Nelson Cruz, who led the majors with 40 home runs last season, fills a huge need at the cleanup spot. It is Cruz’s experiences that have shaped him — the struggles, failures and mistakes.

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PEORIA, Ariz. —

Opening Day 2015

Mariners vs. Angels, Monday 1:10 p.m., Safeco Field; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN  

The ball left the bat with the sound of a small explosion.

The crack of a pitched ball meeting the barrel of a properly swung wooden bat is unmistakable to the ears of any baseball fan.

Meet the 2015 Mariners

But the sound of a ball meeting a bat swung by the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz and his chiseled, 230-pound frame is something that can’t be forgotten. It rings in the ears.

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The sight of that recent swing was just as impressive. The ball rocketed toward straightaway center field, starting about 10 feet off the ground. The backspin on the ball pushed it higher as it carried. The ball hadn’t even begun to descend when it smacked off the royal blue batter’s eye at Peoria Stadium — 25 feet above the ground, some 410 feet from home plate.

It was a ridiculous display of power from a player who can make it seem routine.

Teammate Kyle Seager stood about 20 feet away in the on-deck circle and watched with disbelief and a tinge of jealousy.

“That was special,” Seager said. “You see him hit it, and the center fielder takes one step and was like, ‘Nope, no way.’ That’s probably one of the hardest-hit balls I’ve ever seen, definitely the hardest hit this spring. I don’t know how you hit one much harder than that.”

The Mariners hope Cruz can replicate that sight and sound at least 30 times this season and help push them into the postseason for the first time since 2001. It’s why they signed him to a four-year, $57 million contract, to be the productive cleanup presence they’ve lacked for most of the past decade.

But beyond his accomplishments, it’s Cruz’s experiences that have shaped him — the struggles, failures and mistakes.

The roots

Growing up in Las Matas de Santa Cruz in the Dominican Republic, Cruz remembers being able to hit a baseball farther than the other kids in his neighborhood could.

But those early power displays were relegated to the sandlots with friends.

“I loved baseball before that, but I didn’t have the time to play because I was working and going to school,” he said. “The only day that I had off was Sunday, and in my city they don’t have any baseball team who plays Sunday.”

Both his parents were professors, so Cruz wasn’t allowed to shirk his educational responsibilities. The work was in his uncle’s shop as a mechanic’s helper. The engines of cars, tractors and trucks fascinated him as a kid, and he worked there each day after school.

Nelson Cruz of the Baltimore Orioles hits a three-run home run in an April 22, 2014 game in Toronto. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Nelson Cruz of the Baltimore Orioles hits a three-run home run in an April 22, 2014 game in Toronto. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

“I loved being there,” he said.

The call of another sport also kept Cruz away from baseball. His first passion was basketball. He excelled at the game, becoming one of the top junior players in the country. But during his teenage years, he began to realize there was no future in it.

The turning point came during a basketball tournament, when his dad asked him how much the players there were making each game.

“It was like less than three bucks a game,” Cruz said. “He asked me, ‘Do you think you can live with that, make a living playing basketball?’ ”

Cruz knew the answer.

His father, Nelson Sr., pointed out that many of those players could go from basketball to baseball and make it to the big leagues.

Cruz shifted his focus to baseball. The addition of baseball games on Sundays in his hometown helped the conversion.

His potential earned him a contract as a non-drafted free agent with the New York Mets in 1998 at age 18. Current Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was an assistant GM with the Mets at the time and remembers Cruz as a project.

“He was a pretty crude player,” Zduriencik said. “He’ll even tell you that. He had all these tools, but he didn’t have skills.”

Cruz spent three seasons in the Dominican Summer League while younger players who grew up playing the game passed him by each season.

“I just had the talent, but I didn’t have that knowledge about hitting, knowledge about baserunning or defense,” he said.

The change

He was traded to the Oakland A’s, then to the Milwaukee Brewers. His raw talent, being shaped by repetition and coaching, carried him through the minors.

He hit prodigious homers. But he also struck out almost once in every three at-bats. He still was good enough to make his major-league debut at the end of the 2005 season. A trade to the Texas Rangers in July 2006 led to 41 games at the big-league level.

But it fell apart in 2007, as Cruz went back and forth between the big leagues and Class AAA. He played in 96 games with Texas and hit just .231, with a .279 on-base percentage and a .384 slugging percentage. His 15 homers and 56 RBI were overshadowed by a whopping 119 strikeouts.

He didn’t make the Rangers out of spring training in 2008. Without minor-league options, he was designated for assignment. For the price of $20,000 any team could have claimed him off waivers and put him on their roster. No one did. He was outrighted to Class AAA Oklahoma City, a prospect no more.

