MINNEAPOLIS — Nelson Cruz was one of the earliest believers in the 2019 Minnesota Twins. When the veteran slugger visited Target Field as a member of the Seattle Mariners last season, a thought crossed his mind.
“I was thinking ahead, ‘This should be a good fit for me, a team that has really good young guys with a lot of talent,’ ” Cruz said on a conference call upon signing with the Twins in January.
And while Cruz believed in the Twins, his future teammates believed in him. Miguel Sano and Jonathan Schoop were two of the salesmen, telling the designated hitter how much the Twins needed him — how helpful he could be.
Cruz became the 57th player in Major League Baseball history to hit 400 home runs on Sunday, Sept. 22. It was his 40th homer this season, marking the fourth time he’s hit that mark, and he leads the Twins with 105 RBIs. That production has been a major reason the Twins lead the American League Central by four games heading into their last six regular-season games, starting Tuesday in Detroit.
But Cruz’s influence goes far beyond his numbers.
“He does a lot of different things that you would hope people pick up on,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You’re not asking people to try to be him; you’re just trying to (tell) people, ‘Hey, look how this guy does it.’ And you pick and choose and you might find one thing that you specifically learn from and kind of grab onto and even if it’s only one thing, we’ll take it.”
For Schoop, it’s Cruz’s discipline. Schoop and Cruz were Baltimore Orioles teammates in 2014, Schoop’s rookie season. He spent the year watching and listening to Cruz as the two developed a close friendship.
The thing Schoop took away most: If you put in your work and know you’re prepared, you can sleep well at night, even if things don’t go your way on the field. It’s something Schoop now tries to impart to others.
“When he says it and you see him do it, it’s like ‘Oh,’ ” Schoop said. “You see him doing it every single day. On a Sunday, everybody might just sit down and lay out and rest. Sunday, he’s working hard. He’s doing all the same stuff.”
While other teammates often sit down pregame to relax for a few minutes — dominoes is a clubhouse favorite — Cruz is often elsewhere, working through his meticulous pregame routine or taking one of his famous pregame naps.
“He’s more disciplined than anybody I’ve ever met. Not even close,” Schoop said. “…Outside the field, too. If he tells you he’s going to come pick you up at two, it’s 1:54 (and) he’s out there.”
For Max Kepler, it’s Cruz’s consistency and his positivity that he tries to take away.
“(Joe) Mauer had it too,” Kepler said. “Nelson is good at what he does and he knows what works for him and sticks to his plan regardless of if it fails some days. He always knows what he’s doing and believes in that and executes it.”
It’s his consistency that has allowed Cruz, 39, to find work for 15 major league seasons. Over the past six, he has hit a combined 243 home runs, and never fewer than 37 in one season. When he joined the Twins has a free agent, he had made six straight all-star teams.
If teammates take one thing away from playing with Cruz, he said, it should be consistency and the worked required to be consistent.
“Anyone can get one hit one day; the hard part is just to stay consistent throughout the year, to be able to put the work in on a daily basis without excuses, you know?” he said. “Because you definitely don’t feel good every day, and the body changes up and down. To have that consistent, daily basis, that’s key for a day and a year.”
His positivity that reverberates off the walls of the Twins’ clubhouse when Cruz speaks. He has spoken to the team a few times this year, including a spring training meeting that has been referenced for its impact time and time again.
There were two main messages, he said. One, if you want people to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself first. Secondly, that teams should be afraid of the Twins this year.
“Whenever he stands up and speaks in front of the team, he’s the guy. He’s the guy,” Kepler said. “Obviously, there are other guys that we look up to, but he’s the vet. He’s kind of like our father figure.”
A father figure for many, as well as an extra coach for the Twins.
For hitting coach James Rowson, there’s something to be learned from how Cruz approaches hitting and how he passes along that information. Cruz is an extra resource he can employ, sometimes telling players who ask him a question to go ask Cruz for his perspective, too.
A player of Cruz’s stature could be intimidating and difficult to approach, Rowson said. Not so with Cruz, who has plenty to offer and makes approaching him easy.
“He’s an open book, so he helps a lot of these guys through their tough times,” Rowson said. “It’s one thing to hear from a coach, it’s another thing to hear from a guy who’s standing in the box every day and going through the same things you’re going through as a player.”
This certainly has been the case with Sano, who’s locker is situated right near Cruz’s. The two have strengthened their bond this year, Sano soaking up Cruz’s words of wisdom and watching his routine closely.
When Cruz hits a home run, it’s special, he said. But when Sano does?
“It’s even more special because it feels like it’s part of my son,” Cruz said.
Sano was effusive in his praise of Cruz after he hit No. 400 on Sunday, crediting him for helping him grow as a player before expressing hope that the Twins would add a couple of more years on Cruz’s contract to keep him around. The club as a $12 million option on the designated for 2020.
“He’s one of the best (people) I know in my life,” Sano said.
Regardless of how long Cruz stays — and continues to play — the hope for the Twins is that the impact and influence he’s had in the clubhouse lives on through Sano and others.
“Miggy’s a sponge about Nellie,” Rowson said. “…Miggy would be one of those guys that’s probably going to have a really long-lasting effect, how he goes about his game from here on out, and hopefully at some point later in his career, he’s kind of trading places with him and people are saying these things about him.”
There are other lessons to be picked up from watching and talking to Cruz, lessons the Twins hope their players can soak in. But they also know that no matter how much Cruz teaches, there’s only one Cruz.
“He’s Superman,” catcher Mitch Garver said.
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