TEN YEARS AGO, greedy flames licked and licked at a house until they swallowed it, and where once a family's home stood, scorched earth remained. No sirens ever wailed, because there was no firetruck in the town of Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Dominican Republic. No rescue mission saved the home, because they didn't have what they needed to do the saving in this far-flung corner of the country.
A man named Jaimito had lived in that house, and Jaimito's friend Nelson Cruz -- an up-and-coming major league baseball player at the time, barely removed from his breakout 2009 season -- couldn't make sense of how a fire could rage so unchallenged, didn't know how to make peace with a man losing everything because a town had nothing.
Las Matas de Santa Cruz was a small town, still is, so the line where neighbor ended and family began had long been fuzzy. Cruz had "aunts" and "uncles" and "grandmas" and "cousins" all over Las Matas, and in a very Dominican way, Jaimito was his family. Cruz's father, also named Nelson, taught geography and history to high schoolers and had taught Jaimito. Long before the fire, when Jaimito was a teenager, he left Las Matas for the capital -- for Santo Domingo -- and returned years later to his hometown a different person, someone living with mental illness. Cruz's mother, Milagros, made sure Jaimito had clean clothes to wear, a place to shower. And when Cruz broke his ankle in 2001, he flew back from the States and the Arizona Fall League, and it was Jaimito who kept him company. Cruz would sit in a chair in his parents' house, his busted ankle doing the slow work of healing, and play catch with Jaimito. If Spanish is the official language for Dominicans, baseball is their native one.
The year Jaimito's house caught fire, Cruz was a Texas Ranger, and when he arrived at spring training the next season, he got it in his head that he'd like to see a firetruck in Las Matas. He poked around online, then reeled at the price tag: $250,000. More than half the salary he'd earned in the previous, 2010 season. He had been crowned an All-Star, but Cruz hadn't yet become Nelson Cruz and the game still hadn't made him exorbitantly wealthy. So he went to the Rangers organization, which connected him to the Arlington Fire Department, and the trio formed a tag team to secure a first responder vehicle.
Cruz contributed $20,000, the Rangers chipped in $9,300, and by 2012, Las Matas de Santa Cruz finally had a firetruck.
Nelson Cruz grew up in a place that didn't have running water, or asphalt on the roads, or electricity for stretches of hours at a time. But the boy he was back then couldn't fathom the man he would become, or what he'd bring to his hometown -- a yearslong pursuit to help Las Matas and the lives of his neighbors there, a mission that would lead him to the 2020 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, which was presented Sunday night during The ESPYS.
That boy, the boy he was back then, didn't dream of luxuries like firetrucks, because he didn't know he could.
"That was like shooting for the moon, you know?" Cruz says.
The fire burned a home, but a new town rose from the ashes.
NELSON CRUZ HASN'T left Las Matas de Santa Cruz.
He turns 40 in a couple weeks but still does things like hit 41 home runs in a single year and garner MVP votes, so his baseball seasons are still spent in the States -- and most recently in Minnesota. But he returns every winter to the Dominican Republic, and for the first time in nearly two decades, with the coronavirus pandemic paralyzing countries (and baseball), leaving them frozen in place, he's there this summer too. He always comes home to his farm, to his lakes and to his parents, who still live in the house where he spent his teenage years.
That house has a concrete roof now instead of metal. There are more rooms now too, and those rooms all have air conditioning. Cruz installed solar panels for good measure, so his parents wouldn't have to worry about the electricity going out anymore. In the decade since Jaimito's fire, Cruz has become a habitual All-Star (2013-15, 2017-18), the MLB leader in home runs in one season (2014), the American League leader in RBIs in another (2017) and a millionaire with a couple of zeros to spare (at least $14 million in each of the past five seasons). He spent those 10 years amassing the social and literal capital to make paradigm-shifting changes to his home. To his hometown. It's why, although he has never truly left, Cruz and Las Matas are far from where they started.
The first house Cruz ever lived in was a wood shanty that had one bedroom, a space his mom cordoned off with a curtain. On one side, a bed for the parents. On the other, a bed for Cruz and a second for his older and younger sisters to share. His mother paid someone to go to the river to collect water for the tank in their house. That became their bathwater, their dishwashing water, their cooking water. Cruz sold plantains from his grandfather's farm, or went to the park to clean shoes, or worked in his uncle's mechanic shop to earn extra money. His mother, like his father, was a teacher, and two teachers' salaries added up to not enough.
