Former Oriole Nelson Cruz On Winning Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Of The Year Award

Nelson Cruz has long given back to various communities across America and his hometown in the Dominican Republic. Now, the former Baltimore Oriole has an award to show for it.

Cruz was announced as the winner of the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award as part of the ESPY Awards June 21 for his work in his home country. He was pleasantly surprised to receive the award.

“To be able to win … I’m humbled and happy,” Cruz said on Glenn Clark Radio June 25. “You do [this work] because you think it’s the right thing to do. You don’t expect to be recognized or get any awards.”

Now the designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins, Cruz was born and raised in Las Mata de Santa Cruz, a small town in the northwestern Dominican Republic. When he was growing up, the town did not have many basic services, including a fire department, medical facilities, consistent electricity and paved roads.

But Cruz grew out of those hardships and made it to the majors, debuting in 2005 with the Milwaukee Brewers. His career took off shortly after that, and Cruz in turn began to give back to his home, where he now lives in the offseason.

He began acquiring fire trucks and firefighting equipment in 2011 and eventually accumulated enough to start an emergency rescue force. After that, he built houses, a new police station, a hospital and a variety of other medical clinics. While Las Matas still has a way to go, Cruz has helped transform the town in just a few short years. But he is quick to not take complete credit for the town’s growth.

“This award is not mine, it’s for the whole town and for the whole island,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s next goal is to build an education and technology center in Las Matas to help prospective big leaguers finish their schooling. Dominican players are scouted early by MLB teams, and many sign contracts at 16 years old before they complete high school. Cruz’s education center would assist these players in filling that gap and would prepare them for a life after baseball.

“The thought was for those baseball players who played three or four years in the minors, and for whatever reason couldn’t play anymore, if they want to finish high school, they can go to the computer center and get it done,” Cruz said. “They can leave there with a degree and start working and be productive in the community.”

Cruz was planning to break ground on the education center this year, but the coronavirus pandemic has halted construction for now. As such, Cruz is home in Las Matas, waiting to report to Minnesota for training camp. Players are expected to report to their home ballparks July 1, and a shortened 60-game season is slated to begin July 23 or 24.

For the Twins and Cruz, the truncated season leaves little room for error. Minnesota enters as World Series contenders and looks to take advantage of its explosive offense — the team hit a league-record 307 home runs last season and added former AL MVP Josh Donaldson in the offseason — to come out on top in a deep American League.

Cruz, meanwhile, will be entering his 16th season and will celebrate his 40th birthday July 1. He has not shown significant signs of slowing down though, hitting .311/.392/.639 while mashing 41 home runs and 108 RBIs in 2019. Those were better numbers than he had in his lone, highly productive season with the Orioles, in which he was an All Star, hit a league-high 40 home runs and finished seventh in MVP voting.

Further, some aspects of the shortened season could help power hitters like Cruz maintain a high level of production. There will be a universal designated hitter, so Cruz should see constant action even in National League parks. Players will also be able to push themselves for the whole 60 games and not have to worry about durability concerns across a normal 162-game season. And for the Twins in particular, early-season cold weather will not be an issue, meaning baseballs will be flying out of the ballpark at higher rates than is typical at Target Field.

While fans won’t be able to attend games in person, the sport’s impending return will signal a welcome reprieve from the world’s problems. For those in the United States and abroad — including Cruz’s home in the Dominican Republic — any baseball is a sign of progress, and the veteran is ready to get started.

“It’s not time to complain, it’s time to go out and execute, and excuses shouldn’t be there,” Cruz said. “We’re going to do what we love, which is play baseball, so let’s do that.”

For more from Cruz, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox