Cruz's big league path one of persistence
Breakout star realizing dream after many starts and stops
ARLINGTON -- Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz sat shoulders slumped in front of his locker in the corner of the clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, took in a deep breath and sighed.
It was Saturday night, less than 30 minutes after Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols powered his way to three home runs and a 16-7 shellacking of the Rangers in Game 3 of the World Series to take a 2-1 series lead. Cruz had seen better days.
He wiped his brow, stood up and was immediately peppered with questions about Pujols' performance. If Cruz was not aware of the historical significance of his countryman's three-homer game before he stood up, the hordes of English and Spanish media members in his face, many from Cruz's Dominican Republic, were there to remind him.
"Babe Ruth, Reggie [Jackson] and Albert," Cruz said. "If anybody is going to do it, it's him. He's the best player in the game."
Cruz, 31, took another deep breath. He wanted the interviews to end. He wrinkled his eyebrows, looked to the ceiling and then glanced down to what was supposed to be the empty chair in the empty locker next to him. To the outfielder's surprise, Nelson Cruz III, 3 years old and 2 1/2 feet tall, stood on the chair in silence, waiting for his father to stop talking. Little Nelson had not seen his "Pappi" for almost a month.
The interviews halted immediately as the father-son kisses began -- first on the cheeks, then the forehead and then on the top of the head. This was the Nelson Cruz that couldn't be measured on the back of a baseball card or by sabermetrics. The American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player trophy meant little to Cruz during these moments because his biggest prize was in his arms. The media respectfully backed away and were given a thankful nod by Michael Young, the father of two sons.
"The game is important, but you know, you see your son and you forget about everything," Cruz said. "He is my life."
It's Cruz's goal to teach his son about life's lessons. He could start by telling his own story: The transformation of a talented player that nobody wanted into a full-fledged superstar on the cusp of a World Series championship. The Rangers lead the Cardinals, 3-2, heading into Game 6 on Thursday.
"I've grown up," Cruz said. "You can say I'm more of a veteran now. It's natural. You have to grow up in this game or you are gone."
The Cruz that will take right field for Texas on Thursday is a far cry from the outfielder that joined the organization from Milwaukee with Carlos Lee in 2006. The Rangers sent Francisco Cordero, Laynce Nix, Kevin Mench and Minor Leaguer Julian Cordero to the Brewers in the trade and insisted on Cruz's inclusion in the deal because they correctly assumed they would not be able to re-sign Lee for 2007.
Lee hit .322 with nine home runs and 35 RBIs in 59 games for Texas and signed a six-year, $100 million deal with the Astros two months after the season ended. The Rangers, who finished 13 1/2 games behind the first-place Athletics in the AL West standings, had gambled and lost. They were stuck with Cruz for better or worse.
And by all accounts, it got worse before it got better. Cruz had excelled at Triple-A but was gaining a reputation as a 4-A player -- a talented athlete who could perform at the Minor League level but would struggle in the big leagues.
Case in point: He hit .302 with 17 home runs and 73 RBIs for Milwaukee's Triple-A Nashville club to start the 2006 season but later hit .223 with six home runs in 41 games for the Rangers after the deal.
What to do with Nelson Cruz?
The Rangers made a decision and Cruz, then 26, started the season in the big leagues in 2007. By June, he was back at Triple-A and perplexed. Cruz knew he didn't need another change of scenery. After all, he was originally signed by the Mets in 1998, traded to Oakland two years later and then to Milwaukee in 2004.
He needed to change his swing.
Scott Servais, the club's senior director of player development, had the answer and approached the club's front office to offer his assistance.
"When we traded for him, Nelson had limited success at the Major League level, and I threw out the idea of, 'Hey, do you care if I make an adjustment with Nelson Cruz?'" Servais said. "They said, 'Go ahead,' so I went up to Albuquerque where our Triple-A team was and took him into the cage and told him what we wanted to do."
Servais had two suggestions for Cruz: He needed to open up his batting stance to improve his ability to see pitches, and he needed to flatten his swing. The results were gradual. Cruz ended up hitting .235 in 96 games for the Rangers that season but gained confidence at the plate. It carried over into Spring Training in 2008.
"I think all players get to that point where it's make or break. They're very coachable at that point, because they have nowhere else to go," Servais said. "That's kind of where he was."
Despite the newfound confidence, Cruz struggled that spring and the club chose to take outfielder Jason Botts over him when the team broke camp for the start of the 2008 regular season. Cruz, who was out of Minor League options, was placed on waivers and went unclaimed.
He returned to the Rangers' Triple-A team and went on a tear in the Pacific Coast League. His Minor League numbers -- a .352 batting average, 37 home runs and 99 RBIs for Triple-A Oklahoma City -- earned him another big league opportunity. He took advantage of it, hitting .330 in 31 games for the Rangers.
He hit .260 with a career-high 33 home runs and 76 RBIs in his first full season with the Rangers in 2009 and continued to hone the batting stance Servais had introduced.
Botts has not played in the Major Leagues since appearing on April 27, 2008, with Texas. He was released by the Rangers two months later.
The lesson in this case is simple. One day, Cruz will tell Nelson III to never give up.
"History says that when it's that late in a guy's career, it's not going to happen," Servais said. "Nelson was about 27 when we got him and most times it doesn't happen that late. He beat the odds."
Cruz was limited to 108 games last season because of a series of hamstring injuries but still hit .318 with 22 home runs and 78 RBIs. He hit three home runs with two doubles in the AL Division Series against Tampa Bay, had five RBIs in the ALCS against the Yankees and drove in three more runs in last year's World Series against the Giants.
When the Rangers defeated the Rays in Game 5 to win their first postseason series in the history of the franchise, Cruz broke away from his teammates, sought out Servais and bear-hugged him.
"Thank you," Cruz said. "Without you, I would not be here."
The lesson for Nelson III is to be grateful.
"I don't know how many guys are that open to a significant change in their approach and stance, at age 26 and 27," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "I think that says a lot about him. Humility and understanding that people around him are legitimately trying to help him. Tremendous human being."
Cruz hit .263 with 29 home runs and 87 RBIs during the 2011 regular season. He hit six home runs against the Tigers in the ALCS and has hit one home run in the World Series against the Cardinals. Overall, he's hitting .267 with two RBIs and five walks in the Fall Classic.
"For me, at this moment, I'd rather think about where I am now than concentrate on what I had to go through," Cruz said. "It wasn't easy, but being a big league player is not easy. Everybody has their story. My story is my story, and I'm grateful to be here."
One day, Cruz will share his story and all of the lessons he learned with Nelson III. But for now, he's content just to hug his little boy.