It’s been a circuitous path to stardom for Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz. So many times he could have just given up or pouted because it was taking so long for him to make the major leagues. Last week he became the ALCS Most Valuable Player after hitting a record six home runs in the series and served as a lesson on how far even baby steps can get you.
Any team could have had him as a minor league free agent a decade ago. He was traded a couple of times until finally landing in Texas as part of the 2006 Carlos Lee trade with Milwaukee. The knock on Cruz was, despite the obvious talent, scouts felt his swing was long and he might never evolve past Triple-A. Cruz was in danger of acquiring the dreaded label of “4-A” player, which essentially meant he could crush Triple-A pitching but couldn't hit a lick in the major leagues.
He always had power, clubbing 100 minor league home runs between the Oakland and Milwaukee farm systems in 2001-06. Cruz made cameo major league appearances with Texas in 2006 and 2007, hitting sporadic home runs in each stint. The average was what killed him, but after each time he was sent back to the minors, his big league numbers improved slightly -- .223 in 2006, .235 in 2007.
In 2008, a light went on. He clubbed 37 more minor league home runs and earned a return trip to Arlington, and in just 133 at-bats Cruz hit seven home runs, drove in 26 runs and hit .330. The following year, he was the Rangers’ starting right fielder and swatted 33 home runs, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team.
There was a lot of hard work involved for the late-blooming Cruz to make it in the majors. Cruz shortened his swing, cut down on his holes, stopped chasing pitches out of the zone and now has had three straight years of at least 20 home runs and 75 RBIs and a postseason to remember. He’s a high-energy player who keeps his teammates loose with a quirky sense of humor. During batting practice there always is laughter and fun around the cage, and teammates say No. 17 is usually in the middle of it.
Indeed, these days Cruz has a lot to be happy about.