EVERY SUCCESSFUL team seems to have one: a player for whom the fans just fall head over heels and who develops a cult following. Unlike the star or stars of the team, this is someone who labors in the shadow of the spotlight, quietly, effectively and - above all - with consistency. With an air of professionalism that never wavers, he is a hard worker, has leadership skills and is poised under pressure. Big hits scream off his bat in clutch situations.
You never hear him complain.
Heck, it seems as if you never even hear him speak.
But one day you wake up and realize that he has won your heart. And that is exactly what Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz has done.
"We know who the superstars are on our team," said John Brazer, the Phillies' director of publicity. "But we have two rock stars. One of them is Charlie Manuel. The fans in spring training just went nuts whenever he came out. And it was the same with 'Chooch.'
"He is a guy that girls want to hug and guys want to high-five."
Why do we love Chooch?
Let us count the ways.
To begin with, there is that endearing nickname: Chooch. Given his compact build - 5-10 and 206 pounds - it fits him perfectly, the way "The Stilt" suited Wilt. "Chooch" sounds like something you would win as a prize at a carnival; in reality, it is believed to come from a Spanish slang word too vulgar to explain even in the Daily News. But there is more to Ruiz than just meets the eye: The quiet Panamanian slipped into Philadelphia as a backup catcher in 2006 and has won the raves of the stellar corps of starting pitchers he handles. Roy Halladay even presented him with a duplicate of his 2010 Cy Young Award. Offensively, he held up the bottom of the batting order and has been even better in October. He has batted .353 in 11 World Series games.
We could go on. But perhaps we should hand it over to the fans.
Ray Kelly, of Yardley, said that e-harmony could not have dialed up a better love affair. "He gets the job done professionally without the fan having to curtsy to his ego," Kelly said. "He brings a sandlot enthusiasm to the field. We love Chooch because he is the great unexpected gift under the tree. He came with no salutations but he performs like a No.1 pick . . . No tease, just solid performance."
Jim Waller, of Runnemede, N.J., called him "Cinderella in shin guards."
"Changed positions [from infielder]. Made himself invaluable [after having signed as an undrafted 18-year-old] not by overwhelming talent but by paying attention, wanting to learn, convincing the big shots they should depend on him. And overcoming a language barrier to boot. [Take that Joey Vento.]"
Mike Hart, of Ridley Park, added that you cannot help but cheer him on. Hart said, "He is like watching your little brother play."
Jill Heim, of Bensalem, said she "would give my left arm to meet him.
"I love him . . . He flies under the radar, comes through in clutch situations and just seems so genuine, real and humble. He is adorable!!!"
Phil Curtain, of Malvern, called him a "no-frills, blue-collar athlete in these days of divas. Chooch carries his lunch bucket to work every day and will hit you over the head with it, too. We love that!!!"
Rob Kirby, of Bordentown, N.J., also used the words "blue collar" to describe Ruiz. "Chooch epitomizes what Phillies fans want from their ballplayers, a quiet, blue-collar kind of guy. He was never blessed with the God-given tools of an everyday catcher, but he has worked very, very hard to become one of the better defensive catchers in baseball . . . He is a hardnosed, get-dirty guy who is not afraid of contact from oncoming baserunners, unlike our former backup Rod 'Ole' Barajas."
So we know what the fans think of Chooch. But what does he think of them?
Because English is still a challenge for him, Chooch, 32, conducted this interview with the Daily News in Spanish and used relief pitcher Danys Baez as his interpreter. While he is able to communicate quite well with the pitcher and his other teammates in English - Manuel says that has never been a problem - Chooch still does not feel at ease enough with the language to use it to address questions he is unsure of. He understood them when asked, but relayed his replies to Baez in Spanish.
"Baseball language is easier," Baez said. "We talk it every day, so we use the same words every day. Like a lawyer uses terminology someone else may not be sure of. But they know it. Obviously, Carlos does not have perfect English, but he is learning more and more. In something like this interview, he just wanted to be sure that he was understood."
So . . . what does he think of becoming such a fan favorite?
He smiled in a way that seemed to say: Cheers sound the same in every language.
And then spoke at length in Spanish.
The answer seemed somewhat shorter.
"He said he loves to play for the Philadelphia Phillies," Baez began. "He loves to play for the city and for the fans. He said he knows the fans appreciate how hard he works and because of that he just keeping trying harder and harder each day . . . He said he has always played that way, that he is just out there to take care of business and give the fans a show."
How have the fans he has encountered away from the park treated him?
Chooch looked at Baez.
Baez relayed the question.
Again, Chooch gave what seemed to be a long answer. The English translation was somewhat shorter.
"The fans treat him with a lot of respect," said Baez. "And it makes him feel very good. Because that means he has played well."
Did his lack of English isolate him from his American teammates in the early days of his pro career?
Baez gave him the question.
Chooch nodded, and replied briefly to it.
"He said it was really hard at the beginning," Baez said. "But he was never afraid to try to talk with any of the American players, and let them know that he wanted to be a part of their country, and a part of their game and one of them. He said he tried to blend in."
Did he find it to be a culture shock?
Baez chose to answer that question himself. "Huge," said Baez, who was born in Cuba. "Panama is a poor country, completely different from America."
That other "rock star" who Brazer mentioned, Charlie Manuel, said that Chooch has just "grown" on everybody - including himself. Manuel said that before Ruiz won the position, he wondered if the young catcher would develop the confidence necessary to be a regular backstop. But Manuel acknowledged that Ruiz has become "very comfortable" running the game. He said that when he walks out to the mound to talk with a pitcher, Chooch will tell him, "We got 'em, Charlie."
The manager laughed. "The fans like him because he has been the guy catching the big games, the no-hitters and the shutouts," Manuel said. "When we won the World Series, who did you see out there? Him and [Brad] Lidge. He can be shy, but he can also be bubbly. He will talk to the fans, sign an autograph and give you that grin."
But do not let that grin fool you. Behind it is a player who, as Carmelo Seminara, of Somerton, said, has "the true grit and determination that this city is known for."
Bill Smith echoed that. "He is one tough hombre," he said. "His personality matches the city."