Few, if any, players work harder and prepare more diligently than the Mariners' Nelson Cruz. It's how he transformed his career. And now, at age 37, it's how he plans to keep it going.
PEORIA, Ariz. — On this day, there would be no arguing with Alexa, just a minor miscommunication.
“Alexa, play Tego Calderón,” Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz says in a voice that seems just a little too high for his sculpted frame and imposing size.
Like fouling off a 2-2 slider, Cruz remains undaunted.
“Alexa, play Tego Calderon,” he says louder and slower.
And this time, Alexa wisely responds to his request.
As the Latin hip-hop music starts to blast through the Mariners’ gym at their spring training complex in Peoria, Cruz goes back to his workout with a quiet, focused intensity that says, ‘Don’t bother me, I’m working.’ There will be no more disruptions to his detailed daily routine … well, unless he decides to change the music again.
“Me and Alexa, we fight sometimes,” he said later. “The other day I kept asking her to play Ozuna and she kept playing something else. She doesn’t listen to me.”
It seems the little voice-commanded disc of technological advancement is the only thing that can distract the focus of Cruz during his daily preparation. It’s a routine honed and shaped over his 17 years in professional baseball and has become even more essential at 37 years old.
“My first full year, I was with Kane County and I killed it in the first half (of the season). It was crazy. I was an All-Star and hitting .280 with like 16 homers,” he said. “In my second half, I only hit like four homers and my average dropped. I hit the wall because I wasn’t working out. So the next year, I decided I needed to do it all year. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
It’s a learned process that is integral to his success.
“If I don’t do my workouts and my routine, I’m not ready to play,” he said.
Cruz and the Mariners allowed his routine to be observed and documented for a few days during spring training to give a glimpse of the preparation regimen that’s been lauded by his coaches and teammates.
“You want everyone to be like Nelson Cruz,” said James Clifford, the Mariners’ director of strength and conditioning. “He’s a great example of a guy who isn’t satisfied and who wants to get better.”
‘You come here to work’
Preparation is referenced almost daily in baseball circles when discussing a player and his success or lack thereof. And yet the average fan doesn’t quite know the parameters or extent of what it means for a player.
It goes beyond batting practice on the field before games.
For Cruz, it’s an all-encompassing process that begins hours before the first pitch and addresses strength, flexibility, nutrition, recovery and hitting before he sets foot on the field.
“It’s something that you learn and change over time,” he said.
It’s also a total commitment. It’s every day.
“This is your job,” he said. “You come here to work.”
The preparation for Cruz begins the night before with his sleep. Cruz said he believes in the recovery and recuperative powers of quality rest. It’s something he learned about a few years ago and incorporated it into his schedule.
“I like my sleep,” he said.
It’s probably why he’s so cheerful when he rolls in at 7 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game.
“He’s extremely committed to his recovery,” Clifford said. “You can ask anyone in that room — sleep is important to him — that’s where we do most of our recovery. He’s committed to it with naps, but at night ensuring he gets adequate sleep. If he can get 10 hours in, he’s going to get 10 in. And if can get more, he will. It’s an important part of his total routine.”
Baseball players aren’t morning people by schedule.
While many teammates aren’t planning to roll in for another 30 to 40 minutes and are usually bleary eyed, Cruz is energetic, greeting anyone and everyone who passes by. Before going to the weight room, he grabs a quick breakfast, including the few carbs he’ll allow himself to eat during spring.
“If I eat carbs, I eat them in the morning,” he said. “I will have one slice of bread with my eggs and meat.”
In a cafeteria with myriad options, Cruz maintains his dietary discipline.
“Lately, the last few years I learned to eat to have energy,” he said. “But I always monitor my weight. I don’t want have to put pounds on or lose weight during the season. I monitor it. I want to maintain my weight.”
But the nutrition and weight maintenance started before he arrived to spring training. It starts with eschewing one his favorite foods and a staple of Dominican cuisine.
“I haven’t eaten rice in a while,” he said quietly.
“It’s your job,” he said. “You need to be light. As soon as I start training, starting in early December, I cut out rice until we start playing games. During the season, I start eating rice again. So I can’t wait for the season to get started again.”
