Nelson Cruz received the response he hoped for and definitely deserved in his return to Seattle on Thursday night.
After four outstanding seasons with the Mariners, Cruz returned to Seattle for the first time, wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform.
Unfortunately, a wrist injury kept him out of the starting lineup for the series opener — and the Twins placed him on the injured list Friday, ensuring he’ll miss facing his old team this series — so he didn’t get the chance to be announced before an at-bat for the typical return greeting from fans. Instead, the Mariners played their video tribute to him after the first inning with a welcome-back message. A small portion of the announced crowd of 16,397 gave him a standing ovation while Cruz took off his cap and waved to the fans.
When asked before Thursday’s game, Cruz seemed hopeful about a positive reaction to his return.
“Probably love,” he said. “It sure was fun years. I know the type of the fans that are in Seattle. I’m expecting love.”
There was love for many reasons. Cruz was a fan favorite for his production on the field, which included booming home runs, his willingness to play through injuries and the childish joy with which he played the game. He was also an outstanding ambassador for the team in the community and around baseball. He was tireless in giving his time to a variety of charities.
Asked about his legacy, Cruz paused for a moment to ponder.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “Now that you mention it, I guess it was that I came every year with that mentality to help my team win games and make sure I’m out there every day even through pain. And always have fun and play for the fans and play for my teammates.”
Part of his legacy is the nap room in the Mariners clubhouse that they built specifically for him and his pregame routine of a power nap every day. It was expanded during his four years with Seattle as other players copied the pregame ritual.
Mariners manager Scott Servais joked that he was going to check to see if Cruz sneaked in there to sleep.
“I hope he’s not in our nap room,” Servais said. “I might have to check in there. He might be in there for all we know.”
Cruz cackled at the comment.
“I don’t think they’ll let me,” he said. “I think security would rat me out.”
He was quick to point out that there is a nap room now in the Twins clubhouse at Target Field.
“We have one now in Minnesota,” he said. “And I’m the reason we have that one too.”
Former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik signed Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract before the 2015 season. Cruz was coming off a prove-it, one-year contract with Orioles. Seattle was willing to give him a fourth-year on the deal compared to other teams, and it proved to be a wise decision.
Over four seasons, Cruz played in 606 games, posting a .284/.362/.495 slash line with 163 homers and 414 RBI while making the All-Star Game three times. Cruz is the most productive free agent signing in Mariners history.
“It was great,” he said of his time with Seattle. “It was the right call to become a Mariner. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to take the team to the playoffs. That was a goal and one of the reasons I became a Mariner. It’s something that as a player you always regret. That’s your priority. Besides that, it was a great experience.”
With the Mariners going into “step-back” mode this offseason, they chose not to re-sign Cruz to an extension, instead letting him go to free agency. He chose the Twins over offers from the Rays and Astros.
Cruz was a seminal figure in the Mariners clubhouse during his time with the team. Though he wasn’t always a vocal leader, his diligence and total commitment to his offseason and daily preparation was something younger players learned to appreciate and emulate.
“Nelson’s big thing is his preparation,” Servais said. “That’s why he’s been able to be so productive late in his career. It’s how he goes about taking care of his body and getting his sleep and all those things that are important to him. Heck of a career and heck of a person.”
Cruz texted Servais a few days before the series.
“It said, ‘What’s going, miss you, looking forward to seeing you,’” Servais said. “Oh, we’ll see you, pal. We line up the three left-handed pitchers, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be in there those three nights.”
Of course, now he won’t. Cruz dealt with a similar wrist injury with the Mariners. But he said the circumstances around it are different now.
“I think back then it was worse,” he said. “It was different. It was at the end of the year. Your mentality, you have how many games left to play. It’s different now ’cause we still have almost a full season in front of you so you don’t want to keep playing with pain, and it’s something I can get better.”
And yet, he still wants to play.
“I definitely want to play,” Cruz said. “I want to play regardless of who we’re playing. I want to play every day. But it’s definitely more special to be able to come here and play against your old team. It was something I was looking forward to.”
The Mariners claimed right-handed pitcher Andrew Moore off waivers from the Giants on Friday and designated fellow right-hander Nick Rumbelow for assignment.
The Mariners originally drafted Moore out of Oregon State in 2015, and he made his major-league debut June 22, 2017, against the Tigers. In 2018, the Mariners dealt Moore and Tommy Romero to the Tampa Bay Rays for Denard Span and Alex Colome. The Rays designated Moore for assignment in late April, and the Giants claimed him off waivers earlier this month.
Moore will report to Class AA Arkansas.