In a red suit, Nelson Cruz sat between Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and Roberto Clemente’s son Luis before Game 2 of the World Series. A month earlier, the 41-year-old was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for the second straight year and the third time in his 17-year career. It’s the highest individual honor a major leaguer can receive, given annually to the player who, according to the league’s definition of the award, “best represents the game of Baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
He was there at Minute Maid Park in Houston to be recognized officially for his humanitarian work and charity BoomStick 23 Foundation. The award was for this year, but in Cruz’s case, it just as easily could have covered the bulk of his career. Helping underprivileged children and others in the United States and his native Dominican Republic—as well as mentoring young players across baseball—has been his mission since he began his late-blooming ascension to stardom more than a decade ago.
Cruz was 38 when he and the Twins agreed to a one-year deal in December 2018 with a club option for a second season. This was a safety net for Minnesota, in case Cruz’s production declined as he pushed 40. How much longer could he last as a feared middle-of-the-order bat? His career already had followed an atypical trajectory. Unlike most sluggers, he didn’t play his first full season until he was 28, and he was in his prime in the years before he signed with the Twins. During his four-year tenure with the Mariners before his free agency, from 2015 to ’18, he slashed .292/.368/.557 and averaged 41 home runs per season. He was so good with the Twins in 2019 that they exercised his option and then re-signed him again in February on a one-year deal. Minnesota had fallen well out of contention by the ’21 trade deadline and traded Cruz to the Rays on July 22.
Still, it was clear how much Cruz meant to the Twins, within the clubhouse and in the community, when they nominated the designated hitter for the Clemente award even after he was no longer on their roster.
“You do a lot of work without thinking that you are going to be recognized. You do it because you think it is the right thing to do,” Cruz says. “It's always nice when the work that you put on, people are watching and they've paid attention and like I said, this is just an honor. And for me and my family, we all are really humbled to receive the award.”
Since BoomStick23’s inception in September 2016, Cruz has helped thousands of people in his hometown of Las Matas de Santa Cruz and across the Dominican Republic. He is the 10th Latino player to receive the Clemente award, renamed after the Puerto Rican Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash in 1972 while on his way to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua.
“Roberto was an example for not only Latin players, but baseball and sports in general,” Cruz says. “He gave up so much that he gave up his life trying to help others. So there’s no better example to follow than him.”
It is not the first award the now free agent has won recognizing his influence. In 2020, Cruz won the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, given to the athlete across sports “whose continuous, demonstrated leadership has created a measured positive impact on their community through sports.”
His positive impact can be measured in numbers, though not entirely. He organized the collection of $400,000 for Dominicans in need during the COVID-19 pandemic from MLB, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the MLBPA Players Trust Returning Home program.
Cruz said active and retired players helped in the collection of funds. He identified families most in need and began reaching out to them to provide food security and supplies to ensure they could comply with stay-at-home orders. In total, he helped 1,200 people in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, located in the northwestern region of the Dominican Republic.
“A few times I went to houses to provide them with meals, they started praying,” Cruz says. “They said their prayers were answered because they didn’t have anything to eat that day.
“It feels really good when you know that you can help people. And not only that, just bring the joy in and hope.”
Cruz has brought dentists, optometrists and volunteer doctors to the Dominican Republic. He has purchased necessities like wheelchairs, crutches and walkers for elderly people in his hometown. He has built a police state and donated a fire truck.
There are many memories that stick out to Cruz, but one includes his donation of an ambulance to transport patients to the nearest hospital.
“Here in the Dominican, it’s not like in the United States where you call 911 and the ambulance shows up,” he says. “On a few occasions, some members of the community have stopped me and told me thank you because the ambulance that I brought, [someone] is still alive because of it.”
Cruz said that his success in baseball allowed him to start his charity. His ascension in MLB has caused many to dub him an ageless wonder. He was signed as an international free agent at the age of 18 but did not secure his place in the majors until 10 years later.
