The first time you hear it, the applause could be mistaken for boos at Camden Yards — the low, sustained sound of a vowel.
With each at-bat, Nelson Cruz is greeted this way. The low call of his name is a sign of adoration from Orioles fans, who put the Biogenesis scandal behind them and voted him into the All-Star Game.
“The United States of America is a very forgiving country,” fellow Orioles all-star Adam Jones said. “If you tell the truth, we forgive you.”
Cruz conceded to using performance-enhancing drugs and his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, serving a 50-game suspension last season while with the Texas Rangers. The 34-year-old rejected a $14.1 million qualifying offer from Texas in the offseason, and after three months of little interest from other teams, Cruz signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Baltimore.
It seems like an even bigger steal now: Cruz has 28 home runs and 74 RBI with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .923.
“He’s in a place right now where he feels comfortable,” said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who also played with Cruz in Texas. “The clubhouse dynamic had changed a little bit in Texas the last few years, and I think he’s back to a place where he feels he can be himself.”
Cruz’s success this season has emboldened his critics. When Cruz was 3 for 3 in a recent game against Boston, Red Sox pitcher John Lackey wasn’t complimentary, but said media members “forget pretty conveniently about stuff.” Manager John Farrell had a revealing choice of words when he told reporters Cruz “looked strong” at the plate.
Cruz responded by saying that people are entitled to their opinions. Orioles Manager Buck Showalter defended Cruz with a veiled reference to Boston’s David Ortiz, who reportedly failed a drug test in 2003. “Sometimes we need to check our own back yard before talking about someone else’s,” Showalter said after the incident.
Davis said the scrutiny was to be expected, and while he acknowledges Cruz made a mistake, it was his first strike. Repeat offenders should be addressed, but the time has come to “forgive and forget” what Cruz did, Davis said.
If all-star voting is any indication, then fans have. Cruz will start at designated hitter for the American League on Tuesday in Minneapolis. Some players would rather have the extra time with their families, especially when you’ve played in an all-star game before. But this year’s selection felt special.
“When the fans are the ones to decide to take you there, it means more,” Cruz said. “They’ve supported me after everything that happened this year.”
What teammates saw after the Lackey comment was Cruz taking the high road. They had already gotten to know a different side of him — a soft-spoken hulk of a man who always has his young son at his side. The son of a teacher, Cruz once bought a fire truck for his small town in the Dominican Republic.
Jonathon Schoop , a 23-year-old infielder from Curacao, grew up watching Cruz and was excited to have a locker next to him this season. Schoop was touched when Cruz took the time to share his experience and point out to Schoop ways he could improve after a poor at-bat.
When fans at Camden Yards chant Cruz’s name, Schoop said he joins in. Cruz said fans in Texas used to do the same low call, but “it wasn’t like this.” It can sound like boos at first, but it’s a high form of praise, a city and a team embracing a slugger who’s quietly having his best year — despite the critics.
“You can either yell and scream back at them, or you can rake,” Jones said. “I think he chose the latter.”