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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Who built the Dominican Republic’s dream team? Their 42-year-old DH

Nelson Cruz, left, and Dominican Republic manager Rodney Linares

By James Wagner

The Dominican Republic’s team in the 2023 World Baseball Classic is a veritable dream team of stars.

Julio Rodríguez, 22, the 2022 American League Rookie of the Year, is the center fielder. Jeremy Peña, 25, the Most Valuable Player of the 2022 AL Championship Series and the World Series, is starting at shortstop. Sandy Alcántara, 27, the 2022 National League Cy Young Award winner, took the 5-1 loss against Venezuela on Saturday in the Dominicans’ opening game. Twelve of the country’s 16 position players are former All-Stars, including the six-timer Manny Machado.

The general manager responsible for assembling a team that is one of the tournament’s favorites? Nelson Cruz, 42, the team’s designated hitter, who also happens to have 459 career home runs in the majors.

“It’s a little different,” Dominican Manager Rodney Linares said in Spanish. “With a general manager, you basically just pick up the phone and call him. They don’t say, ‘I was hitting.’ But at least our general manager hits balls out. The others don’t.”

Many decades ago in Major League Baseball, player-managers were fairly common. Not anymore. But a player filling the role of the executive in charge of roster decisions appears to be unique to Cruz, and for good reason. Could you imagine having to release, demote or trade your teammates — or yourself?

Thankfully for Cruz, the WBC is a quadrennial two-week tournament that has returned for the first time since 2017 after pandemic delays. And he doesn’t have to worry about overseeing a farm system or staffing a scouting department. But Cruz, whose full-time gig is the San Diego Padres’ designated hitter, has learned that juggling administrative and playing duties is time consuming.

“A lot of text messages, calls, emails and talking with people overall,” Cruz said recently in Spanish while sitting outside the Padres’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona. “It takes a lot of time. Outside of my job, too. But all that sacrifice is worth it because you’re doing it for your country.”

Case in point: On Wednesday morning, when Padres general manager A.J. Preller needed to detail the conditions under which the star outfielder Juan Soto could play for the Dominican team given a recent minor calf injury — Soto arrived late and has rules in place for how often he can play in the outfield — Preller got on the phone with Linares and Cruz, both of whom are bilingual.

A few hours later, Cruz took batting practice in North Port, Florida ahead of a WBC tuneup game against the Atlanta Braves. Cruz, who is playing in his fourth WBC, entered as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning and homered.

“I was telling him, ‘Dude, how do you do all of this?’” said Machado, 30, another member of the Padres. A general manager, he said, also has to concern himself with the coaching staff and the federation. Machado added: “There’s a lot that goes into it beyond putting players out there. I think the players was probably the easiest part because there was a lot of people committed.”

To replace Moisés Alou — the Dominican GM during the previous two tournaments, including the gold medal-winning 2013 team — the Dominican baseball federation sought someone with a similar profile. Alou was a longtime MLB player and multi-time All-Star who was well regarded by his peers. (Unlike Cruz, he waited until after he retired to become an executive.)

“We have a lot of players with a lot of talent but they’re younger, and we needed someone who could connect with them, was respected by them and that they felt comfortable playing for him,” said Juan Núñez, the federation’s president.

The federation saw that in Cruz. The Padres will be his eighth MLB club in his 19th season. He has experienced the highs of baseball (seven All-Star selections, MVP of the 2011 ALCS, $139 million in career earnings) and lows (a 50-game suspension in 2013 for performance-enhancing drugs). Players and officials said they respected Cruz for his accomplishments, his charitable efforts in the Dominican Republic and his leadership in the clubhouse.

“Nelson Cruz is like a dad to the players,” Núñez said.

But when the federation first asked Cruz about the role in 2020, he declined because he said the timing wasn’t right for him. After the pandemic delayed what was supposed to be the 2021 WBC, Núñez called again. This time, after consulting with his family, Cruz said yes.

“Even this year, I didn’t know if I was ready,” he said. “I’d never done this before. But, well, you learn by walking and I had a good operations group behind me.”

Cruz said he regularly met with the federation’s brain trust to make decisions collectively. He used his iPad to sketch out depth charts, similar to the ones MLB executives have on whiteboards in their offices, while also studying advanced statistics.

Most of the time, Cruz said, the requests for players went through MLB and the players’ union, which jointly run the WBC. But sometimes he reached out directly to his general manager peers at MLB clubs. And since he knows so many players, he contacted them personally, too — sometimes even after permissions were denied.

Asked what he learned in his new role, Cruz said, “You see the game from a different perspective since you’re on the other side, the part the player doesn’t see.”

Núñez commended Cruz for learning fast and for always having a backup option when a player dropped out. “He told me,” Núñez said, “‘Brother, I thought this was easier but I’m realizing that this is harder than playing. You have to work.’ But he really does have the ability.”

Cruz and Soto have previously referred to the Dominican squad as a version of the Dream Team, the nickname for the 1992 United States men’s gold medal-winning Olympic basketball team. That team featured 11 future Hall of Famers, from Michael Jordan to Larry Bird. While the name might be a bit of hyperbole — this Dominican squad may end up producing only a few Hall of Famers — the underlying point was valid.

“On paper, it looks like a dominant team,” Cruz said of the Dominican squad, which will look to get on track against Nicaragua today at noon. “The depth that we have, I think there hasn’t been a team with so much talent, and the desire to participate.”

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