The Cruzes talk about those hardships in a way that's almost romantic now, their struggle gauzy and nostalgic, the way struggle is so often made to feel once it's in the past, at a safe remove. "It was a really simple house," says his older sister, Nelssy. "But we were really happy. We grew up really happy there."
But the truth too, at once plain and inescapable, was that they had little, and lived in a town that had less. Their lives were hard, so Cruz has spent the better part of a decade trying to unspool that tangle of hardness. He's trying to make things easier.
So he adds solar panels to the roof of his own home and his parents' home. And he upgraded parts of his grandmother's home in the land directly behind his own house. And he brings a firetruck to Las Matas, then doesn't stop there, not hardly, for he also helps procure an ambulance, because the town didn't have one of those either.
If someone was critically hurt, sick or dying in Las Matas de Santa Cruz, there was a sprint to find a person with a car. Then there was a scramble to see whether anyone could pay for gas. Then there was the race to Santiago and the hospital there, 60 miles and an hour and a half away. But there was no ambulance -- until Cruz intervened.
When Cruz is back in his hometown now, his neighbors will stop him on the street to say their loved ones' names out loud. They're offering an accounting -- of the lives his ambulance has prolonged.
That ledger grew to include Cruz's own grandmother. Four years ago, she suffered a stroke and fell, and the ambulance her grandchild had brought to Las Matas de Santa Cruz rushed her to the hospital in Santiago. She didn't survive the trauma -- she died two days later in the hospital -- but she was at least afforded the chance to survive. Her death gave Cruz a release, he says, permission to take in the full sweep of all his other neighbors, those aunts and uncles, those mothers and fathers, whom he had helped keep alive.
"You bring the ambulance, and you just think you're doing the right thing. But you never really think, 'OK, I'm going to save people doing this,'" he says. "So once that happened, once my grandma used it ..."
He grows quiet.
IF YOU DUST Las Matas de Santa Cruz for fingerprints, Nelson Cruz's handiwork emerges in this nook and that cranny, anywhere and everywhere -- a forensic science gold mine in this northwest corner of the Dominican Republic.
Since the day he set foot in the States to play minor league ball, since 2000 or 2001, he estimates, he has returned to the Dominican after the season with batting gloves and baseballs, old shoes and worn gear. His teammates threw them out, garbage-heap-bound, and he salvaged them, bringing them back to Las Matas for the young ballplayers back home.
In his own youth, Cruz and his friends made homemade baseballs from old socks. They'd fill one sock with another until it resembled the shape, if not the feel, of a baseball, and his friends would holler at him when Cruz hit another home run, losing yet one more homemade baseball concoction in the distance. He knows the currency of real baseballs, even if they're second hand, even if they're battered.
He corralled the firetruck and ambulance, and then, as his public clout grew in scope and weight -- beelining for the 400 career home runs club comes with a handy megaphone -- corralled more. He made his way from the Rangers to the Orioles to the Mariners, and in Seattle, he marshaled so much donated gear from the local fire station (Helmets! Jackets! Pants! Galore!) that he gave some to his hometown firefighters and then offered the surplus to cities as far away as Santo Domingo. He spearheaded the building of a new police station -- acquiring the property, helping to fund the construction costs -- to replace the old plywood shack. In 2017, he hosted a wellness bonanza where, according to Joseph Hache, who serves on the board of Cruz's foundation, Boomstick23, 1,200 locals received medical care, from mammograms to optometry consultations, over a period of five days. This past year, 500 patients received assistance, with an emphasis on dental care -- 69 dentures fitted, 19 root canals and 563 fillings -- in a geyser of goodwill. It's enough to make people turn into blubbering gushfests, which might be embarrassing if not for the sheer sincerity.
"He's one of the best people I've ever met in my life, this guy," says Jean Segura, without a dollop of irony.
