Nelson Cruz cheated.
Maybe you despise him for it. Maybe you feel like he can never be genuine again, but he doesn't seem to be dwelling in the past. He's been too busy upcycling game balls into memorabilia showpieces. In 56 games with the Orioles, he's hit 21* home runs, driven 55*, and he leads the entire Milky Way in slugging percentage*.
*We can't be sure of that, of course, but based on the knowledge acquired by humanity so far, Major League Baseball is the preeminent baseball league in the galaxy.
Maybe that makes it worse. If he struggled, everyone could simply say "His artificial skill has disappeared with the steroids. If you give in to temptation, you lose. Good and evil are intact as the simple, elementary poles of character."
But he isn't struggling ... and maybe that's a good thing for baseball. It's definitely good for the Orioles, who now have an $8 million MVP candidate on their hands.
There's no question as to whether or not Cruz made a mistake. He knowingly took a banned substance to gain an advantage. If he didn't think it would make him better, he wouldn't have done it. He cheated.
However, he has already served his 50-game suspension and, in addition to the qualifying offer he declined in November, he's paid the price in a literal way as well -- considering the weight his suspension held in the offseason. He'll be under the league microscope for the rest of his career -- and he should be -- but that's what makes his success this season such a psychological riddle. There's virtually no way he's cheating now, and yet he's playing the best baseball if his career -- in spite of what would fit neatly into our fairy tale definition of protectors and reprobates.
The public scrutiny directed at him certainly didn't end with his suspension. Will it ever? Sure, he crossed the line, but what about the guys that go right up to the line without being caught on the other side in broad daylight? What about Pete Rose's Hall of Fame supporters who think Major League Baseball should be more forgiving? Does that apply to PED users?
And at the very least, wouldn't it be appropriate to acknowledge him as one of the best players in the league this season?
It's hard to feel the same way about Jhonny Peralta. He cheated and got a $53 million reward for it from the Cardinals. Nelson Cruz signed a one-year deal worth $8 million, and like Peralta, has already served his suspension, and unless he is still doing steroids and somehow tricking the league into believing he isn't, Cruz is playing an unfamiliar role in the hypnagogic yarn that holds baseball together.
He isn't simply a bad guy. He can't be. He isn't doing anything wrong any more.
Peralta isn't either, but he's not hungrily fighting for another chance at a log-term contract.
Cruz is functioning in the over saturated realm of the anti-hero, but it's more complicated than a good guy doing bad things. He's attempting to rebuild himself after making a mistake. You can relate with that, even if you'd like to forget why.
Nelson Cruz has done his time, and his deal with the O's should be the period at the end of PED sentence she compared with the production he's given the team. He's not riding a chubby contract into the sunset like Peralta. He's not curling up into a ball in the corner in shame. He's moving on ... and hanging serious dong while he does.
He's one of the best outfielders in the American League right now, and he doesn't need to punished again.