Nelson Cruz eyes Babe Ruth — and redemption

Baltimore Orioles’ slugger Nelson Cruz is leading the major leagues in home runs – and getting no respect. There’s been no statsmania. You aren’t hearing…

Baltimore Orioles’ Nelson Cruz steps up to bat during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Sharon Ellman)

Baltimore Orioles’ slugger Nelson Cruz is leading the major leagues in home runs – and getting no respect.

There’s been no statsmania. You aren’t hearing talk about a home run record chase or about how many games he might be ahead of the pace, and there has been no comparison to the great home run hitters of the past.

Cruz, the 33-year-old Dominican, could break Babe Ruth’s cherished home run record of 60 or Barry Bonds’ steroids-tarnished mark of 73, and no one is ever going to take it seriously.

That’s because Cruz himself will forever be in baseball’s steroids doghouse, having been suspended 50 games last year while playing for the Texas Rangers after being implicated in Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis drug scandal.

SEE ALSO: Baseball PED scandal: Concern over number of Latino players suspended

But if any player is ever going to get past that figurative scarlet letter he wears on his uniform, perhaps it will be Cruz who is currently the leading vote-getter among American League designated hitters for the All-Star game and who has a monetary incentive for proving himself.

“I can only control what I do today, so I just go about it one day at a time,” says Cruz, who has been welcomed in Baltimore with thunderous ovations and forgiving crowds.

But then, a lot of fans are also sympathetic because the suspension was handed down even though Cruz has never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement allows Commissioner Bud Selig to suspend players in these situations – even though Cruz has not failed a drug test — based on just cause.

Cruz was penalized with the suspension because documents in the Biogenesis drug scandal showed that he had bought performance enhancing drugs from the controversial clinic based out of Florida – the same clinic at the heart of Alex Rodriguez’s season-long suspension.

Much to some fans’ chagrin, Cruz also hedged on appealing the suspension, reportedly for fear that he could wind up suspended for 100 games.

As it was, the suspension cost Cruz $4 million in salary and a chance at cashing in on a big free-agent deal. Instead this season he signed only a one-year $8 million contract with the Orioles, agreeing to a $2.5 million cut from a year ago.

With a strong season, though, Cruz now stands to capitalize on a longer, bigger deal beginning in 2015.

Through May, Cruz had 20 home runs, though he did suffer a scare in Sunday’s game, leaving after being hit by a pitch on the wrist. X-rays showed nothing, and he will be nursing a contusion with his availability on a day-to-day basis.

“Nelson is letting the ball travel and letting it get deep,” says his Manager Buck Showalter. “He’s come in with a reputation of being streaky, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him locked in for this long a period of time. A lot of guys at his age start figuring out who they are and learning from their mistakes through the years in more ways than one.”

Cruz agrees that he is “locked in” as never before.

“I see the ball well,” he said. “Like I said before, it’s hard to be consistent for that long. I just take my routine and try to do it on a daily basis so I can stay more consistent.”

Cruz has been a prolific power hitter throughout his 10-year career that began with the Milwaukee Brewers, but he has also lost a lot of time – and statistics – because of injuries.

His best season has been 2011 when he hit 29 home runs with 89 RBIs while missing 38 games.

Cruz also had a postseason better than any other October slugger in history – including the legendary Babe Ruth and Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson.

He hit six homers in six games of the championship series along with 13 RBIs — both major league records for a postseason series, beating Babe Ruth’s 90-year-old record.

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Now Cruz is on pace to equal Ruth’s single-season home run mark that a lot of fans and purists still hold sacred.

Reaching 60 would be the highest total since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa in 2001, and it would put Cruz in company with only five other players in MLB history.

But however many homers Cruz hits, he is also dealing in a tainted history.

The only sluggers to ever hit 60 home runs or more in a season and not be implicated in steroid scandals, accusations or investigations are Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

Fittingly, one of the things Cruz has done in his short time in Baltimore this season is to follow the white baseballs on the sidewalk outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which led him to a special place.

To 216 Emory Street nearby, the home of Babe Ruth’s grandparents where the baseball home run legend was born and which is now the Ruth Museum.