The white T-shirts were sprawled across the chairs sitting in front of every locker in the Phillies' clubhouse. They read "Vote for Chooch," the words of a promotional campaign to gin up votes for catcher Carlos Ruiz's bid for an All-Star berth. The players were supposed to wear them during batting practice, in a display of camaraderie that was part solidarity, part infomercial.
The reason behind the shirts was simple. It was mid-June and Ruiz trailed in the fans' All-Star voting, despite putting up All-Star worthy numbers, including boasting the best batting average in baseball. Amid an otherwise dismal season, it would be good for Ruiz — and good for the Phillies — if he played in the game.
Yet the subtext to the shirt was even more notable. Carlos Ruiz, an All-Star? During Ruiz's six years in Philadelphia, he's been a fan favorite, a pitchers' favorite, a nice surprise and a clutch performer. But he has never been considered one of baseball's best players. And Ruiz's recent ascension into that category (he was named a reserve for Tuesday's All-Star Game in Kansas City) has less do with a promotional campaign than it does with a long, consistent, steady evolution.
Baseball is a sport that often pins labels on players. There are "can't-miss" prospects and catchers of the future. There are organizational players and career minor-leaguers. There are "4-A" players and "second-division" players. And reputations often follow along those familiar narratives. The most well-known catchers in baseball — the Twins' Joe Mauer, the Giants' Buster Posey — were once among the most heralded prospects in baseball. Ruiz, though, was never a major prospect. He was a reserve catcher before he was a starting catcher. He was a bottom-of-the-order hitter before he was a middle-of-the-order hitter. And now, for the first time in his career, Carlos Ruiz is an All-Star. "Being around the game as long as I've been around, the whole label thing sometimes is sad," says teammate Shane Victorino. "You get labeled as this player and you have to outlive it. And he's outlived it since I've known him in the big leagues, since he became the everyday catcher, and he's just never really gotten recognized."
When Allan Lewis calls Sal Agostinelli about a player, Agostinelli listens. Lewis, nicknamed "The Panamanian Express" during his six-year career in the major leagues in the late 1960s and early '70s, helps scout for the Phillies in his native Panama. Agostinelli is his boss, the Phillies' international scouting director, and he trusts Lewis' judgment implicitly. So Agnostinelli's interest was piqued when, in 1999, Lewis called to say he had this stocky second baseman named Carlos Ruiz who was "the best hitter I have had on my team. Ever."
Agostinelli has a soft spot for guys who can hit, which is why — not long after Lewis' call — he flew to Panama City, took an hour-long cab ride to another airport and took a prop plane to the town of David, where this stocky second baseman lived. The travel was complicated by rain, but Agostinelli eventually made it. "He was in the middle of nowhere," he remembers.
Agostinelli arrived at the field in David on a sweltering day. Once there, he timed Ruiz at 7.08-seconds in the 60-yard dash and watched Ruiz rifle his throws. "I always think if you're athletic and have a good arm, I can make you a catcher," Agostinelli says. Agostinelli once played shortstop and moved to catcher. The way he saw it, he needed to find a position for the bat (even though the Phillies would later value Ruiz's bat less than his glove). By this point in his life, Ruiz had already grown frustrated at his prospects. He was already 18 — two years older than many international prospects who sign — and had tried pitching and playing infield, but could not garner any professional interest.
"They were concerned that I needed to be a little bit taller," Ruiz says. "I was feeling like the opportunity was away from me." He was surprised when Lewis asked him to try catching. The first time he put on equipment, though, it felt natural. "I can remember that moment," Ruiz says.
Because Ruiz was smaller and older than most players from Latin America, signing him would not affect the organization's finances dramatically. The Phillies paid him an $8,000 signing bonus. "The rest is history," Agostinelli says.
Still, nobody — not even Agostinelli — had grand expectations for Ruiz. Agostinelli expected Ruiz to develop into a backup catcher, a defensive-oriented player who would be on the fringes of the big leagues.
Rob Avila used to sit on the bus with Ruiz as they made their way to various minor-league outposts. Avila was an 18th-round pick out of The Master's College in Santa Clarita, Calif., who had already spent two seasons at the Phillies' minor-league levels when he met Ruiz. The two, who were teammates in 2001 and '02 at the Phillies' Class A affiliates in Lakewood, N.J., and Clearwater, Fla., learned each other's languages, and became friends in the process. Avila was an organizational player, a late-round pick who helps fill the minor-league roster with long odds of ever reaching Philadelphia. Ruiz seemed to be destined for the same fate. Avila saw Ruiz's strong arm, and the energy Ruiz brought to a pitching staff, but with his limited offensive production, it seemed unlikely to Avila that he was playing with a future All-Star. Rather, Avila figured Ruiz would be "a guy that the organization keeps around because he's a good guy, plays hard and is good defensively," he says. "Maybe transition to being a coach someday."
Avila never had any question about whether Ruiz could catch in the major leagues. Though he had moved from second base to catcher, Ruiz displayed an athleticism and wherewithal that impressed Agostinelli, an understanding of the game that became evident even as Ruiz was in playing in the bottom rung of the Phillies' system. Avila's questions were focused primarily on durability and offensive ability.
From 2001 to '02, Avila noticed a change. Ruiz was an everyday catcher in Clearwater, and the opportunity of playing regularly instilled a confidence in him that accelerated his development. "When you get that support from the organization, you know they believe in you," Avila says. "That goes a long way for a young player." Plus, Ruiz had something else that helped: a contagious joy for being at the ballpark, an underappreciated quality that can help a player's improvement.
