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April 20, 2010

Another Look

Remembering Chico Ruiz

by Bob Hertzel

Bob Hertzel has been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America for more than four decades. He will occasionally reflect on some of the great players, great moments and unusual characters that he has covered as a baseball writer.

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It was somewhere along about 6:30, when the muggy Ohio evening was just beginning to get to you, the humidity as high as Pete Rose’s batting average and the mosquitoes more biting than Sandy Koufax’s curveball.

That’s when Chico Ruiz would make his way to the dugout. At  Crosley Field in Cincinnati, players had to go virtually through the stands to get to the dugout and there would be Ruiz, a seat cushion under his arm, an electric fan in his hand, wearing his alligator spikes, the flashiest footwear in the entire stadium. Somewhere there was a glove, although you didn’t notice it as he made his way for what was another night at work as a reserve on a Reds team that was good enough to be a pennant contender, not good enough to win one.

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By this time Ruiz had laid his claim to fame in the major leagues, getting away with what was either the most daring play the game has ever seen or the biggest boneheaded play ever. Historians lean toward the latter.

The date was Sept. 21, 1964 and the Phillies held a 6 ½-game lead in the National League. There was no League Championship Series in this era, win the regular season and you were in the World Series, and that was a place the Phillies had not been since 1950. It was the sixth inning and Art Mahaffey, the Phillies' pitcher, was in a tough spot. The game was scoreless, Ruiz somehow having reached third base with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson standing menacingly at the plate. Mahaffey had two strikes on him, so he naturally gave Ruiz little thought as the Cuban danced off third base. All of a sudden, Ruiz broke for home. What was going through his mind is impossible to decipher, for with two strikes Robinson had to swing at a good pitch, a move that put Ruiz’s very existence in jeopardy. Mahaffey caught a glance of Ruiz out of the corner of his eye, rushed his delivery and uncorked a pitch that could not be caught as Ruiz stole home … with two out and two strikes on Frank Robinson.

Ray Kelly, even then a veteran baseball writer with the Philadelphia Bulletin, summed it up this way: "It’s one of those things that simply isn’t done. Nobody tries to steal home with a slugging great like Frank Robinson at the plate. Not in the sixth inning of a scoreless game.”

Nobody but Chico Ruiz.

Mahaffey would say, years later: "Chico Ruiz stole home with two outs and two strikes on Frank Robinson. Now you must realize that with two outs and two strikes, if you throw a strike Frank Robinson swings and knocks Chico Ruiz’s head off. It was just so stupid. Ruiz wasn’t even thinking. Robinson was so upset because he was one of the league’s leading hitters and near the lead in RBI and this guy’s stealing home with him hitting. It was just such a crazy thing. We didn’t know it was going to start a 10-game losing streak, but it couldn’t have started in more ridiculous way."

Do not pass over that final sentence. The Phillies went on to lose 10 straight games from that moment. Manager Gene Mauch, in a panic, was pitching Chris Short and Jim Bunning every other game, trying to hang on as the Reds and the Cardinals, who eventually would win the pennant, came at them.

Oh, yes, the next night, Mauch was relentless in riding Ruiz from his dugout and Ruiz was struck in the ribs with a pitch, but he just grinned and went to first base. That’s how they played the game then.

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Let us return now to 1969, to Ruiz walking through the stands, carrying the tools of his trade.     Ah, trade. That reminds us. Chico Ruiz, by this time, had become baseball’s most famous reserve. It went back to a moment in 1967. Leo Cardenas, the Reds’ regular shortstop, had been injured and Ruiz had played every day for two weeks. He had had enough of that.

Ruiz went into manager Dave Bristol’s office and uttered one of baseball’s most treasured one-liners. “Bench me or trade me!” Ruiz demanded, a play on the normal cry of the backup player who felt he was being overlooked, “Play me or trade me.”

Two years later, during the very same 1969 season that we have first found ourselves in with Ruiz, he again entered Bristol’s office, again complaining about playing too often, about how he needed a rest. Whereas the first time it was cute and Bristol could handle it, this time in the heat of pennant race, Bristol couldn’t handle it anymore. In the Cincinnati clubhouse there was a pay phone on the wall, the operative word being “was”, for Bristol ripped the phone off the wall and threw it through the clubhouse window. The next year, Ruiz was gone.

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But we’re caught up in 1969 and Ruiz has made his way to the dugout. He sets his seat cushion down at the far end of the dugout, away from where Bristol will be managing him in his final season with the Reds. Ruiz plugs in his fan, which was a gift from the Cincinnati fans. He puts his feet up, feet wearing those specially made, alligator spikes that told the world he wasn’t about to be going out there on the dirty infield on this night. Chico Ruiz was ready for the game.

During this year he would play 88 games. He would play first base, second base, shortstop and third base, along with taking a shot at left field. He hit .259 and drove in all of nine runs. For a career that lasted eight seasons, he batted .240 and had just 69 RBIs. After hitting two home runs in his rookie season that included his steal of home against the Phillies, he failed to hit another homer.

But he does have something of a badge of honor as a hitter, for Chico Ruiz is the only man ever to bat for Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench. It was Aug. 28, 1967, and Bench was making his major-league debut. He had gone 0-for-3 and it was the ninth inning of a game the Reds would lose to the Phillies when Bristol sent Ruiz up to hit for Bench in the ninth inning with Tommy Helms at first base. Ruiz flied out to left.

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The next year Chico Ruiz was traded to the California Angels with outfielder Alex Johnson, who would go on to win an American League batting title, and pitcher Mel Queen for pitchers Pedro Borbon, Jim McGlothlin and Vern Geishert. Ruiz and Johnson had been great friends in Cincinnati but in California Johnson went off the deep end and became a problem child. At one point during the year he began tormenting Ruiz, culminating in a clubhouse confrontation during a game in which both had been used as pinch hitters. It ended with Johnson accusing Ruiz of pulling a gun from his locker and waving it menacingly.

Ruiz denied the charge, leading one teammate to reportedly remark, “If Chico did anything wrong, it was not pulling the trigger.” Ruiz would play a year and a half with the Angels, by this time past 30, his baseball future in doubt. Then, on a mid-February night in 1972, he got into his car, ran into a sign pole while driving alone and was killed.

Chico Ruiz was 33.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

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