Darin Ruf continues a Phillies left-field tradition

Darin Ruf has had a tough time making the transition from first base to left field.
Darin Ruf has had a tough time making the transition from first base to left field. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 04, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Maybe everyone is looking at this Darin Ruf outfield experiment all wrong.

The lifelong first baseman is trying to play left field to improve his chances of making the major-league roster. Ruf has looked a bit rough out there, no doubt about it. He misplayed a routine base hit into a three-base gift on Thursday.

On Friday, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel penciled him into the lineup as a designated hitter, just to get Ruf some at-bats without the distraction of playing the field.

"I think playing left field might have something to do with the way he's thinking at the plate," Manuel said. "If he starts hitting, then his outfield play might get better. I figured he'd have some problems in the outfield. He's absolutely never played there."

Of course, there will be no DH once the Phillies get to the regular season (except when they play in American League parks). Ruf either makes the team as an outfielder or goes back to the minor leagues.

It is a classic baseball conundrum, except it shouldn't be. These are the Phillies, after all.

Look at the best teams in franchise history. Then look at their leftfielders.

The 1980 World Series champions had Greg Luzinski in left. He was called "The Bull" because of his power. They might have added "In a China Shop" when describing his defensive prowess.

It was Luzinski's defense that started things rolling off the rails in the infamous "Black Friday" meltdown in the 1977 playoffs. That era also saw the legendary Lonnie Smith playing the corner outfield spots. They didn't call him "Skates" because he glided so smoothly.

The '93 team? Pete Incaviglia platooned with Milt Thompson. One of them played pretty good defense.

2008? Pat Burrell was an average fielder, at best, for most of his career. By '08, his legs battered by injuries, he was about as mobile as the Liberty Bell. His fielding skills at the end can best be summed up this way: Raul Ibanez represented an upgrade.

Burrell earned another ring in 2010 as a leftfielder in San Francisco. In the last 10 years, Manny Ramirez has misplayed left for two championship teams. Jeff Conine was 37 for the 2003 Marlins. Matt Holliday looked 37 for the 2011 Cardinals.

Wobbly leftfielders are a grand Phillies tradition that goes all the way back to the Whiz Kids in 1950. Back then, they did things the other way around. After committing 29 errors at first base over two seasons, Dick Sisler was moved to left field to minimize the damage. He made the all-star team.

More recently, the Phillies tried to move another young power hitter from first base, where he was blocked by a veteran, to left field. After just a few appearances in minor-league games, that experiment was scrapped.

"He isn't getting anywhere," said the first-year manager, Charlie Manuel.

That was eight years ago. Eight months later, Ryan Howard was accepting the National League rookie of the year award. A year after that, he was the MVP.

"I remember I went over and saw him play," said the ninth-year manager, Manuel. "I was over on a minor-league field to watch him play the outfield and" - here, Manuel scrunched up his face and made a guttural sound - "I didn't think it was going to work. When I saw him run out there, I thought no. He's a first baseman all the way."

Ruf is 25, the same age Howard was when he auditioned in left. Howard is now 33, a year younger than Jim Thome was in 2005. Although the situations are similar, Ruf is not likely to follow Howard's exact path.

Howard started the 2005 season in triple A. When Thome was injured, the Phillies brought him up. He immediately started swatting home runs, and when Thome had season-ending elbow surgery in August, the transition was complete. Thome was traded in November.

Howard isn't going anywhere. If he's playing well, he's too valuable. If he isn't, or if he's injured, then his $25 million annual salary is too big to move.

The point is, you never know what's going to happen. If Ruf hits the way he did last year, he will find his way to the majors. If it's at first, he probably won't displace Howard as the best first baseman in franchise history.

If not, well, he certainly won't be the worst leftfielder.

Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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