Scott Ruffcorn had not yet allowed a hit when Terry Francona walked to the mound at Turner Field in June 1997. Francona, then the Phillies manager, told Ruffcorn he had never done this before, but he was removing the pitcher in the sixth inning of a no-hitter.
In the span of three batters, Ruffcorn walked one, hit another, and threw a wild pitch. It no longer felt like a no-hitter, Ruffcorn said after the game. And it no longer felt like a win.
Six years earlier, he was a first-round pick pegged to pitch at the front of the Chicago White Sox’ starting rotation. But he started just one more game after that night in Atlanta, which was the closest he came to earning a major-league win.
Ruffcorn’s major-league career ended six weeks later after he appeared in his 30th game. Ruffcorn, then 27, left the majors without ever tasting victory.
The right-handed pitcher was dominant at triple A yet struggled in parts of five big-league seasons. Ruffcorn looked like a major-leaguer, 6-foot-4 with a powerful fastball. It just didn’t work out. He spent the next two seasons in triple A and latched on with an independent-league squad. But the major leagues, and that first victory, proved elusive.
He had a 3.42 ERA in the minors and an 8.57 ERA with an 0-8 record in the majors. Baseball, as Ruffcorn knows, can be maddening. And perhaps that made a night like Monday even more special.
The Phillies, the team with which Ruffcorn ended his big league career nearly 24 years ago, selected his son, Jason, Monday in the eighth round of the MLB draft. The younger Ruffcorn was one of college baseball’s premier relievers at the University of Oklahoma, where he struck out 74 in 54 innings this season.
Once a starting pitcher, Jason Ruffcorn immersed himself in the art of relief pitching. Coming in for a save, he said, is exhilarating. And a 99-mph fastball is a good weapon.
Ruffcorn’s big-league dream will begin in the same organization in which his father’s career ended.
“I keep telling him that my hope and wish for him is to surpass me,” Scott Ruffcorn said. “I don’t have any wins. I just have time there. I never even had the chance at a save. If he can just put those in his book, that would be outstanding.”
Jason Ruffcorn entered college with a 90-mph fastball after undergoing Tommy John surgery in high school. He soon powered his fastball to 95 mph, but it wasn’t until last summer, when the college season was canceled because of the pandemic, that his fastball neared triple digits.
Ruffcorn, while quarantining at home in Texas, worked with his father to study the mechanics of his delivery. They used an app on his dad’s iPad to break down a video of his throwing motion, analyzing it frame by frame. Ruffcorn reworked his delivery, changed his diet, and added 15 pounds of muscle.
“Quarantine stunk for baseball and everything, but it gave me a chance to learn about what I wanted to do and my mentality with pitching,” Jason Ruffcorn said.
A 95-mph fastball is strong, but a 99-mph fastball is special. Ruffcorn touched 99 in March when he closed out a win against top-ranked Arkansas. He took a deep breath, looked at the scoreboard’s radar gun, and enjoyed seeing the results of his quarantine work.
“And, of course, the first thing you do after that is call your dad and say, ‘Ha. Now I throw harder than you,’” said Scott Ruffcorn, who threw 95 mph and now coaches high school baseball in Texas.
Jason Ruffcorn had a 4.00 ERA this season over 21 appearances, three of which came as a starter after Oklahoma needed him in the rotation.
He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball along with a slider and changeup. Over the last two seasons, he struck out 12.5 batters and walked just 2.6 per nine innings. He has the makeup to pitch in the back of a major-league bullpen.
“There’s nothing that beats that in my opinion,” Jason Ruffcorn said of relieving.
Ruffcorn did not know when he would be selected in the draft as it can be hard to predict where college seniors land. And then he saw his name flash across the screen Monday. The Phillies made him the No. 235 pick.
He is set to fly this week to Philadelphia and sign his professional contract.
“It’s almost like he’s taking off where mine ended,” Scott Ruffcorn said.
Ruffcorn will then travel to Clearwater, Fla., where he’ll receive his minor-league assignment. His climb toward the big leagues, the journey his father completed three decades ago, will soon begin.
Along the way, he’ll cling to his father’s advice. Remain confident, his dad told him, even when you don’t feel good. Every time you step on the mound, Scott Ruffcorn stressed to his son, tell yourself that you’re the most confident person in the world.
“It was really nice to always be able to pick and pull from him,” Jason Ruffcorn said. “If I ever needed advice or had any questions, it was easy to just call him or text him. Even on the way home from the game, we’d go over things like, ‘Why did that happen?’ or ‘Why did you do this?’ It was all the little things.”
And if Ruffcorn’s path leads to the major leagues, he can try to get a win for his dad. After all, his father would have helped him get there.
“It would be unbelievable,” Scott Ruffcorn said. “The goal for any parent is that your child does well and betters his life and betters his family. If he can hold that over my head and say, ‘Hey, I have a win in the big leagues, and you never did,’ I’ll wear that all day long.
“I can promise you I’ll be there at spring training to see him, and I’ll visit him wherever he’s assigned. I’m just really, really excited for him.”