When Baltimore Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz blasted two homers in an 8-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, it was a loss in the standings for Baltimore, but another win in his battle to shake the stigma of being a PED user. A cheater.
One of the sadder aspects of the Steroids Era and its effect on baseball’s tainted superstars of the late '90s and 2000’s is that many of these guys were caught so late in the game that they never had an opportunity to return PED-free and legitimately reclaim their status as elite performers.
With the upgraded testing systems and obvious decline in PED use throughout MLB, recently exposed stars such as Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz are still young enough to start another chapter in their baseball lives and turn disgrace into redemption and eventual affirmation of their pre-steroids numbers. Focusing solely on guys who have tested positive for PED use would be ignoring the pack of sluggers who are also treated like the plague because of mere PED suspicion.
Adrian Beltre, whose name was tossed into the PED rumor mill after a 2004 season in which he exploded for a .334 batting average, .629 slugging percentage and a league-leading 48 dingers, was young enough to shake those early affiliations and continue to produce at an All-Star level as well as flash some formidable leather.
Even Big Papi David Ortiz has outlasted his early steroid accusations. His HOF consideration will be based largely on his mythical postseason exploits, but the man is still banging balls off the Green Monster with an AARP card in his back pocket, next to the sun flower seeds.
The interesting case of 33-year-old Nelson Cruz can be seen as one of redemption.
Cruz has been among the league’s most prolific power bats over the last half decade, averaging 26 homers a season. His consistency isn’t always there, but he’s known for going on prolific tears and is capable of carrying a team for stretches. Power numbers like that command big money on the MLB market and if not for Cruz’s Biogenesis affiliation and 50-game suspension for steroids use last season (which limited him to 109 games), Cruz would have hit a lot more than the 27 he slugged for the Texas Rangers.
Some say his selfishness (juicing) and then subsequent refusal to appeal the decision cost the Texas Rangers a playoff run. His time in the Lone Star state was basically over and during the offseason, Baltimore was looking for another big bopper. Cruz was out there and the O’s signed him on the cheap – a one-year, $8 million deal. If Cruz had never been affiliated with roids, he would have commanded more, but he became a compromised player and teams are hesitant to invest in a guy that seems to have garnered his success with illegal performance enhancers. PED–tainted players are also provide great excuses for owners to be cheap.
It’s becoming a growing reality to baseball’s VIP performers that if they choose to turn up by using PEDS, it’s likely they will get caught. The risk doesn’t justify the reward anymore. Ask Melky Cabrera, who was leading the NL in hits and second in batting average, and on his way to a free agent cash bonanza, until he tested positive for testosterone and was suspended for 50 games without pay in August. The Melk Man not only lost out on mega gwop, having to “settle” for a two-year contract worth $16 million with the Toronto Blue Jays, but the Giants won the World Series that year and all Melky had to show for it was a meaningless All-Star Game MVP award.
Most of the golden era juicers made their eight-figure contracts or close to it at some point. Today’s player doesn’t enjoy that luxury. Melky’ still playing, but as expected, he hasn’t been able to recapture the glory of his PED-driven ascension to excellence.
Cruz on the other hand is throwing a wrinkle in the “PED’s make you better” philosophy. With Cruz, the Orioles now have a big middle-of-the order bat to complement a lineup that led the majors with 212 homers last season. One of the hot preseason topics was whether or not Cruz would match his power production of past seasons.
He’s answered the pessimists with a louder thud than most could have envisioned. Cruz is leading MLB in homers with 19 and is leading the AL in RBI’s (48) and he's outslugging teammate Chris “Crush” Davis .663 to .458.
B-More is 26-25 and contending in the AL East, just 4.5 games behind the first-place Blue Jays and Cruz has rebounded from his moment of infamy. He hasn’t succumbed to the pressures and doubts of his PED controversy. Instead, Cruz elevated his game and the $70-$80 million contract that awaits him after this season is further motivation.
Its unlikely Cruz will maintain this power surge, but the same thing was said of Davis who banged 53 dingers last season. Baseball is such a psychological battle for players. That’s another reason why the PED issue is as much mental as it is physical. Is it possible to enhance performance simply by being motivated, working harder and having something to prove? Or by shedding the lie of playing under false pretense and returning to a less complicated strategy of believing in one’s God-given talents and letting the chips fall where they may?
In retrospect, this was Cruz’s destiny. Everyone has a journey and his led him to Baltimore as an invaluable cog in Buck Showalter’s contending squad. Cruz’s transition from the hitter-friendly stadium in Arlington has been seamless and a winning hook up from the jump. when asked about Cruz's impact on the squad, B-More's All-Star center fielder Adam Jones is quick to give props. "Wooowww " Jones told The Shadow League on Thursday, "I knew he was good, but I didn't know he was that great a aplayer and such a good teammate."
Back on Opening Day Cruz’s homer off Jon Lester broke a 1-1 tie and lifted B-More to victory. He took the traditional postgame pie to the face and the Camden Yards crowd was chanting his name like he was HOV in the Encore video.
"It was a shock, but thanks to the fans for the support,” an elated Cruz said at the time. “That was really special. I think, like I've said before, I made the right call to come and be part of this organization and this town. I tried to dream about a good start. The dream came true."
Total success for any baller comes with equilibrium. Being of sound mind and body. The PED- free Cruz has a sound body and he definitely doesn’t mind making haters and offensive anemic teams, who dissed him in the offseason, drool like miscalculating fools when he reaches the seats. Stuff that up your Mitchell Report.