He signed an $8,000 contract with the Phils as a short, clunky second baseman off the Panamanian sandlots. The longest of long shots.
It took Carlos Ruiz more than eight years to make it to Philadelphia. He climbed every rung of the farm system ladder — dealing with a position change, homesickness and the language barrier. Finally, he arrived in May 2006, a 27-year-old backup catcher who hit .143 in his first 14 games.
Who could have foreseen that Ruiz would become the beloved “Chooch,” a core player on the team that won five straight division titles? That he’d be “Senor Octubre,” with an 1.194 OPS in two World Series? That he’d wind up one of the most beloved athletes in Philadelphia history and, arguably, the top backstop the franchise ever had?
Ruiz is now scuffling with baseball mortality, hitting .115 as a 38-year-old backup. He returns Tuesday, disguised in a Seattle Mariners uniform. For two days, at least, he’ll get one more chance to bask in the adulation at Citizens Bank Park for a fan base that knew him when. Here’s hoping Mariners manager Scott Servais has the decency to let Ruiz play at least once, to one more standing ovation.
For more than four decades, the Phils have largely been blessed with solid catchers. I posted a Twitter poll the other day, giving four options on who was the best, and got 1,442 votes. They broke down: Ruiz (41 percent), Darren Daulton (32), Bob Boone (22), Mike Lieberthal (5).
You could argue most Twitter followers never saw Bob Boone catch, and that there’s a bias based on popularity. But I’m not sure I’d argue with the overall conclusion.
Boone was the top defender of the quartet, winning two Gold Gloves with the Phils and five after he left (he played through age 42). The flaw there is that the best pitcher of the era, Steve Carlton, refused to throw to him, employing Tim McCarver as his personal catcher for a decade. Boone was a so-so hitter, posting a Phils career slash line of .259/.325/.370.
Daulton had the top peak of this quartet, twice finishing in the top seven in MVP voting and leading the NL in RBI in 1992. He was the clubhouse leader of that Macho Row squad whom, as Lieberthal told me Sunday night, “contributed so much to the team winning even if he was hitting .200.”
The issue with Daulton was always health. He only had four seasons of more than 100 games here. Ten knee surgeries stole any chance for long-term greatness.
Leiberthal? Perhaps he’s got the best offensive stats of the quartet. But his 13 seasons here were largely losing years for the franchise, and he wasn’t able to rise above that. One Gold Glove aside, his handling of pitchers was always spotty.
Which leaves Chooch.
Ruiz never had the power of Daulton or Lieberthal, but he hit homers when you needed them — including in both World Series. He was never was a great hitter for average, but drew enough walks to put up a .352 on-base percentage. His throwing arm wasn’t spectacular, but his ability to frame pitches, to save balls in the dirt, to call games and to calm a nervous pitcher was elite. Brad Lidge doesn’t go 48-for-48 in saves in 2008 if Chooch isn’t blocking all those short-hop sliders.
No one appreciated that more than the great Roy Halladay, who honored Ruiz by ordering a replica of his 2010 Cy Young Award made for the catcher. After tossing a no-hitter against the Reds in the NLDS that year, Halladay joked, “I called a great game. I shook off Chooch once.”
Ruiz caught four no-hitters for the Phils, tying him with Jason Varitek for the major league record. They were special moments during a franchise era that boasts hundreds of special moments.
Now it all fades in the rearview mirror. We’ve got only the memories and, rarely, the opportunity to thank those who created them. One of those chances comes with Ruiz’s return this week. Let’s make the most of it.