As soon as I start training, starting in early December, I cut out rice until we start playing games. During the season, I start eating rice again. So I can’t wait for the season to get started again.” - Nelson Cruz
Cruz will bring in prepared meals on most days in spring to maintain the diet. He carries that over into the season. He has a private cook who prepares food the way he wants. He usually brings enough for teammates.
“Meat and vegetables and rice,” he said. “Last year I changed my diet in the second half. For dinner, I only had salad and meat or fish. I tried to eat light. It made me feel better. They also said my cholesterol was high so I had to change.”
A power workout
With breakfast consumed, Cruz dresses quickly and heads to his favorite place — the Mariners’ massive performance center. The high-ceiling room features every piece of exercise equipment a player could ever need.
Cruz takes over the gym when he walks in, without a word, but in sheer presence. The lion king has returned to his domain. Cruz does his first flirtation with Alexa, convincing her to play some Latin Christian music for his stretch and warm up.
At age 37, you just don’t walk in and start exercising. Cruz use foam rollers on his entire frame to loosen his muscles.
“It was a lot easier when I was younger,” he said.
Cruz then starts his workout. He’s in a constant state of motion. He works through an assortment of exercises with bands, weights or BOSU balls. He never stops. He never sits or checks his phone. His only pause is to change the music with the help of his electronic friend.
“I like the Christian music when I stretch and get ready,” he said. “But then I get something more up-tempo.”
Edgar Martínez is on a treadmill walking at prodigious rate. A few pitchers are doing core work. No one in the gym questions Cruz’s musical choices.
“I guess it’s cause I’m the oldest guy,” Cruz said.
Cruz doesn’t have a written workout. He occasionally gets texts or videos from his trainer, “Iron” Glenn Freeman. But he knows what he wants to do when he steps into the gym.
“He has a plan,” Clifford said. “When he comes in here, every single day, there’s a plan for what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Cruz will use an assortment of large rubber bands along with weights. He has variations for everything. He’s added the band work in the past few years.
“With the bands, you are not only working big muscles, but small muscles that help prevent injuries,” he said. “The main injuries come from those small muscles. So you have to work them. With the bands, you are really working double. You are putting pressure on them constantly. It never stops. With a weight, all you feel is when you go up and kind of handle it going down.”
And yet, he will never divorce himself from the heavy iron plates and dumbbells that helped build the muscle on his body.
“I won’t give up my weights,” he said. “I still like to do weights, too. I do bands and my weights.”
The workout takes just under an hour. Cruz performs a multitude of exercises with bands and weights, and mixes in a few cardio drills. The constant motion has built up a nice lather of sweat. Through it all, Cruz’s focus is singular. He’s impervious to the camera and people watching. He acknowledges the screamed greetings and comments from Félix Hernandez, but never loses focus on the task in front of him — no sitting, no checking of social media, no conversing, just working.
“That’s how you get a good workout,” he said. “You keep moving.”
Beyond the brute strength and power in the workout — a 45-pound plate was tossed around like a plastic lid — there is one other notable aspect. Cruz returns all of the equipment he used to its original place with meticulous care. It’s a sign of respect to the equipment, the gym and the people who work there.
“Why wouldn’t I?” he said when asked about it. “Aren’t you supposed to do that? I’m not as good about that at my gym back home.”
‘You know when Nellie is in the cage’
Satisfied with his workout, Cruz returns to the clubhouse and grabs his bat and batter’s gloves and a few pieces of sugar-free bubble gum. It’s time for cage work.
He enters the Mariners’ covered batting cages and patiently waits his turn. He helps Mike Zunino pick up baseballs scattered about and then gets ready to hit. But as with his workout in the weight room, there is a progression to this process.
It starts with one-handed swings with each arm. There’s no set amount of reps. He just goes until it feels like it’s supposed to feel.
“I like the soft toss, thrown harder and inside to my body,” he said. “I want to make sure my hands are inside the ball.”
Then the tee work begins, which is vital to his hitting approach. He has the tee set high to a height above his belt. He bashes ball after ball in line drives down the middle of the cage.
