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40 in 40: Nelson Cruz

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Small window, big man.

We ride.
We ride.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

It is a small window, just large enough to reveal what lies before him. Green grass against the hard sand. Baseball fields emerging from the desert. Still groggy, he returns to the article he finally found time to read.

He knows he shouldn't, but sometimes he simply cannot help himself. The piece before him reads just the same as they all have in recent years.

Surely, he can't be the player he once was.

He smiles, catching himself feeling the anger he always does when reading the words of those who don't know him, who don't see his work. To most, he is an old man rapidly growing older. He is a body that has seen too many seasons. An eroding talent that will soon be usurped by younger, greater men. He flexes his hands, needing to feel a bat between them, and soon. There is a comfort in a wooden handle, made tactile with dirt and tar. He stares at his palms, calloused and rough from decades of use. Each digit of his hands moves with precision as he brushes his fingers along the page of the magazine.

Overpaid. Underperfoming. No defense. The offense dries up.

He sets the magazine down. They've always doubted him. He'd be lying if he said he didn't wear their criticisms. He is a big man, but nobody is so large to hide the feeling of loss that accompanies a World Series defeat. Occasionally he allows those old, familiar pangs of doubt and disgrace to creep back into his mind.

But then he remembers the work. What all those hours in the cages and the gym have yielded. He was supposed to fall twice; instead he rose ever higher. There is no bat in the entire world as feared as the one he holds. His new home was supposed to tame him. Nothing could. Not the cold weather, not the deep yard, not the wind, not the lineup, certainly not his age. The plane descends, the ballfields disappear from view.

He tucks the magazine back into his bag. It is time to play baseball again and his body knows it. The winter lasts too long.

As he leaves the plane, his phone buzzes. It is a reminder, for when he landed in Arizona, with just one number: 50. This time, he'll do even better again. Fifty times trotting around the bases, the ball long gone from view. Fifty rounds of high fives from the guys in the dugout. Fifty demonstrations of exactly what he has left.

The phone buzzes a second time. A text message.

Listo?

He smiles. At thirty-five, he knows the grind that lays before him. The tired nights, the slumps, the days his beaten body will fight against his will to climb out of bed in Cleveland or Chicago. It is a long season, but even more so, baseball has been his entire life. At thirty-five, who knows how many more campaigns he has. Who knows, maybe this is it. The biggest one. The one. He replies to the message.

Siempre.

He passes a window on his way out the gate. He sees his reflection on the clean glass. He is older now, he can see it in the face. But the smile hasn't left him. In the reflection he sees the doubt and the disbelief. He sees the hair, less now than before, and the wrinkles of a thousand games. But he sees the arms and the legs. The hands, again, those hands that will hold his own piece of thunder. He sees the man with a job to do. He remembers those old, familiar words, spoken in the dugout as his confidence soars.

Stay hot, Nellie.

It is a small window, just large enough to reveal what lies before him.