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August 26, 2016

An appreciation: Carlos Ruiz, the most popular person of Phillies' golden era

NEW YORK – The overwhelming adoration for Chase Utley at Citizens Bank Park last week was unlike anything anyone had seen at a sporting event in Philadelphia.

Utley, for his unrelenting style of play, was the most popular player from the most successful era in Phillies history. He was the epitome of people had decided a baseball player should be, and both men and women alike embraced him from the start and never let go.

But Carlos Ruiz, another important homegrown stalwart from the core that helped the Phillies win a world championship, two National League pennants, and five division crowns, was arguably the most popular person during that era.

Maybe that doesn’t make any sense when you read it. Maybe it does.

So let’s try to explain.

Utley and Cole Hamels were first-round picks that hailed from the baseball hotbed of Southern California; they were expected to be stars upon arrival.

Ryan Howard had the raw power that forced the Phillies to trade a future Hall of Famer and won him Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in his first two full seasons in the big leagues.

Jimmy Rollins brought a speed-power combo to the top of the lineup and a reliable glove to the most demanding position on the field, and, off of it, he was freed to be the often-entertaining voice of the team in the clubhouse when an older core of veterans turned the team over to the championship core in the early stages of Pat Gillick’s era as general manager.

They were all celebrated.

Complementary players arrived on the scene, too, and some stuck around longer than others. Shane Victorino and Roy Halladay, Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee. Matt Stairs, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, and on and on.

At the heights of their contributions to the Phillies, they were all extremely popular and celebrated, too.

But can you ever think of a time, as a Phillies fan, when you didn’t like Carlos Ruiz?

Even in his first two-plus big league seasons, when he hit .242 with a .688 OPS, not exactly numbers to get excited about from a young player, you probably liked him because he wasn’t Mike Lieberthal (the rare Wall of Famer who was never that popular among fans) or Rod Barajas (who would have had an entirely forgettable stay in Philly if it wasn’t for this play).

Ruiz wasn’t the highly-touted top prospect, wasn’t ever the guy anointed the catcher of the future. He was the kid the Phillies signed for $8,000 out of Panama at the age of 19, thinking they could convert him from the infield to the catching position.

He was the underdog-type that was easy to root for from the start. He hit .219 in 2008, yet had one of the most crucial hits of the 2008 World Series, and then created one of the most indelible images in Philadelphia sports history when he welcomed Lidge with a celebratory hug on Oct. 29, 2008.

He was Halladay’s best bud. He was every pitcher’s best bud, actually.

When he smiled, you smiled. It was infectious.

And I wrote those last two sentences before checking back to see what Jamie Moyer and Hamels, two of his many accomplished battery mates, said on Thursday when the 37-year-old Ruiz was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Carlos not only was – and is – a good teammate, he learned how to become the leader he needed to be behind the plate running a pitching staff,” Moyer said. “As a teammate, he always had that Ruiz smile that we all have come to love!”

“His preparation and instincts as a catcher set him apart as one of the best and I feel fortunate to have pitched with him while we were teammates in Philadelphia,” Hamels said. “His positive clubhouse personality was infectious and he had great respect for the Phillies organization and the fans.”

In nine years covering the Phillies, during the good times and bad, during the monotonous days at the end of spring training, to the sleepy weekends when the team was playing out the string in Miami or Atlanta, to the clubhouse celebrations at Citizens Bank Park, Coors Field, Miller Park, and Dodger Stadium, I can say with some amount of certainty that there wasn’t a more popular person among people around the team, players, coaches, staff, etc., than Carlos Ruiz.

“He was always very, very positive,” Ryan Howard said Friday at Citi Field. “He was always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

Ruiz, who diligently worked at learning English in his first few major league seasons, along with becoming an underrated offensive player, too, went from being the shy new catcher on the roster to being the life of the party. He was the guy who would mimic a pitcher – any pitcher – while playing catch before batting practice to get a laugh, or break out a Ryan Howard at-bat impersonation (one that would rival Batting Stance Guy) in the middle of the clubhouse to make the entire room burst out in laughter.

“He’s fun to be around – a pleasure to coach and manage,” manager Pete Mackanin said Friday at Citi Field “Everybody loved him for a number of reasons.”

Ruiz was the guy who would greet you with a warm smile and handshake at the start of every spring training. Perhaps he was loved so much by his teammates because he was both unselfish and humble, two traits that are often difficult to find in modern day pro sports.

“I met him in ’09 and watched how he went about his business,” Mackanin said. “I saw how devoted he was to catching. It hit me between the eyes that this guy worried more about his game-calling and catching then he did his hitting.

“He never took his at-bats on the field. The only time I ever saw him get upset was when he came off the field after a pitcher game up a home run or some runs. I never saw him upset when he struck out three times or something.”

The devotion Ruiz had to his ever-changing pitching staff could be summed up in this humorous commercial or on one of the more challenging nights of Halladay’s Phillies career, when the pitcher was forced to leave a July start at Wrigley Field with dehydration.

Halladay was obviously unavailable to the media after the game, being tended to by the team’s medical and training staff. But Ruiz declined to speak that night, too. It was as if he felt the blame for not doing his part to properly prepare his battery mate or help him through a difficult-to-watch performance that night in Chicago, which, in retrospect, is crazy. But that's the devotion Ruiz has to his pitchers, the anguish he endures when they struggle.

Four years later, at that same iconic ballpark, Ruiz got nervous when he tossed his sunglasses in the trash bin before returning to the field. Hamels was three outs away from a no-hitter.

“I was like, ‘Oh, man,’” Ruiz said with a dead-serious expression after the game.

Hamels was able to complete the no-hitter. It was the fourth Ruiz had caught in his career, tying Jason Varitek’s major league record.

But Carlos Ruiz is more than a collection of records, stats, All-Star appearances, and other memorable moments during his 11-year big league career in Philadelphia and nearly 18-year stay with the only major league organization he had ever known before this week.

He was admired and respected by everyone he encountered.

“The thing about Chooch,” Howard said, “he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him.”

While nitpicking became a habit among fans for some of his more accomplished teammates – Rollins didn’t run that out, Howard strikes out too much, Utley’s defense is suspect – Chooch was universally beloved.

And he loved everyone back, too. Before he left New York for Los Angeles on Thursday, Ruiz called in to have a Mets clubhouse attendant scrawl a message from him to his teammates upon their arrival at the ballpark on Friday.

And outside the clubhouse, a bat stood leaning on the wall in the hallway that leads out to the field. There was a pair of red batting gloves resting atop the bat, and the familiar inscription on the barrel: Carlos Ruiz.

The uber-popular catcher may have left, but a piece of him remained behind.

“He’s the kind of guy you love seeing every day – always had a smile on his face,” Mackanin said. “It’s combination of everything rather than one part of him. I’d like to think that one time down the road when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Then Mackanin thought for a second. And laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job,” Mackanin joked.

But even in the unlikely occurrence that would become a reality, you can imagine Mackanin would find himself laughing again. Because it’s almost impossible to feel anything but joy when Carlos Ruiz is involved.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21