This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated.
Nelson Cruz’ career spans two decades and four teams. He’s earned four All-Star appearances, an ALCS MVP award, a Silver Slugger award and the 2014 home run title. But his journey wasn’t always smooth. He spoke with Marly Rivera about moving to the U.S. two decades ago, and how MLB clubhouses differ from those in his native Dominican Republic.
What was the hardest part of transitioning to the U.S.?
I think the hardest part is the food, getting used to the food and new seasonings. Language is, of course, also a process that we all have to go through, but at the same time it teaches you the culture. I believe the language and the culture go hand in hand.
Have you ever regretted it coming to the U.S.?
Not so much in terms of culture. But [in the minors] we did a trip from Vancouver to Boise. It took like 12 hours, and I was mentally tired. I said to myself, “If we go again, I’m not going to play ball. It didn’t work out.” But like everything in life, it’s not easy and one perseveres. And with a little luck, you focus on what you think can help you as a player.
How did you get used to American food?
I came with some experience as a cook in the Dominican Republic. When I played in the Dominican league in the summer after being signed with the Mets, my sister worked. I came from practice at 4 and studied at night to get my [high school] degree. My sister worked until 7, and I couldn’t spend three hours hungry. So I called my mom to see what you have to do in the kitchen, which is how I got some experience. To save money [in the minors], wherever it was we were going to play, we went to the Walmart or whatever was closer and bought rice and vegetables. We bought some coolers and put some ice in them and stored the meat there. We had a small electric pan and we cooked in it.
How did you learn English?
My first year in America, my roommates were Americans; my second year in spring training, too. They helped me learn English faster. After the end of the second spring training, I could already talk with the Americans. It wasn’t easy, but having those roommates talking to me all day in English benefited me. The second year, I could communicate with the coaches. Even in the second year, there were only two Latinos in the league I was in. There was no one to communicate with the coaches for you. It’s just you and the coach. There was no other way you could communicate.
Would you ask a girl out?
Yes, without a problem. I had a Canadian partner for four years. Although it started in my second year here, and I almost didn’t understand her.
What was the first thing you bought after signing?
I didn’t buy anything. We finished repairing the house in the Dominican Republic. We bought a car, a Camry, for the family.
What kind of media do you watch — Spanish or English?
It depends. Music is in Spanish. Movies, if they are funny, have to be in English because the translation is not the same. But usually with action movies or movies where they talk a lot, I prefer them in Spanish.
Has your MLB career changed people’s opinions of you in the DR?
People look at you differently and think I’m not the same. After they come and talk with you, they say, “You haven’t changed, you’re the same person.” Then the opinions are different; it’s difficult to control what other people think of you.
How are clubhouses different in the U.S. and the DR?
They are totally different. One is more open because it is only one culture. The music you put on is not going to bother anyone because it’s the music from where we’re from, and maybe if there are one or two foreigners, they’re not going to feel bad because we’re in our country. In the Dominican Republic, there is more commotion; everyone shouting at the same time. I think the World Baseball Classic was a good experience. Being in the U.S. seemed like playing in the Dominican Republic. It felt like a winter league because everyone was talking so openly.
What about fans?
The tone is different. The Dominican is more expressive; he always lets you know when you’ve done something bad. The American fan is more restrained. Of course there are fans in the U.S. who try to make you feel bad, especially the opposing fan. If you’re in a place where you’re not welcome because maybe you’ve hit a lot of home runs, they’ll make sure to make you feel bad. But when you’re playing at home, that doesn’t happen.
Did you ever imagine there’d be so many Dominicans in MLB?
There are so many. It’s because of the many academies in the Dominican Republic; the opportunities are so much more open than in, say, Puerto Rico or Venezuela. In the Dominican Republic, we live — it’s practiced every day — baseball. When a child is born in the Dominican Republic, the first thing dad wants is for him to be a baseball player. He buys him his ball and his bat. So I’m not surprised. We hope in God that it keeps developing, because in reality, the Dominican needs it. It’s an engine that drives many families. Many families live off of baseball. Not only having children who sign as ballplayers, but those who work in the academies. Baseball creates many jobs that drive the country’s economy.