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Chico Ruiz's dash for home began the 1964 Phillies' unraveling

Plenty of ballplayers live and die in Florida, so when a Catholic parish in Boynton Beach honored one with a memorial Mass last November, it was hardly noteworthy.

Chico Ruiz stealing home 1964 against Phillies.
Chico Ruiz stealing home 1964 against Phillies.Read more

 Plenty of ballplayers live and die in Florida, so when a Catholic parish in Boynton Beach honored one with a memorial Mass last November, it was hardly noteworthy.

It's doubtful, though, that many St. Thomas More parishioners recognized the name of this player, a utility infielder who died in 1972 and had a lifetime .240 average.

Perhaps only in Philadelphia, where his memory still lingers like a civic nightmare, would the name Chico Ruiz ring a bell.

On Sept. 21, 1964, Ruiz's historic and half-baked steal of home in a 1-0 Cincinnati victory unleashed the dark forces that destroyed the 1964 Phillies and, many would argue, this city's faith in itself.

For generations, all sorts of local sporting misfortunes were blamed on that one play, that one man.

Gradually, thanks to time and two World Series titles, Philadelphia shed the Curse of Chico Ruiz. The curse's namesake would not be so lucky.

Following that night, the speedy Cuban exile's promise was dissipated by years on big-league benches. An ugly clubhouse incident, in which he pulled a gun on an Angels teammate, darkened his sunny reputation. Then tragically, at 33 and seemingly on the brink of redemption, Ruiz was killed.

After 50 years, the summer - and epic fall - of the 1964 Phillies warrants one more look, one distant glance back at Bunning-and-Short, Short-and-Bunning. At Gene Mauch. At Richie Allen, Johnny Callison, and some who long ago drifted into memory's shadows.

And in that tragic story, there is no more crucial figure or intriguing moment than Ruiz and his daffy dash.

As he crept down Connie Mack Stadium's third-base line that chilly night, it seems from the perspective of 2014 that Ruiz must have bargained with the devil, swapping his future for baseball immortality.

"It's sad what happened to him," Marty Keough, his Reds teammate for two seasons, recalled last week. "He was a great guy, a lot of fun, and really fast. It's just all so sad."

Maybe, if he had it to do over, Ruiz would stay at third. With Frank Robinson at bat against Art Mahafffey in the sixth inning of a scoreless game, with two outs and an 0-1 count, it's certainly where he belonged.

Maybe then the Phillies, who after 150 games held a 61/2-game National League lead, would not have lost 10 straight and traumatized a city.

But then, a half-century later, who would still be talking about Chico Ruiz?

The Reds signed 19-year-old Cuban infielder Giraldo Sablon Ruiz in 1959, just before Fidel Castro slammed shut the doors of that baseball-mad island.

A reedy 6-footer who had studied architecture in college, Ruiz had speed as his greatest asset. He won stolen-base crowns in each of his five minor-league seasons. Once, when his pop-up dropped between infielders, he reached third base.

"God gave me speed," the gregarious infielder told Cincinnati writers. "I got to use it."

But by the time the Reds promoted him in 1964, Pete Rose and Leo Cardenas were middle-infield fixtures. He played briefly at third, was returned to the minors, and then in July, to the Phillies' eternal misfortune, was recalled.

The Reds swept those three crucial September games in Philadelphia, the start of the Phillies' fatal 10-losses-in-10-days slide. Ruiz figured prominently in each Reds win.

His infamous sixth-inning steal won the opener. The play's illogic infuriated Gene Mauch, the pugnacious purist who managed the Phils. It likely was no accident when, a night later, reliever Ed Roebuck drilled Ruiz in the ribs.

In the Sept. 23 series finale, the rookie hit the second and last homer of his eight big-league seasons, off Dennis Bennett.

Yet his career went nowhere. After 1964, Ruiz would play in 100 games and top 200 at-bats only once more, in 1967. He would be a versatile but little-used utility man, one valued as much for his lightheartedness as his skills.