“High tee, I want to make sure my hands are on top of the ball,” he said.
The tee is then lowered until it looks to be well below his knees.
“That is for hitting sliders,” he said. “I know they want to throw me sliders. That’s the ideal pitch for pitchers. So I do that so I can handle that one too. If you don’t try to stay back, you are going to roll over every time. If you saw my first few swings, I was like chopping them because I was going forward. If you go forward just enough, you are going to roll over. So you have to make sure to stay down on that pitch.”
From there, Cruz takes “flips,” with a coach flipping the ball underhand at him at a decent rate of speed. The sound the ball makes coming off his bat is terrifying. But seeing the ball leaving the bat is more frightening.
“You know when Nellie is in the cage by the sound,” remarks a player.
The routine of the cage work never changes, whether he’s slumping or swinging it well.
“I figured it out on my own,” he said. “When you are in the minors they show you different drills, so you pick and choose what benefits you. The one-hand was something I worked with Rudy Jaramillo when I was in Texas. The high tee we did in the minors with the Rangers when Scott (Servais) was there, but we would do it with a fungo bat.”
It’s a buildup to the on-field batting practice.
“I don’t want kill myself cause I do it every day,” he said. “I want to have a routine that is short, but it gets all the things that I want to accomplish for that day. If I struggle, I can change a little bit with a few different things. But I want to keep it close to the same.”
‘He never stops learning’
When his cage work is done, Cruz often returns to the clubhouse for nap time.
“Most of the time I take my naps,” he said.
They aren’t long naps. But short bursts for recovery.
“Twenty-five minutes,” he said. “Research tells you that power naps are the best. You wake up with a lot of energy. It’s like a boost.”
At home, the Mariners have a sleep room Cruz will retreat to. On the road, he will find a couch or recliner in the clubhouse and cover himself, including his face, with towels. He can somehow sleep despite all that’s going on around him.
“When I was coming up, some places were really loud and uncomfortable places, I’d just sit there and try to relax my body,” he said. “You have to slow everything down.”
Nap time can vary, but it’s daily.
“If we play at home, I like to do it after BP,” he said. “If we are on he road, I do it before BP.”
Post nap will include a dip in the cold tub for about five minutes, followed by some time in the warm tub.
Cruz’s on-field workout is another process. He doesn’t walk into the cage and try to bomb homers. There’s a plan to his batting practice, which includes driving the ball to the opposite field. Sure, by the end, he’s launching balls over the fence at distances his teammates only wish they could reach.
But he’s become a more complete hitter by showing this discipline in batting practice. Though he rarely plays in the field anymore, Cruz will still take fly balls on most days because he still wants to play in the outfield at some point. He’ll even take ground balls in the infield to keep his body active.
“It’s fun for me,” he said.
Following the on-field pregame workout, Cruz will eat a meal and return to the weight room to “activate” his body for the game. It’s a combination of stretching and exercises to get his body loose and ready.
“It’s a set time before games,” Clifford said. “He goes through the same pregame ritual before every game.”
And finally, Cruz is ready to play in a game.
“I like my routine,” he said. “It’s what I need to do to get ready each day.”
The commitment and diligence to the preparation is something all players should emulate.
“He’s a great example to being dedicated to a routine and be willing to adjust it along the way,” Servais said. “Nelson’s routine now is probably different from the first year he got to Seattle, which was different from when he ended his time in Texas and Baltimore. It evolves. He’s a prime example of getting the most out of his ability later in his career.”
Cruz jokes about being old and the speckles of gray in his hair can’t be hidden no matter how short he crops it. But the maniacal preparation is supposed to fight Father Time or at least delay the inevitable.
“As people age, your talents start to go away,” he said. “The more work you put in, the more you can slow that. It’s harder to stay in shape. But you have to do it.”
It’s a process that will continue to evolve.
“He will always listen to our recommendations,” Clifford said. “He never stops learning. He’s always trying to look for something that’s better or a better way to do things.”
Cruz has only one regret relating to his excessive commitment to preparation.
“If I had the knowledge I have now 10 years ago,” he said with a pause, “it would’ve been amazing.”