The Mets signed Cruz, then an international free agent, in 1998 before trading him to the A’s organization in 2000. After five seasons in the minors, he was 25 when he made his MLB debut with the Brewers in September ’05. He appeared in eight games before being dealt to the Rangers in July ’06. He was way too good to stay in the minors but struggled each time he was called up.
In 2008, after 10 years in professional baseball, Cruz didn’t make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster and was out of minor league options, so any team could have claimed him off waivers for $20,000. Nobody did. So he went back to Triple A, and, just as he had done over the last few years, he raked minor league pitching, posting a .342/.429/.695 slash line in 103 games, and earned yet another big-league call-up. This time, he was there to stay, thanks to a mechanical change. Earlier that year, Scott Servais, who was then the Rangers’ senior director of player development, had Cruz open his stance so he could better see incoming pitches and crush those that were previously jamming him on the inside part of the plate. Upon his return to the big leagues, he hit .330 and slugged .609 across 133 plate appearances, and solidified his spot as the team’s everyday right fielder. He was named to his first All-Star team the next year, his first full one in the majors and his age-28 season. Servais and Cruz would meet again in ’16, when Servais was named the manager of the Mariners, a job he still has today.
“We talk sometimes in this game about guys that could haunt you; ‘haunters,’ we call them,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said in 2010 to ESPN. “There are a lot of guys you trade or let go that you know are going to show up in the big leagues, but they are going to be replaceable-type players. Then there are some guys that have that ability where if it clicks, you’re going to be reading about this guy for a while. Nellie had that type of ability.”
The Rangers made back-to-back appearances in the 2010 and ’11 World Series. Though they lost both, the feared slugger was a major reason they got there. His most iconic performance came in Game 2 of the 2011 ALCS against the Tigers. He hit a game-tying home run in the seventh, and then in the 11th, he launched a walk-off grand slam to give Texas a 2–0 series edge.
Cruz was an All-Star for the second time in 2013, his last season with the Rangers. That same year, he was suspended 50 games for performance-enhancing drugs after he was connected to the Biogenesis scandal. He signed with the Orioles in ’14, when he led the league with 40 home runs and received another All Star nod before signing the four-year deal with Seattle, where he received two more All-Star selections.
Each passing year, Cruz has remained one of the game's premier hitters. And with time, Cruz has also developed wisdom he passes on to younger players.
“Growing up as a player coming into the big leagues, I feel like I didn’t have that person that was helping me out,” Cruz says. “Since I came up as a veteran and a guy that can help others, that was one of my goals. I need to do the best I can to help those kids through this process so they can feel welcome to the league. They’re going to develop better as a player because the more relaxed you are, the better you’re going to be doing.”
The Twins relied heavily on Cruz to mentor players like Miguel Sanó, and he’s applied his message of mentorship to his foundation Boomstick23, which emphasizes education and aims to empower children and youth in the Dominican Republic.
He has established education and technical centers in his native country, and brought in major league players to speak with the youth and share their experiences.
“Growing up, I saw my dad helping the community and doing whatever he could to have a better place. That’s an approach that I take in my foundation,” Cruz says. “Definitely we are fighting for so many things, and I think the most important part of all is education. We bring that message to the players who sign at a young age, ‘Don’t leave school, make sure you finish school.’ That’s the only one that can guarantee their future.”
Cruz says that Boomstick23’s next project includes building a computer center where kids and Dominicans can earn trade school degrees. Cruz says they have collected the money, spoken with the government and acquired land for the project. The project should take about a year, according to Cruz, but will help create jobs and help people have more opportunities in his community.
“God blessed me with my career. I have really good numbers through my career and because of baseball, I can also create my foundation,” Cruz says, “And through that you just have a better community in my hometown and all over the Dominican, and the places where I played in the past. So, [it] definitely has been a blast. I’m living my dreams, it makes me really happy to know that through hard work, you can accomplish all the things you want.”
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