“You work so much to get to that point to be part of the big-league team, and then you see yourself out of that spot,” he said. “Nobody was going to feel sorry for me.”

Now we have a guy that is going to help us win games — a guy that knows how to drive in runs, a guy that can hit the ball out of the ballpark...” - Kyle Seager

Mike Boulanger was the Rangers’ minor-league hitting coordinator then.

“I’m sure it was a tough pill to swallow for him,” he said. “But he showed up and said, ‘I will do whatever you think I need to do.’ ”

What Boulanger thought Cruz needed to do was a minor change that didn’t seem so minor at first. He wanted Cruz to go from a closed stance to an open stance.

“He was so closed off that basically all he could do on any pitch was try to pull the ball,” Boulanger said. “ And he wasn’t really pulling it correctly when he did. If you made a mistake middle-in, he would hurt you. But pitchers were already starting to run the fastballs away and sliders away.”

Opening Cruz’s stance forced him to step toward the plate and put him in a better hitting position. There also was another major benefit.

“I was able to see the ball with both eyes,” he said.

Well, that seems important.

“Once it got released I know he picked it up with both eyes,” Boulanger said. “But at that point, the ball is halfway to home plate. We’re talking about major-league pitchers. You just can’t give up 30 feet of distance in that time and have a chance to make an adjustment.”

That first night Cruz didn’t play in the game. He and Boulanger watched video of major-leaguers Carlos Lee and Derrek Lee and their open stances. They spent the rest of the night in the batting cage working.

“He’s so athletic he picked it up right away,” Boulanger said.

Cruz played the next night, going 1 for 4 with a double, and could feel the difference. It culminated four days later in a three-game series vs. Albuquerque in which he went 5 for 11 with a double, a homer, four RBI, four walks and no strikeouts.

“He just took off from there,” Boulanger said.

In 103 games, he hit .342 with a 1.024 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with 18 doubles, 37 homers, 99 RBI and 24 stolen bases, earning Pacific Coast League MVP honors.

Cruz returned to the big leagues Aug. 25 and stayed there.

The mistake

Cruz put up outstanding numbers with the revamped stance for the Rangers. He was named an All-Star in 2009 and 2013 and hit 20 or more homers in five consecutive seasons. He played in two World Series and was on the verge of a massive free-agent payday following the 2013 season.

But it all fell apart again. On Aug. 5, 2013, he and 12 other players accepted 50-game suspensions for being linked to the BioGenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal.

He doesn’t deny his role. A viral infection in the month leading to spring training left him weakened.

“I lost 45 pounds in less than two months,” he said. “I told myself that I need to do something to get better. I had less than two weeks to get to spring training. I was freaked out. I made the wrong choice. I knew the wrong people.”

The suspension loomed over Cruz into the offseason. Any hopes of a multiyear contract were buried by suspicion and questions. He signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles in an effort to prove his legitimacy. It worked. He belted 40 homers — the most in baseball — made his third All-Star team and helped the Orioles win the AL East. The multiyear deal came this offseason.

The reputation? He’s trying to remove the tarnish by educating younger players about his mistakes.

“I talked to the minor-league director if they need me to do it here,” he said. “I don’t want to see anybody go through that. I can speak of my experience. I know it does help. The best thing to do is get in and help people.”

The journey

Can Cruz help the Mariners back to the postseason? Can he be the cleanup presence between Robinson Cano and Seager that was so noticeably absent from last year’s team that missed the playoffs by one game?

“It’s a game-changer,” Seager said. “You bring Cano in the year before, and it changed the dynamic of the team, and I think the Cruz signing is going to be just as big as bringing in Cano.”

Cano helped recruit Cruz in the offseason, knowing his importance.

“Now we have a guy that is going to help us win games — a guy that knows how to drive in runs, a guy that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, a guy that has been in this game a long time, a guy that has been in the postseason, been in the World Series,” he said. “We got a guy with experience.”

Said Cruz: “It’s been a long process for me. I learned what was negative might not take you where you want to go. I think all the experience along the way helped me to be a better player, to be a better teammate, to be a better person.”

Consistent power
Nelson Cruz led the majors in home runs last season but here’s an interesting statistic: he was fourth in at-bats per home run. He was also tied for fourth in games played (159).
Player HRs AB per HR
Chris Carter, Houston 37 13.7
Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto 34 14.0
David Ortiz, Boston 35 14.8
Nelson Cruz, Baltimore 40 15.3
Jose Abreu, White Sox 36 15.4
Source: baseball-reference.com