Carlos Ruiz’s experience, and wisdom, were as much of a lure for the Mariners at this stage of his career as his catching ability.
PEORIA, Ariz. – Carlos Ruiz can often be seen sitting stoically at his locker, soaking it all in. And at age 38, Ruiz has one of those etched, character-infused faces that serve notice he’s seen it all.
Ruiz’s experience, and wisdom, were as much of a lure for the Mariners at this stage of his career as his catching ability, though they are convinced that he still has the goods to catch 60 or more games a year. With a young starter like Mike Zunino, prone to slumps and still learning the craft, they see Ruiz as part-mentor, part-insurance policy.
It’s a role he embraces. Ruiz had his decade as the spiritual leader of a special Phillies team, one that made it to two World Series and won one of them, with Ruiz hitting a combined .353. He cajoled the best out of one of the very best rotations of its time, at one point featuring an abundance of aces in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. He made an All-Star team and caught four no-hitters, including Halladay’s perfect game in 2010, which Ruiz marked by the birth of his second son exactly nine months later, to the day.
It took a while, Ruiz says, to reconcile the fact that he was no longer an everyday player. But after getting phased out in Philadelphia, traded last August to the Dodgers, and dealt again to the Mariners in November for reliever Vidal Nuno, he has come to terms with it.
“At first, it got to me a little bit, but now I understand my position,’’ he said. “I’m going to prepare to play, and on the days I don’t play, I’m going to cheer for my teammates and try to help from the bench. We have to do it together.”
Ruiz’s big-league time, and especially his World Series ring, gives him “instant credibility” in the clubhouse, Mariners manager Scott Servais said. Servais loves the fact that he often sees Ruiz and Zunino engaged in conversation. He loves even more that it’s not always Ruiz, known to one and all as Chooch, doing the instructing.
“That’s the great thing about Chooch,’’ Servais said. “He knows he still wants to get better in certain areas well. One of them is his pitch framing, and Zunino is one of the better ones in the league. I see them talking all the time. I see him asking Zunino questions. How can he still get better? That’s what you have to do as a player. The makeup and everything he brings, it’s really going to be a nice fit.”
In a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2011, author Gary Smith detailed Ruiz’s traumatic childhood. Ruiz was just 7 when his father, Joaquin, a police sergeant in Panama, died when his police Jeep flipped after blowing a tire. It landed on top of Joaquin Ruiz and crushed him. Young Carlos began working as a day laborer on a coffee farm to help his mom, an elementary school teacher, and at age 10 promised her he would become a professional ballplayer to help the family.
Against all odds, Ruiz fulfilled that vow. He was signed for $8,000 by the Phillies in 1998 — as a middle infielder. He was making little traction in the Dominican Summer League until the Phillies’ minor-league catching coordinator, Mick Billmeyer, suggested Ruiz switch to catcher, a position more conducive to his 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame.
It was instant karma.
“As soon as I put on the gear, I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I really like this,’ ” Ruiz recalled.
It took him eight years in the minors before he finally stuck with the Phillies in 2007, but once he did, Ruiz quickly became a mainstay of a team that won five straight division titles. Ruiz’s offense was at times stellar — his .325 average led the team in 2012 — but it was his empathetic relationship with his pitchers that made him so beloved among the staff. Halladay gave him an exact replica of his 2010 Cy Young Award in appreciation.
“When I am catching,” Ruiz told Smith, “it is not two people out there — a pitcher and a catcher. It is one person. It is my fault if something goes wrong. Whatever is happening to him is happening to me. One person. That means I am a different man with each pitcher.”
Another Choochism from the SI article: “It’s the catcher’s job to bring energy and happiness to the game.”
Ruiz will try to convey that mindset, and especially that verve, to Zunino, who is an eager recipient of the veteran’s knowledge.
“First, he’s a friendly kid, a real good person,’’ Ruiz said of Zunino. “I’ll try to give him the information I learned during my career and help as much as I can. He’s young, but you can see the leadership he has.”
Ruiz said he is emphasizing to Zunino the need to separate whatever offensive struggles he might have from his defensive responsibilities.
“We, as catchers, have control of the game,’’ he said. “All the people are in front of you. You’re going to have some games you don’t get a hit, but we win, so you did your job. The hitting it going to come soon. Our job is behind home plate.”
The one blemish on Ruiz’s career was a 25-game suspension at the start of the 2013 season after testing positive, twice, for the amphetamine Adderall. He tearfully apologized, and later reportedly received a therapeutic exemption from MLB the following season allowing him to legally take Adderall.
The Mariners, meanwhile, believe they will benefit greatly from all of Ruiz’s experiences, the tribulations and the triumphs. He and another veteran newcomer, Yovani Gallardo, picked up the tab at a recent team dinner, and Servais said players are riveted by Ruiz’s quiet pearls of wisdom.
“Everybody has to do it within their own personality, and if you’ve been around him, it’s a very reserved, like, ‘I’ve been through the wars’ type,’’ Servais said. “Nothing’s going to faze him. So I do think when he speaks, it’s heard. It’s very loud. Even though it’s not loud coming out, guys are really in tune.”
And Ruiz has been equally in tune with his new teammates.
“It already feels like family,’’ he said. “They made me feel welcome from the first day. I can feel the passion and love they show me. I know how important it is to stay together like a family. That’s what you need when you want to win.”
A little energy and happiness doesn’t hurt, either.
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