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The art of being Chooch

Now 36, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz is comfortable in the role of mentor and cherished teammate.

Carlos Ruiz. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Carlos Ruiz. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It's easy for a player to do his own thing or go about his business unnoticed inside the vast home clubhouse in Bright House Field. A player can return from the field, the indoor batting cages, or the showers and never talk to anyone else on his way to and from his locker stall.

Carlos Ruiz, however, is not that kind of person.

Ruiz is often the guy seated in a group of three or four players, holding court. Whether it's prepping for that day's game, telling stories, or just general conversation, the veteran catcher is often in the middle of it all, eager to listen and talk, too.

"When I [first] made it to the big leagues, [Mike] Lieberthal was here and he was great," Ruiz said yesterday morning, before the Phillies-Rays game. "He was a guy I went to a lot to talk about how you do this, how you do that. You just try to get information from everybody. I'd sit down with Bobby Abreu, too, and you could ask anything you want, and however you want to learn."

Ruiz is 9 years removed from being the rookie from Panama learning English on the fly and hoping to make the most of his ticket to the major leagues.

One All-Star Game, two World Series and five consecutive playoffs trips later, Ruiz is one of four players who remain from the 2008 World Series championship Phillies team. In a season of transition, with the front office committed to a rebuild and some veterans eager to find new teams to play for, he's finding himself in the same position as the players who helped him along the way in 2006.

Ruiz realizes there will be more younger, unproven players on the roster than in years past - players who may take his job one day - and he's attempting to pay it forward.

"I believe you help make them comfortable and they're going to show what they've got," Ruiz said. "That's one key, I always try to, and Chase [Utley], Howie [Ryan Howard], too, that way you talk to these guys in different ways and do [your] part. I know there's some new guys and you try to make them feel relaxed. And that way you can help out."

Ruiz, 36, has always been a favorite among teammates. From Roy Halladay to Brad Lidge, he's always been lauded for his diligent work with the team's pitching staff, too.

"Throwing to Chooch was a blast," David Buchanan said, unprompted, after working with Ruiz in yesterday's game. "I wasn't even worried about what the hitter was doing, I was just worried about executing what pitch he put down. He made it fun. He was challenging me. And it takes all of the thoughts in your head, it takes those away."

With an uncertain starting pitching staff behind Cole Hamels - and a young bullpen behind Jonathan Papelbon - Ruiz's role will be crucial in 2015. He could potentially help bridge the gap from Hamels and Cliff Lee to Jesse Biddle and Aaron Nola.

"It's like having a second pitcher out there," Buchanan said. "Experience in the game is experience in the game - you can't replace that with anything. Chooch is one of the best. It's a lot of fun pitching to him."

Ruiz, in the second year of a 3-year, $26 million contract, is set to make his 900th appearance behind the plate as a major league catcher on Opening Day.

In preparation for April 6 and the grueling 6-month schedule that follows for the veteran catcher, manager Ryne Sandberg has eased Ruiz into action. Yesterday marked just the fifth time Ruiz has started behind the plate in 16 games this spring (he's also started three games as a designated hitter).

Following today's scheduled day off for the entire team, Sandberg plans to work Ruiz into more regular catching time. It's not dissimilar from last spring, when Ruiz caught in just eight of the first 16 games.

In the previous five springs, Ruiz has averaged 16 games during Grapefruit League play. He can certainly reach that number with 15 more games on the docket before camp breaks.

"I feel great," said Ruiz, who had minor arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder after last season. "Whatever they want to do to keep me fresh for when the season starts. . . . I feel good about it. My body feels great. I'm 36, but I feel strong."

Ruiz went 1-for-3 yesterday, collecting one of the Phillies' five hits and catching seven innings. He's hitting .125 (3-for-24) in eight games this spring.

When the Grapefruit League season gives way to the regular season, Ruiz could find himself right where he was yesterday, hitting fifth behind Howard. Or Ruiz, who has hit .286 with a .368 OBP in the last five seasons, could be an option to hit second, in between Ben Revere and Utley.

After both Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd were traded this winter, Ruiz is one of the few righthanded options in Sandberg's regular lineup.

Like other veterans still in camp, Ruiz couldn't help but wonder if he would find himself like Rollins, adjusting to life with a new team after spending his entire career with the Phillies. He admitted talking to his agent about the possibility of being traded this winter, but said he doesn't waste too much time worrying about the business side of the game.

"I don't try to think too much about that," Ruiz said. "I just tried to work in the offseason to try to get ready to be here and do my best. You never know. Now I'm wearing a Phillies uniform. Who knows about tomorrow. A lot of things can happen. But myself, I hope I can stay here and finish my career here. I just to try to play hard, and to help the team."