'Chooch-tober' taking center stage in Philly
Phillies' Ruiz quietly making presence felt in October
PHILADELPHIA -- As legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas proclaimed "The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 world champions of baseball," Brad Lidge fell to his knees and seconds later found himself engulfed by the embrace of Carlos Ruiz, whose playoff success has led fans in Philadelphia to begin referring to the calendar year's 10th month as Chooch-tober.
Nicknamed Chooch by his Phillies teammates, Ruiz has successfully filled the role of unsuspecting hero during the two most recent Octobers. While playing in the cinematic home of Rocky Balboa, the Phillies catcher has established himself as the underdog that fans cheer and a favorite teammate who has matured into one of the quiet leaders of a Philadelphia clubhouse filled with superstars.
"Chooch, he's loose," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He likes for you to kid and play with him some and things like that. But at the same time, he's very serious. And he's grown into gaining [the] respect of our pitchers and our team."
At the meager cost of just $8,000 in 1998, the Phillies signed the 18-year-old second baseman from Panama. Over the course of the next 11 years, they saw their youngster persevere through the Minors and develop into a legitimate Major League catcher, who has drawn the respect of Joe Torre, who was an All-Star catcher long before he became a Hall of Fame-caliber manager.
"He's that guy that seems to be that pain in the neck, or some other part of your body," said Torre, whose Dodgers have seen Ruiz hit .385 and produce a .500 on-base percentage against them during each of the past two National League Championship Series.
This same kid from Panama, who was once projected to be nothing more than a backup at the Major League level, has managed to find himself amid the spotlight during each of the first two known Choochtobers. In Game 1 of this year's NLCS, the 30-year-old catcher erased a 1-0, fifth-inning deficit with a three-run homer of Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
Then while penning the latest chapter of his October success story during Monday night's thrilling 5-4 victory over the Dodgers, Ruiz set his bat aside and proved that his determined legs were strong enough to allow him to race from first base and slide across the plate with the winning run on Jimmy Rollins' two-out, two-run double.
With this victory, the Phillies gained a 3-1 advantage in this best-of-seven series and placed themselves one win away from providing Ruiz the opportunity to prolong his playoff success through the postseason's ultimate round.
"I try to basically enjoy the game," Ruiz said. "I relax so well, and I basically want to get the team my portion of the whole pie. So basically I just like to be part of the whole thing, and I relax well."
Having overcome the odds that he faced throughout a significant portion of his Minor League career, Ruiz may not fully understand that he's supposed to be stressed amid playoff pressure.
The .308 batting average that Ruiz has compiled through his first 25 career postseason games certainly wasn't envisioned when he combined to hit .250 with 14 homers through his first four professional seasons.
"It was just a matter of him getting his opportunity to prove what he could do," said Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino, who played with Ruiz at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre in 2005.
Opportunity presented itself during the 2004 season, when Russ Jacobsen, a third-round selection in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, continued to struggle. This opened the door for Ruiz to take advantage of the chance to be Double-A Reading's regular catcher. In the process, he hit .284 with 17 homers and provided indication that he was starting to understand what it took to be a successful catcher.
"I basically concentrated really well on adjusting to that position and working hard at it and dedicated myself to be the best that I can be at that position," said Ruiz, who has attempted to mold his game after that of Pudge Rodriguez.
Even after his success in 2008, Ruiz went to Triple-A the following year and found current D-backs manager A.J. Hinch spending more time than him behind the plate. But while hitting .318 over his final 78 games that season, the man who would soon be recognized as "Chooch" gave the Phillies reason to at least give him a chance to play 27 games in the Majors the following year.
"The one thing about Carlos was that he's always had a great makeup," Phillies director of international scouting Sal Agostinelli said. "Everybody in this organization wanted to see him make it and do well."
While the baseball world has come to recognize Ruiz's talents during the past two postseasons, Agostinelli has known Philadelphia's beloved catcher longer than anybody else within the Phillies organization.
With the help of scout Allan Lewis, Agostinelli went into Panama and immediately recognized that this young second baseman possessed the leadership, athleticism and arm that could allow him the potential to be a benefit to the Phillies organization.
"I'm very proud of him," Agostinelli said. "When he caught that last pitch last year [in the World Series], I was just so happy. It's a moment like that, that makes us realize why we do our job."
Never regarded as the organization's catcher of the future, Ruiz has actually solidified his role as Philadelphia's primary catcher because of his ability to handle a pitching staff. His defensive value was certainly verified during the 2008 season, when Manuel continued to utilize him as his primary catcher, despite the fact that he hit just .219 with four homers and a .620 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).
"He wholeheartedly cares about the pitching staff first and foremost," veteran Phillies backup catcher Paul Bako said. "His objective every day is to hold the opponent to at least one run less than what we score. A lot of guys say that, but he truly plays the game that way."
When this postseason is complete, the lasting images of Ruiz may be viewed through his Game 1 homer against the Dodgers or via his mad dash from first base on Monday night. But in the midst of drawing the public's fancy with his offensive contributions, this career .246 hitter has continued to prove to the Phillies that his true value exists courtesy of what he does behind the plate.
"I think that he's definitely more aggressive and he's more of a take-charge guy than he was when he first came up," Manuel said. "And I think all those ingredients that come into being a front-line big league catcher, he's kind of grown into them."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.