"Chico could make anyone laugh," said Ken McMullen, his 1970-71 Angels teammate. "He was a good player, too, but that sense of humor made him really valuable."

Ruiz once collected gum wrappers from dugout floors and shaped them into a gigantic ball. He fitted a pair of alligator shoes with spikes and invariably wore them before nationally televised games.

In 1969, during an unproductive stretch as a starter, Ruiz reportedly walked into manager Dave Bristol's office with a mock demand: "Bench me or trade me!"

A year later, he would be traded - to the California Angels.

"It was a shame, but he really didn't get a chance to play there, either, because we already had a solid infield," said McMullen, 72 and retired in Camarillo, Calif.

By then, Ruiz, who had married in 1961, had two daughters, Barbara and Isa.

"The thing I remember best about my father is that he was always so busy," said Isa Sablon, just 8 when he died. "He gardened, was a Boy Scout leader, sold Amway-like products. All that while he was playing baseball."

Ruiz's career ended in 1971, not long after an ugly clubhouse incident involving Angels teammate Alex Johnson, a figure who shows up with eerie regularity in his story.

The night Ruiz stole home, Johnson, a reserve outfielder, was on the Phillies bench. They would be teammates in Cincinnati, after Johnson was traded there in 1968. Both were dealt to the Angels in 1969.

Though one was fun-loving and the other sullen and quixotic, the two became close friends. Johnson even asked Ruiz to be his daughter's godfather.

But in September 1970, they engaged in a shouting match during batting practice, one the Los Angeles Times reported "started when Johnson lashed into Ruiz with a string of obscenities."

The feud stretched into 1971, when, on June 13, Johnson told reporters Ruiz had threatened him with a .38-caliber pistol.

"He's crazy," Johnson said.

Both Ruiz and the Angels initially denied the charge. But later, GM Dick Walsh conceded it had occurred.

"I was growing tired of his constant badgering," Ruiz told the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. "I only wanted to let him know that I was serious when I asked him to stop."

Isa Sablon said her father and Johnson both regretted the confrontation.

"Alex Johnson even came to his funeral," she said.

Ruiz's last big-league appearance came as a pinch-runner on Aug. 3, 1971. The Angels then demoted him to triple-A Salt Lake City. His comments at the time now seem strangely prophetic.

"Baseball is like a war," he said. "You have to fight to survive. I didn't get a chance to fight, so now I die."

His last offseason started well. In January he became a U.S. citizen, and the Kansas City Royals acquired him.

"Chico was going to be a backup man in our infield," Royals GM Cedric Tallis said in 1972. "I'm sure he would have made the big-league club."

But the curse was too powerful to permit that.

On Feb. 8, 1972, according to Sablon, Ruiz rose early; did some yard work at their home in Rancho Penasquitos, near San Diego; had some lunch; and left for a ball game.

Rory Costello, a Society of American Baseball Research member who has studied Ruiz's life and career extensively, said Ruiz was playing for the Padres, who needed an extra body that night for a pre-spring training exhibition against a San Diego-area junior college.

Roger Craig, then a Padres coach, had phoned Ruiz and asked him to participate. In his final game, he went 0 for 4.

"My father had gotten up very early that day, and he was extremely tired by the time the game was over," Sablon said.

Sometime after midnight, according to his daughter, Ruiz fell asleep at the wheel of his car. Police estimated he was traveling between 70 and 80 m.p.h. when the vehicle rammed a signpost on Interstate 15. An ambulance rushed him to Palomar Hospital, where, at 33, he was pronounced dead.

"He was so close to home, just a mile or so," said Sablon, 50, a Delray Beach, Fla., resident. "But people say that's where most accidents happen."

Last Nov. 30, a Sunday close to his Dec. 5 birthday, Sablon had a Mass said in her father's honor.

"They announced his name," she said, "but there really weren't many people who remembered him."

And those who did recalled only 90 feet of his short life's journey.

"At the end of Mass, there was a snowbird from Philadelphia who heard the name and came up to me," Sablon said. "He said, 'Chico Ruiz was your father? Have I got a story for you.' "