This story is part of a series in the December 23, 2012 edition of SportsWeek honoring the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year. Carlos Ruiz finished fourth in the award voting. You can also read about award winner Mike Trout and the other runners-up: Bill O'Brien, Carli Lloyd and Claude Giroux.
Two summers ago, Carlos Ruiz didn't want to talk to reporters following a weeknight game at Wrigley Field.
It was uncharacteristic for the affable catcher. But it came on a night when his battery mate, pitcher Roy Halladay, made an early exit amid a suffocating heat and humidity that engulfed Chicago that night.
Ruiz likely felt as if he'd let Halladay down.
It was a small moment that could easily have been forgotten. But it was also a peek into Ruiz the Phillie: The man they affectionately call "Chooch" has always put his pitchers first.
In a lost 2012 season in which Halladay missed nearly 2 months and middle-of-the-order cogs Chase Utley and Ryan Howard also were sidelined with injuries, Ruiz emerged from his longtime role as trusted sidekick and popular teammate to star as the leading man last summer at Citizens Bank Park.
Ruiz, 33, carried the Phils injury-ravaged lineup and continued to be the underrated piece in the team's vaunted pitching staff, enjoying a career year in 2012.
Not bad for a kid from Panama whom the Phillies originally signed as a 19-year-old infielder for a paltry $8,000.
"I'm proud of him in a lot of ways with how he's adjusted, and how's he's become the player he's become," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.
A first-time All-Star in 2012, Ruiz was in the running for the National League batting title before suffering a left foot injury in July. He was limited to only 20 games after July.
But despite missing a decent chunk of the second half, Ruiz still finished with career highs in hitting (.325), OPS (.935), home runs (16) and RBI (68). Before 2012, Ruiz had never hit more than nine home runs in a season.
He was also a finalist for the NL's Rawlings Gold Glove.
"You can tell he takes a lot of pride in what he does behind the plate," San Francisco Giants catcher and NL MVP Buster Posey said at the All-Star Game in July. "And, gosh, the way he's swung the bat this year, it's been fun to watch. I feel like he's always had a knack to come up with the big hit in the right situation, but he's doing it from the first inning on, it seems like this year."
Ruiz's breakout year ended with an unfortunate wrinkle: Eight weeks after the season ended, Ruiz received a 25-game suspension without pay after testing positive for an amphetamine in violation of Major League Baseball's drug program. Ruiz tested positive for Adderall, a drug commonly used for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; it is listed as a banned stimulant, not a steroid, in MLB policy.
"What's happened as far the suspension is concerned is kind a blip on the action, it's not typical with what he's about," Amaro said. "Unfortunately, he's going through with the choice he made."
When Ruiz sits out the first 25 games of the 2013 season, the Phils will surely miss his bat in the middle of the lineup, his revered game-calling behind the plate and his infectious, upbeat personality in the dugout.
"From his development as a winning catcher, as a guy you can count on, day in and day out, his progression has been great," Amaro said of Ruiz' rise as a big leaguer. "And particularly, it was obvious he's made strides defensively, but clearly offensively he had a special year. I don't know if we can expect that same production, but he's learned himself, he's learned the league and he's become a much more intelligent hitter. I think that's going to bode well for him in the future."
Ruiz can become a free agent after the 2013 season.