SEATTLE -- Baseball has been good to Nelson Cruz. He's living the good life as a Major Leaguer. The Mariners' cleanup hitter, however, has not forgotten the reality of life back home in the Dominican Republic. And Cruz is committed to helping as best he can to make things better for his fellow Dominicans.
It started with a gesture of concern for his neighbors in Las Matas de Santa Cruz five years ago in response to a fire that destroyed the home of one if his lifelong friends. Cruz, with the Rangers at the time, arranged for the purchase of a firetruck that was shipped back home, and he started what is a growing effort to help his countrymen.
"In my community, we didn't have a firetruck," Cruz said. "We also needed an ambulance because we don't have the biggest hospital. When somebody gets sick, or accidents or heart attacks, any emergency, we had to transport those people in trucks or SUVS, nothing that can give you the medical attention you need."
When Cruz first looked into buying the firetruck, there was sticker shock.
"It was $300,000, $250,000," said Cruz, whose salary was $440,000 in 2010, the season before he began the search. "I could not afford that. [The Rangers] helped me contact the fire department in Texas, and they helped me find one. I bought the firetruck, and they donated the ambulances."
The program has grown since Cruz's arrival in Seattle, underscored by a foundation he is creating this year to help improve the situation for firefighters and medical attention. He is also stressing education, particularly for young Dominicans who signed pro contracts at the age of 16 or 17 to pursue the dream that Cruz is living.
"The kids who sign early and leave school and after three years [in pro ball], they go nowhere," said Cruz. "They don't make it to the big leagues or any level where they can make some money. We started talking with the government so we can create an online program for them to earn a diploma.
"We are helping a school here in Seattle, too, at Chief Sealth High School. It's supposed to be one of the poorest schools."
Cruz shook his head. Yes, Chief Sealth International High School -- which has one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse enrollments in Washington -- is underfunded, but it is posh by Dominican standards.
"My high school, we had dirt floors," Cruz said. "We didn't have windows. I remember when they tried to construct the basketball court. It took like eight years."
This isn't a spur-of-the-moment decision by Cruz. He said it's an attitude that was ingrained in him as a child. He parents were both teachers, and his father also became a lawyer.
"My dad was always involved with the community," said Cruz. "He founded a basketball team in my community. He founded the Patronales [a celebration to honor the patron saint of Las Matas].
"My dad always goes to meetings to help the community develop. I learned from him. Now that I have a chance to help people, there is nothing better than to feel I can do something for my country, my community."
In addition to the firetruck and the ambulances, Cruz's initial efforts include providing the people in his hometown with firefighting gear, including uniforms and hoses.
"Last year I talked to the [Seattle] Fire Department and they donated a bunch of equipment," Cruz said. "We spread the equipment all over the state [of Monte Cristi]. We raised money, trying to train guys so they can be firefighters and paramedics.
"In my community, they are voluntary firemen. They don't make any money. We collect money so they at least have food for their family. We help them out, sending their children to school, stuff like that."
In January, Cruz, for the second time, made a donation though Major League Baseball's "Baseball Cares" initiative, purchasing wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and canes for disabled residents near his hometown.
"Without wheelchairs, there are people who don't have any transportation," Cruz said. "We found a way to get a few of those. The first time, we got 12 wheelchairs, and I thought that was enough. But it wasn't even close. So this year, we bought 26 wheelchairs. We also did some clinics, went to schools and talked to the kids there who got good grades."
At the end of each season, Cruz also packs up used bats, balls, gloves and anything else he can find to take back home.
"It's like Christmas," Cruz said. "It's nice to be able to put a smile on a kid because you give him schools or give him a glove. It's the ability to have something special, just to motivate those kids."
Cruz said his reward is the excitement he sees in the people when he returns home in the offseason.
"I think the thing that touched them the most was the ambulance," Cruz said. "People stopped me and were like, 'Thank you very much.' I'm like, 'What did I do?' And they would tell me, 'Because of the ambulance you bought, my dad, my uncle, my nephew, he's alive.'
"That really touched me, saving people's lives. Sometimes you take it for granted in the States. You call 911, and they are going they show up."
In Las Matas de Santa Cruz, it is Cruz who has shown up when the people were in need.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.