Nelson Cruz has something really unusual planned for his 40th birthday on Wednesday, but it’s not exactly a party. For Cruz, in fact, it’s the opposite.
“I’m not going to take any swings,” Cruz said. “We’re not allowed to go to [Target Field] yet.”
Travel days aside, it’s the first time since early February that Cruz will go 24 hours without wielding the bat that produced 41 home runs and baseball’s third-highest average exit velocity last season. Cruz believes those explosive hitting sessions, a ritual he normally observes twice a day, are the reason that turning 40 isn’t an occasion for cake and presents, for celebrating what he’s already achieved.
“Nelson Cruz is in probably better shape than almost any player in the game. He’s diligent. Nelson Cruz is not your typical 40-year-old ballplayer. He’s a special guy.”
He’s too busy making sure he’s not done.
“It’s normal, I know, for people to say you’re going to decline when you get to 40, to expect that,” Cruz said shortly after arriving in Minneapolis for the start of the strangest season of his career. “But that doesn’t have to be the case, not yet.”
Cruz was enjoying the best spring training of his career, he says, when the pandemic hit and the Twins’ camp closed down. “If you recall, every at-bat was a good at-bat. I felt like I was in control of everything out there,” Cruz said of his .435 Grapefruit League average and team-leading three homers. “Unfortunately the virus came. I know [the regular season] might not be the same, but why not? I do everything possible to get ready — resting right, sleeping good, watching my diet, working out twice a day. It has an effect, and experience just makes you better, too. I do all the things you’re supposed to do to stay sharp.”
Sharp enough to keep him playing for several more seasons, Cruz said.
“I don’t see it [soon]. A lot of people who retire from baseball do it because injuries start to come. They kill you during the game, and you don’t want to be in pain,” he said. “You start to not perform the way you used to, and the game takes you out. But my body is in good shape, and I’m doing everything I can to keep it that way. Why would I retire?”
Truthfully, it feels a little silly to ask Cruz if he’s contemplated retirement, considering the season he provided in his first year with the Twins: In addition to the home runs, which he hit despite missing two weeks because of a torn wrist ligament, Cruz batted .311, his highest average since 2010, and posted career highs in slugging (.639) and OPS (1.031), numbers that earned him ninth-place recognition in the MVP balloting, remarkable for a designated hitter.
He also hit the ball on the barrel with 12.5% of his swings, the best percentage in the majors, and by fangraphs.com’s measurement, hit the ball hard 52.5% of the time, also the majors’ best. Not bad for a guy who will start 2020 as the third-oldest player in baseball, behind Angels DH Albert Pujols and Cruz’s new teammate, righthander Rich Hill.
“Nelson Cruz is the man. Nelson Cruz is in probably better shape than almost any player in the game. He’s diligent,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Nelson Cruz is not your typical 40-year-old ballplayer. He’s a special guy.”
At the end of July, he will become the 16th Twins player to appear in a game after turning 40 (and Hill figures to become the 17th), a list that includes four Hall of Famers. Paul Molitor batted .300 over 2½ seasons for the Twins after his 40th birthday, and Dave Winfield had a 21-homer season in the Metrodome. Jim Thome christened brand-new Target Field with seven homers after turning 40 in August 2010.
“ I do everything possible to get ready — resting right, sleeping good, watching my diet, working out twice a day. It has an effect, and experience just makes you better, too. I do all the things you’re supposed to do to stay sharp.”
Players who still produce after turning 40 have something in common, Thome said at the time — and it’s not their age.
“It means you’re someone who worked your butt off. It means that you’ve put in countless hours, took the game seriously and never did things the easy way,” Thome said. “I look at guys who I was fortunate to play with, guys like Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield — they don’t take pride in their talent. They take pride in their hard work.”
“That’s exactly right. That’s the key to everything,” Cruz said. “Once you turn 30, a little of the ability that God gave you starts to go away. The good thing when you get to 40, you know your body, you know what it takes. I love what I do.”
Although he loves to practice, he’s ready to stop; he’s ready to start playing. It’s been a long three months, Cruz said, too long to be without competition and the game.
Cruz, who hit his 400th career homer in September, has crushed at least 30 in each of the past six seasons, and at least 20 for 11 straight seasons. Can he keep those streaks alive in a season that lasts only 60 games?
Cruz considered the absurd question and laughed. “It’s going to be pretty hard,” he said. “But you know what, I will do my best. That should be the approach of every single hitter.”