Phil Sheridan: Players such as Ruiz bind Philly to Phillies, and vice versa

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz has endeared himself to fans with his work ethic and drive.
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz has endeared himself to fans with his work ethic and drive. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2012

LAKELAND, Fla. - There was just something about Carlos Ruiz. How hard he worked, his long uphill road to the major leagues, that glint in his eye, something.

He was my mom's favorite player, and she asked me about him every time the subject of the Phillies came up - from the first time he caught her eye back in 2007 right up until October. Just a few weeks before the cancer won, we'd all try to fill those dreadful hospital rooms with small talk about the tailspinning Eagles and the playoff-bound Phillies.

"How's my Chooch doing?"

"Doing good, Mom. He had four hits against the Mets the other night."

"Tell him to keep it up."

"Sure, Mom."

It doesn't work that way, of course. Sportswriters don't tell professional athletes to keep it up. But whenever Ruiz had a big game (or, most memorably, while talking to him on the field in the giddy aftermath of Game 5 of the 2008 World Series), Mom would come to mind. She'd have enjoyed those games just a little more, and she watched most of them.

What I learned Friday afternoon, as Ruiz's high fly ball cleared the left field fence at Joker Marchant Stadium, is that she's always going to come to mind when the little catcher does something special. She would have gotten a kick out of the sizeable contingent of Phillies fans chanting "Chooooooooch" as Ruiz rounded the bases for his first home run of the spring.

Mom was hardly alone in her appreciation for Ruiz. She was as Philly as it gets and appreciated the same qualities that have endeared Ruiz to most fans. He fits right into a city that prizes effort over raw talent, selflessness over self-promotion. Ruiz plays the most thankless and arduous position in sports and he's become excellent at it through the sheer will to make himself a big leaguer.

Ruiz is also one of the ever-shrinking group of players who has been with the team throughout this recent era of division titles and October baseball. There is him, there is the infield trio of Rollins, Utley, and Howard. There is Shane Victorino. There are pitchers Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, and Joe Blanton.

That is it: all that remains from the 2008 team. There are plenty of new heroes to cheer for, plenty of new options for fans to admire, but the bond with the '08 players in unbreakable. The reason it's worth sharing Mom's affinity for Ruiz is that it represents one tiny fiber in the thick rope that connects this team to this city.

My mom. Your grandfather. The kid across the street. Every one of the 3.6 million clicks of the turnstile has a story. This is just part of mine.

Ruiz turned a corner this year. At 32, he's now being treated as one of the cherished elders. Manager Charlie Manuel held him out for the first few exhibition games and is working in plenty of days off in the exhibition season. The Panamanian kid who signed for $8,000, who switched from second base to catcher just to have a shot, is now too valuable a member of this championship-chasing team to wear down in spring training.

"I feel great," Ruiz said after catching Roy Halladay for three innings and swatting that three-run homer. "I know it's early. Charlie tried to give me a little rest, but I feel good when I play. He told me that late in the spring training, I'll start to catch a little more. I try to have good at-bats. So far, I feel good and I'm ready to roll."

With Ryan Howard likely to miss a chunk of the season, and with Chase Utley's status murky, Ruiz looms even larger. He conducts the world-class pitching staff like a Dutoit with the baton. He has quietly turned into a solid professional hitter, capable of hitting .300 from his spot near the bottom of the lineup. If this team is going to deliver another title, if it is going to establish itself as one of the all-time great teams, it needs Ruiz to be healthy and productive all season.

"Without those guys in the lineup, we know we have to work on the offense," Ruiz said. "That's big for us. We hope they come back very soon, but we need to pull together, you know? We've got a very good team."

There will be plenty of happy-sad reminders in this first year without Mom. And if the Phillies are playing in October, as they should be, that will give us all something to talk about through the hard anniversaries that month will bring.

For now, the best I can do is let Mom know that Chooch is still doing good. And, just this one time: Hey, Carlos. Keep it up.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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