Statistics can be deceiving — especially in the minor leagues — but Ruiz's career arc followed a consistent pattern. At each step in the minor-league progression, Ruiz took some time to adjust to the level of competition. Then, in his second season, he showed marked improvement. It happened in Clearwater, then Double A Reading, then Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
In 2002, he batted .213 with five home runs in 92 games at Clearwater. In 15 games there in 2003, he batted .315 with two homers before finishing the '03 season in Reading, batting .266 with two home runs. He returned to Reading in 2004, and batted .284 with 17 home runs. Ruiz was starting to earn some attention, though he remained outside Baseball America's list of the Phillies' Top 10 prospects. But when he was included in the prestigious Arizona Fall League in 2004, it was an indication of his growing stature in the organization's eyes, and he soon jumped over former third-round pick Russ Jacobson on the depth chart.
Chris Coste met Ruiz on the first day of spring training in 2005. Coste had been a career minor-leaguer, but took pride in arriving to work early. He wanted to be the first one in the clubhouse at 5 a.m. on the first morning. When he walked through the doors and turned down the row of lockers reserved for the players with the highest uniform numbers — otherwise known as the roster hopefuls — Ruiz was already changing into catching equipment.
During that first week of spring training, Coste thought Ruiz was a good player, but he didn't think Ruiz was a surefire major leaguer, let alone a future All-Star. Part of that had to do with how Ruiz acted in the corner of the clubhouse. By the second week, though, Coste's opinion changed. "That personality came out," says Coste, now a Phillies analyst for Comcast SportsNet. The more comfortable Ruiz became, the better he became. He excelled at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre that year, and again in 2006, and continued to climb the organization's depth chart. Ruiz was no longer seen as an organizational player or a career minor-leaguer, but rather a part of the Phillies' future. "No matter if you're a top prospect or not, it's hard as hell to get to the big leagues," veteran catcher Brian Schneider says, "and it's hard as hell to stay."
It's a Friday in the Phillies' clubhouse and Ruiz is talking quietly by his locker. To his left, Jim Thome films a public-service announcement about voting for Ruiz on the All-Star ballot. To his right, Victorino recalls the responses on Twitter he received when he tried to compel people to vote for his teammates. On the lineup card posted near the entrance to the clubhouse, Ruiz is listed as the cleanup hitter.
This is Ruiz's reality now, his sixth full season in Philadelphia. He arrived in 2007 fitting Agostinelli's projection as a backup catcher, expected to back up Rod Barajas. Instead, he became the club's starting catcher . In 2008, he played a pivotal in the team's World Series run. Agostinelli said Ruiz always played best in games, not batting practice. "There are a lot of guys who are 5 o'clock hitters," he says. "I like the 7:05 hitters." That is when the fans take notice, when chants of "Choooooooch!" overtake Citizens Bank Park. Schneider says on a foul ball, he hears the chants before Ruiz even removes his mask.
The phenomenon has been part of the Citizens Bank Park experience for several years now, although the affection had more to do with Ruiz's role as the lovable, plucky underdog than the bona fide All-Star. He was the surprising contributor in the 2008 World Series run, especially in Game 3 against Tampa Bay when he recorded a home run and a walk off single. But the narrative around him has always been that of a player who pitchers loved to work with, who managed his staff and was tough backstop. "When you're a catcher and you can control a pitching staff, go to the playoffs, win the World Series, make it back to the World Series, catch a no-hitter, a perfect game, it's not by coincidence," Schneider says. "It's a great resume. He's not one of the fan favorites for the hell of it."
Yet watching him this season has been an entirely different experience. Take last week's series against the New York Mets. On Tuesday, when the Phillies lost 11-1 in what could be considered their most embarrassing defeat of the season, the offense was held to three hits. Who was responsible for the run? Ruiz. He homered.
On Wednesday, with the club reeling and trying to give Cliff Lee his first victory of the season, the offense came alive in a 9-3 win. Chase Utley tied the game with a two-run homer in the seventh inning. The very next at-bat was Ruiz, who followed with a go-ahead home run. As he circled the bases, the Philadelphia contingent that spent Independence Day in Queens countered New York's boos with the familiar bellow of "Chooooooch." For good measure, Ruiz added another run on a single in the next inning. When Mets manager Terry Collins spoke after the game, there was almost resignation in his voice when it came to Ruiz. "That guy is hitting everybody," he said. Ruiz entered the weekend series with the Braves hitting .357, 81 points higher than his .276 career average. He already has 13 home runs, which eclipses his career high of nine in 2009. And he still has the entire second half of the season. For those in the clubhouse who have spent time around Ruiz, this season's success begets more satisfaction than surprise.
The notion that Ruiz is just now becoming a standout hitter is understandable to manager Charlie Manuel, who first saw Ruiz hit when Manuel joined the organization's front office in 2004. Ruiz was just a minor-leaguer then, and Manuel, a hitting aficionado, thought Ruiz was just "OK," but had the tools improve. Still, Manuel did not expect the results of this season, when the manager said Ruiz is driving the ball in a way he has never seen from his 33-year-old catcher. "Speaks for itself," Manuel says.
Schneider, who at 35 has played in the majors since 2000, says the fraternity of catchers has long appreciated what Ruiz has accomplished in his career. But when they see what Ruiz doing this season, Schneider hopes the more public recognition will follow.
Victorino still sees the same player he played with in Scranton in 2005. He saw the potential then, he says, and is happy to see Ruiz fulfill it this season. The only reason Ruiz hasn't has been a breakout star, hasn't received the attention he probably deserves, Victorino says, is because the improvement has been gradual. In the early stages of Ruiz's major-league career, progress was seen in small, steady increments, not big jumps. And stories aren't usually devoted to players with incremental progress. "The year he's having is well-deserving of all these accolades, but he was good then, throughout the years," Victorino says. "But now with him having an outstanding year, to me what you would consider an MVP year, that's the point that, as a guy who's been around him, it's not any different for me."