Nelson Cruz retired on Thursday after 19 years in the bigs. What followed has been a steady stream of stories recalling Cruz’s hitting prowess and clubhouse presence — both undeniable facts. But what serves as a side note — if that — in most of the coverage has been his involvement in the 2013 Biogenesis steroid scandal. And even in the stories that mention his 50-game suspension, what is conspicuously absent is the fact that, upon returning from his PED suspension, Cruz went on to post the best years of his career.
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Before his suspension in the middle of the 2013 season with the Texas Rangers, Cruz had hit 30 home runs in a season once (33 in 2009 for Texas). After his suspension, from 2014-16 — and from the ages of 33 to 38 — Cruz posted three consecutive 40+ home run seasons (one with Baltimore, two with Seattle), and added a fourth in six years in 2019 for Minnesota. The two seasons in that stretch where he didn’t reach the 40 mark, he hit 39 and 37 long balls, respectively.
Not bad for an aging slugger presumed to be “clean,” wouldn’t you say?
Of course, no one is talking about this now as Cruz, who played for eight teams, takes his 464 career home runs and rides off into the sunset. We have learned long ago that no one in baseball — be it MLB execs, team officials, players, media, or fans — truly cares about juicing in the game. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve never heard a good explanation for how a player of Cruz’s caliber could return from a PED suspension and perform at a higher level than before they were caught doping.
Probably because there isn’t one. Other than, well, you know.
For most players who have returned after being nailed for PEDs, production declines steeply. In the best-case scenarios (I’m looking at you Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez), they manage, for a brief period, to put up numbers that are respectable, but well beneath what they posted while presumably doping. Which leads us to one of three possible assumptions when it comes to Cruz. I’ll let the readers choose:
1. PEDs don’t help improve performance. (Editor’s note: they do.)
2. Cruz is the greatest slugger in the history of the game and his raw talent was so overwhelming that he was able to do what almost no one has been able to do at the highest levels: Perform better clean than they did on PEDs. (Editor’s note: If this is your selection, we’d like to know if you are interested in this bridge we have for sale.)
3. Cruz did not stop using PEDs, but simply stopped getting caught using PEDs.
I’m not going to spoil it — or risk a libel suit — by giving away what my preferred answer to this riddle is. I’ll leave that to the Baseball Writers of America when Cruz and his gaudy numbers — the longtime DH compiled a .274/.343/.513 slash line to go with 2,053 hits and 1,325 RBI — become eligible for the Hall of Fame in five years.
It will be interesting to see what that conversation is like and whether all the hosannas have wilted by then. Let’s just say, as one of the few people who are still bothered by the idea of athletes doping, I’m not optimistic.