CLEVELAND — The primary reason the Rays stepped out of their usual trade behavior, preempted the looming deadline, gave up a pair of advanced pitching prospects and took on, for them, a hefty bit of money in acquiring Nelson Cruz was evidenced by the home run he hit in his second at-bat Friday.
But there are benefits beyond the power Cruz still possesses at age 41, length and presence he adds to the lineup and worries he will cause opposing pitchers.
And they might be just as relevant.
“Everything that we talk about in this game as being important, all of the positive qualities that you hope to have in a player and in a leader in your clubhouse, he is the epitome of all of those things,” Rocco Baldelli, Cruz’s manager with the Twins the last three years, said Friday from Minnesota.
“The work ethic, it’s impeccable. The encouragement and the positivity that he gives his teammates. The kind of pushing everyone in the direction of doing the things that you know you need to do, that you may not want to do all the time, but to be a professional and to do your job well.
“All of these things, he brings them to the table every day,” Baldelli continued. “But he does it with a big smile on his face. And he brightens your day at the same time. He’s just, he’s the best. You can’t do it any better than he does it.”
Rays catcher Mike Zunino saw it during four years as Cruz’s teammate with the Mariners, a 2015-18 run in which the right-handed slugger averaged 41 homers and 104 RBIs.
“He holds guys accountable, including himself,” Zunino said. “When I was in Seattle, there were some marquee guys there. He was a guy that, when he spoke even those guys stopped to listen.
“He holds a presence. He plays the game the right way. He’ll be able to teach and coach players through certain things to help them. He brings an upbeat positive mentality that is infectious and will continue to help this team, give this team energy down the stretch.”
That was obvious Friday, even before Cruz pulled on his No. 23 Rays jersey for the first time. There was a palpable buzz in the clubhouse when he arrived. Players and staff flocked to him as he stood against the dugout railing during batting practice. Manager Kevin Cash said there was noticeably more life, energy and excitement in the dugout than usual during the game.
“It does not take long at all to realize that there’s an incredible amount of respect that he gets,” said Baldelli, a former Rays player and coach.”
The Rays expect Cruz to have a positive influence — in what he says, how he prepares and what he does — on all of his teammates. General manager Erik Neander acknowledged the opportunity for Cruz to leave “lasting impressions” on the team’s young players and to “help them expedite their maturation processes” was a major reason they were aggressive and paid steeply, giving up Triple-A pitchers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman and taking on $5 million in salary, for a two-three month rental.
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That mentorship will manifest in different ways, whether it’s providing another connection with the Rays’ Spanish-speaking players or answering the questions Austin Meadows is already planning to ask about handling the designated hitter role.
It’s no coincidence Cruz’s locker will be next to that of Wander Franco, the 20-year-old top prospect who has been adjusting to the majors on the fly since his late June callup.
Cruz — who started his pro career in 2001, the same year Franco was born — said he is always willing to help other players, usually leading by example or having quiet conversations rather than calling team meetings. He took the first step with Franco Friday, sitting with him on the bus to the stadium.
“It just happens,” Cruz said. “Because I’m 41, they know I have lots of experience. I’ve been through a lot in my career, ups and downs.
“So I’ve got experience, I can help him, definitely. He’s a Dominican also. We speak the same language. I know what he’s going through. I got a chance to talk to him on the bus, and we’re going to keep talking all through the year. So hopefully I can help him out. … Just try to stay positive, that’s the key.”
Franco seems thrilled to have Cruz as a mentor, smiling broadly and patting his heart when asked about him joining the team.
“It feels super good to have a stud with us,” Franco said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I consider him a future (Hall of Famer) and I am happy to play by his side. He can help me a lot, because he has already been in the big leagues for so many years.”
Cruz has worked hard to assemble an impressive resume over 17 big-league seasons: 437 homers (through Friday) that rank 46th all-time and third among active players (Albert Pujols, 675; Miguel Cabrera, 494), five top-10 finishes in the American League MVP voting, and seven All-Star selections.
Cruz adheres to extensive pregame workout and postgame recovery routines which, for about the last 10 years has included — to some teasing — afternoon naps, but are big reasons he has been able to play productively at his advanced age.
“One of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around,” Zunino said.
But Cruz, who does extensive charity work, also is known for having fun: cheering for himself when introduced pregame, yelling “Balk!” at opposing pitchers while leading the chorus when teammates do well, sporting interesting haircuts and slick sunglasses or embracing his “Boomstick” nickname and the attention his somewhat Internet-famous eyebrows get.
Any little thing, and anything, to help the team.
“This guy cares about the people around him in a way I haven’t really seen very often,” Baldelli said. “He leaves a mark everywhere he goes.”
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