Segura, who plays shortstop for the Phillies and hails from the Dominican too, has made the trip across the country, trekking from Santo Domingo to Las Matas, in each of the past three Januarys. That's when Cruz plays host to MLB friends and teammates who convene to help coach kids on how to do things like point your fingers downward when fielding a ground ball. (Vladimir Guerrero, Robinson Cano and Starlin Castro, among others, also have offered their baseball services at Cruz's mini-clinic.)
Baseball is holy territory in the Dominican Republic. Cruz says he'll be at the gas station, filling up at the pump, when women old enough to be grandmothers approach him with intel on which pitch he should've laid off of in his latest winter league game. Segura grew up steeped in so much poverty that he regarded making the professional ranks as his best, and perhaps only, chance to escape that poverty. The dream of baseball and the dreams baseball can help unlock make the sport less game, more religion here.
When Cruz gathers local kids to spend a day training them in baseball, he doesn't do it just because he likes those kids and loves this game. He was those kids, looking ahead to what his love for this game could help him do.
"He grew up like that," Segura says, by way of explanation for why Cruz's reserve of charity is a well that still seems pretty far from tapped.
He dug that well with his father's guidance, Nelssy says. Their dad would consider their neighbors in Las Matas, so many people in need, and he'd offer them the assistance he could. When their mother would remind him that their family also had little, he was steadfast. We have more than they do, so we can still give.
The still giving is at least part of the reason Cruz feels called to play baseball now, even as he creeps ever closer to 40. In a poetic bookend, Juan Soto, all ebullience and youthful verve and half Cruz's age, looks primed to be one of the next Dominican megastars to carry their small island's mantle in the big leagues. Still, Cruz doesn't feel finished yet. (It helps his cause, of course, that he's just ... still extremely, undeniably good at his job. The Twins became the first team to reach 300 home runs in a season last year, and Cruz, the designated hitter, was the long-ball parade's grand marshal.)
"I know the longer I can play," he says, "the more people that I can help."
IN NEWS THAT will surprise no one, Cruz is regarded as something of a rock star in his hometown.
(Almost literally. There's a pair of monuments at the entrance to Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Nelssy points out. One displays a guitar, a nod to Anthony Santos, a famous bachata artist from their city. The other showcases a baseball bat, a hat tip to Cruz.)
You can't love a game as much as most Dominicans love baseball, then play it as well as Cruz has played it, and not wind up perched high on a pedestal.
He's not without missteps. He served a 50-game suspension seven years ago for violating MLB's substance abuse policy, thanks to his connection to the performance-enhancing drug scandal centered on Biogenesis, the South Florida-based anti-aging clinic.
But he's also theirs. If Las Matas de Santa Cruz belongs to him, he belongs to it. He doesn't want to move on to bigger and better places; he just wants to make this place better.
His latest grand plan is the construction of an education center in Las Matas. After Cruz signed with the Mets in 11th grade, his father, stickler of a teacher that he was, wouldn't agree to Cruz playing and training at the Dominican baseball academy unless he also finished his high school education. Now Cruz would like to break ground on a hub for teaching and training technical skills -- would have broken ground already if not for the coronavirus, he says -- for people who didn't or couldn't finish their own schooling.
"If I'm living there," Segura says, "I see him like a king."
This spring, just days before the pandemic shut down cities and countries and took baseball down with it, Cruz traveled to Santo Domingo with his Twins teammates. On March 7, 2½ months before George Floyd was killed 4 miles from the Twins' home field in Minneapolis, sparking a worldwide cry for justice -- "We understand what they're fighting for ... unfortunately something like that had to happen for people to wake up," Cruz says -- the Twins and the Tigers brought major league baseball to the Dominican Republic for the first time in 20 years. Erick Almonte, Cruz's onetime winter league teammate and current head of the Dominican players' union, arrived at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal early, around 9 in the morning. As 11 o'clock drew near and Cruz and his teammates emerged for batting practice, the local baseball fanatics descended in droves to bear witness. Almonte guesses there were about 4,000 people watching, lasering in on Cruz -- legions of fans who, he notes, tend to stroll in for baseball games fashionably late, around the second or third inning -- and they were positively losing their minds hours before the first pitch, made rapturous by every ball the Dominican star mashed skyward.
There stood Cruz, in the eye of that storm, a dream realized. Proof of what this game could help a person be; proof of what it could help a person do.