggest trades in baseball history to land Juan Soto.

The 2023 Padres are the third-most expensive team in the sport and the darlings of the industry. Expectations, growing over the past few seasons, are that they could take down the Dodgers, make a deep run in October and create a new blueprint for small-market success built on fan service and fun players.

Through that lens, a million bucks for a middle-aged slugger could seem like mere icing on the cake. But Cruz is more like the icing you put in between layers of cake to keep it together — the delectable glue, if you will.

“We understand how good we are, and everyone works really hard. With him, though, we’re more chill, though. I don’t know what it is,” said Blake Snell, the Padres pitcher who seems like an expert in chill. “Our wins have been very chill.”

And the Padres’ interest in Cruz was not new this year. Even when the National League lacked a designated hitter in 2021, the team seriously pursued Cruz at the trade deadline before he ended up in Tampa. A.J. Preller, the Padres’ general manager, knows Cruz well. He came to San Diego from the Rangers, where the two overlapped for close to a decade. Machado, the stalwart and star of the Padres’ lineup and recent recipient of a second $300-plus million contract from the team, came up with the Orioles, with whom Cruz spent one season in 2014. Machado lobbied for a reunion ahead of 2022, before Cruz signed with the Nationals.

“Then this year we talked, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m not letting you go again this year. So you better be coming over here,’” Machado said.

“What he brings to a clubhouse, you can’t buy that. You can’t find that anywhere.”

‘He kind of brings it all together’

When they talk about Nelson Cruz, people liken him to various family members — the older brother whom parents can trust to be a good influence, the godfather looking out for his charges, the little kid who still cracks jokes on the field and unleashes a disarmingly childlike laugh.

“He encompasses a lot of the traits that you would imagine of all the best relatives and friends and people that you know. He kind of brings it all together,” Rocco Baldelli, who managed Cruz for two-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota, told Yahoo Sports in 2021.

That year, the Twins traded Cruz to the Rays, who made no secret of the fact that they hoped he would not only help their postseason chase but also serve as a mentor to rookie phenom Wander Franco. That’s because, in the latter part of his career, Cruz has become something more than a player. For young, Latin guys in particular, he’s an authority figure they can relate to, and for their coaches, he’s a conduit to instill good habits.

But it’s not just the Latin players. Shortly after they became teammates on the Padres, Snell asked Cruz for his insight into an at-bat from years ago, when Cruz homered off the Cy Young Award winner. Max Kepler of the Twins credits Cruz for motivating him just by modeling major-league behavior and taking an interest in Kepler.

“To have someone of that caliber believe in you really just helped me believe in myself a lot more,” he said.

And everyone seems to benefit from Cruz’s commitment to providing top-tier Latin food — whether it’s cooked by a member of his ever-present entourage or sourced from whatever city the team has traveled to.

“I watched him get in front of our hitters during our first real hitters meeting, when he spoke and the way that everyone listened and kind of revered the words coming out of his mouth and the collective strength that he gives the people around him,” Baldelli said. “He gives you confidence. And that’s not a normal thing. You think every team has a leader that can get in front of the group and say something and make people feel good — every team does not have that.”

But now the 2023 Padres — a team of immeasurable talent, after a semi-public clubhouse meltdown less than two years ago, with some of its best incumbent players forced out of position by newly acquired stars and Tatìs set to return in a week from a protracted motorcycle injury-turned-steroid suspension — do.

“These guys look at him almost like a manager,” said the Padres’ actual manager, Bob Melvin. That’s high praise from the man brought in because of the undeniable respect he commands after the 2021 team missed the postseason.

Except Cruz doesn’t hit like one. He’s not an every-day player anymore, but with his improved vision and in the right matchups, Cruz is showing that he can still rake. Through the first two weeks of the 2023 season, he’s slugging .640. Not bad for a guy who is also an entire clubhouse culture unto himself.

“I don’t think there’s anybody better out there,” Machado said.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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