Darin Ruf spent three years playing baseball in South Korea and he knows not many people back in the United States paid much attention.
“I chose the three uncool years to go play there and now it’s the cool year and I’m back here trying to play again,” the former Phillie said last Wednesday from his home in Omaha, Neb.
It’s cool to play in the KBO this spring simply because that league is having a season despite the global COVID-19 pandemic that shut down Major League Baseball before it even started. During the MLB shutdown, ESPN has televised KBO games this season, but in order to see them live you have to be up in the wee hours of the morning.
“We have a newborn baby girl, so I’m up a lot and I’ll check in on some of my friends,” Ruf said.
The last time we saw Ruf in Philadelphia, his big-league career was on a steep decline. A 20th-round draft pick in 2009 out of Creighton University, Ruf had beaten the odds and powered his way to the big leagues by setting a record at double-A Reading with 38 home runs in 2012. Twenty of those 38 home runs came in August, and after his double-A season ended in early September he joined the Phillies and hit .333 with three more home runs in a dozen games.
“He’s hit everywhere he’s been,” Charlie Manuel, who was in his final full season as Phillies manager, said at the time. “I like what I see out of him as far as the ball jumping off his bat. He’s got power. He’s got power to all fields. He doesn’t mind hitting the ball to the right side of the diamond. I like him.”
Ruf, 25 years old at the time, went to winter ball in Venezuela and hit 10 more home runs in 32 games, giving him a combined 51 for the year to go along with 141 RBIs in 183 games.
Instead of getting a big-league chance the following season, however, Ruf was sent to triple-A Lehigh Valley after the Phillies signed free-agent outfielders Delmon Young and Ben Revere in the offseason.
Ryan Howard’s season-ending knee surgery in July 2013 allowed Ruf to receive his first extended big-league look and he performed pretty well, hitting 14 home runs with an .806 OPS in 73 games. But he was never going to win the job at first base as long as the Phillies were paying Howard $25 million per season, which they did through 2016.
By that point, Ruf was almost 30 and a couple of kids named Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens were the new sluggers at Reading. Ruf did not help himself by batting .158 without a home run through the first six weeks of the 2016 season before being demoted to Lehigh Valley. Some might argue Ruf never got a fair shot with the Phillies. Ruf would not join in that argument.
“I’m extremely grateful for everything that happened with the Phillies,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity to play professional baseball and to move up accordingly based on the way I performed. When I performed well, I was promoted. I definitely could have played better at times, but when you become a bench player, that can be really hard to do and it’s really hard to reestablish yourself as an everyday player. But I had a lot of wonderful coaches who put me in the position I am today.”
In his final season at Lehigh Valley, Ruf attracted the eyes of Asian scouts by hitting .294 with 20 home runs and an .885 OPS. He figured he’d be heading to either Japan or South Korea in 2017, but before he could sign in either country the Phillies traded Ruf and Darnell Sweeney to the Dodgers for Howie Kendrick.
After the Dodgers decided to re-sign Chase Utley and added free agent Franklin Gutierrez, Ruf was released and that opened the door for him to sign a deal with the Samsung Lions in South Korea. That became his baseball home for the next three seasons and it’s a move he is happy he made with his wife, Libby, and son, Henry, who is now 4½ years old.
“My family loved it,” Ruf said. “It took some getting used to at first, but the people were super friendly and we made a lot of friends with people away from the field who were Korean, Americans, and military as well. It’s certainly different. It’s more of a big-city feel wherever you go because of the size of the country and the amount of people. There is a lot of high-rise apartments and a lot of vertical living and mass transportation. But we loved it and I’ll remember it forever.”
One thing that took some getting used to was being so close to the nuclear threat of North Korea under dictator Kim Jong Un. Ruf said that things were particularly tense near the end of his first season and that he was amazed at how calm South Koreans remained through it all.
“It was new to us,” Ruf said. “You’d just look at the people to see how they react to things. They’ve been dealing with it their whole lives, so it was really something to see how calm they were when the tension would mount from time to time. My first year is when the tensions were the highest, but then the lines of communication opened and the second and third year did not seem to be that big of a deal at all.”
In addition to the memories, Ruf also made some good money — more than $1 million per season — and played very well. In his three seasons, he hit .313 with 86 home runs and 350 RBIs.
“I was definitely extremely happy with the way I played there,” Ruf said. “But maybe the most memorable thing was that they let my son throw out the first pitch in my second game. We just saw so many great historical things and we were able to participate in their holidays. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
Ruf said the quality of player in the KBO was all over the map.
“It’s hard to categorize the league as a whole,” he said. “The depth isn’t great. You have some superstars who could hold their own in the major leagues and you have some guys who could hold their own in triple A or double A. But then you also have some guys fresh out of high school who would be in low A or on a short-season team and they end up playing in the KBO. It’s a wide range of players. Each team has two foreign pitchers and a guy or two who could pitch in triple A. But you can also get that low-A guy on a lot of staffs.”
Ruf dominated the KBO and he stayed healthy all three years. That was enough to get him a non-roster invitation to spring training with manager Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco Giants and he was making the most of it. In 14 Cactus League games, he had hit .429 with five doubles, a triple, and three home runs.
“Obviously I was very pleased with how I was playing,” Ruf said. “I had established a routine with the hitting coaches after kind of being my own hitting coach for three years in Korea. It was nice to be able to communicate and talk hitting again and then it translated to the field so quickly. I knew I had to figure things out quickly if I was going to make them have a difficult decision.”
He had done that and was just two weeks away from possibly returning to the big leagues when COVID-19 shut down everything.
“At the time, you obviously don’t realize that you’re not going to play for 2½ months,” Ruf said. “Hopefully things will get rolling again sooner rather than later. I’m hoping what I did in the spring will have a little bit of an influence.”
The shutdown has been a productive one for Ruf. Libby gave birth their daughter, Olive, on March 27.
With a taxi squad that will expand rosters to 50 players and the likelihood of a universal designated hitter, it could help Ruf’s chances to earn a spot with the Giants. Regardless, Ruf still feels he has plenty of baseball left in him even if he has to return to Asia.
“As long as I can keep playing well, I will keep playing,” he said. “I think I can do that as long as I stay healthy. I’d love to play two or three more years. If things did not work out here, I would absolutely take another serious look at playing in Asia.”