By Tommy Birch, Des Moines Register
A few hours before the Iowa Cubs play the Indianapolis Indians on April 28, outfielder Narciso Crook stands at home plate and wallops a batting practice pitch thrown by pitching coach Ron Villone. Crook crushes the ball so hard — tracked at 111 mph off the bat — that it flies over the leftfield wall at Principal Park and into the parking lot.
“Think that hit my car,” Iowa outfielder Greg Deichmann jokes.
The way Crook remembers it, he’s been hitting home runs like this for a long time.
The 26-year-old didn’t start playing baseball until he was 11. But as soon as Crook picked up a bat, he started smashing homers. The early success helped him develop a love of the game. And it may have ultimately saved his life.
“If it wasn’t for baseball, I don’t know where he’d be,” his sister, Estefany Crook Garcia, told the Des Moines Register.
Baseball kept Crook safe from the streets of his neighborhood growing up. It kept him away from troubles that could have come with living in one of the most dangerous capital cities in the United States. And, now, it has given him a platform to hopefully make a difference to anyone that comes to see him play.
“I love baseball,” Crook said. “I love what I do. I believe in myself. I believe that I’m a Major League Baseball player.”
Narciso Crook moves to the U.S. and discovers baseball
Crook believes his athleticism developed while living in his home country, the Dominican Republic. When Crook was around 7, he began working on a farm about an hour from where his family lived. His mom dropped him off every Friday and picked him up on Sunday. Crook picked up coconuts and fruits, and he helped herd cattle.
“I think I got, like, farmer’s strength,” Crook said.
Crook and his sisters moved to the U.S. when he was 11 to be with their mother, who had already gone there to look for better opportunities. It wasn’t easy to find.
They got a home in a rough and poverty-stricken part of Trenton, New Jersey. The city ranked earlier this year among the worst state capitals to live in, according to WalletHub, which took into account things like living standards, affordability and economic strength.
Crook and his sisters saw fights, gangs and drug dealers. It could have been easy to get wrapped in it all, especially for someone as young as Crook, who had no friends and didn’t speak any English when he moved to the U.S.
“It was not a nice area,” Crook Garcia said.
Their stepfather at the time, Al Darby, a former tight end in the NFL, tried to keep Crook away from trouble. He thought sports was the perfect way. When Crook was 11, Darby took him to a football tryout. Crook was scared off by the hard hits. He tried basketball, but he said no one would pass him the ball because he didn’t speak English. Then he tried baseball.
His cousin, who was already involved in Little League, told Crook he should give it a try. Crook was a natural with his athleticism and strength. He not only hit baseballs but clobbered them at a rare rate. During his first season, Crook said he hit around 20 homers in 20 games. He became hooked. And just like Darby hoped, it kept him out of trouble.
“Baseball was definitely, from the jump, something that I was good at and enjoyed,” Crook said.
It helped Crook fit in and make friends. He also stayed busy when he wasn’t on the field. Crook learned English on his own by listening to music by Eminem, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne and became fluent by 14.
And he kept hitting homers and becoming a star on the baseball field.
Crook attended Rowan College of South Jersey and was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 23rd round of the 2013 MLB Draft. He signed for $100,000. He spent eight years in the minors with the Reds and then signed a minor league deal with the Cubs before the 2022 season.
“Baseball really was a way for him to make sure he stayed focused,” Crook Garcia said. “Once he was out on the field and actually realized that he loved what he was doing, he didn’t care for anything else.”
Narciso Crook trades autographs for acts of kindness
During spring training, Crook started doing something unique.
When he stopped to sign autographs for kids, he’d make them a deal. Crook would sign for them but he wanted them to agree to do one nice thing for someone else in the next two weeks. Anything. It just has to be something.
“Make a good deed,” Crook said. “Change somebody’s life. Do something positive in your community. And that’s it.”
Crook said one parent of a kid he signed for reached out to him on Facebook to tell him his son carried out his one kind act. The parent wrote they planned to come back to another game and make another deal with Crook.
“He’s great with the fans,” Iowa manager Marty Pevey said.
During Iowa’s road trip to Louisville earlier in the season, fans flocked to the Iowa dugout to visit Crook, who used to play for the team. It’s no surprise. He’s just got that type of infectious personality, said Brennen Davis, the top-ranked prospect in the Cubs’ organization, according to MLB Pipeline. Crook has become a mentor to players on Iowa’s young roster, including Davis.
“His demeanor and the person and the man he is, is really impressive,” Davis said. “Everybody wants to be around a guy like that.”
That positive impact he can have on people is part of the reason why Crook has kept grinding in the minors all these years, despite never making it to the big leagues. He knows that, even in the minors, he still has a big platform. Plus, he loves the game that’s given him so much over the years.
“The people that I get to touch and the changes that I get to make to the community,” Crook said, “that’s huge for me.”
Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.