Ruiz in 1962
December 5, 1938|
Santo Domingo, Cuba
|Died: February 9, 1972
San Diego, California
|April 13, 1964, for the Cincinnati Reds|
|Last MLB appearance|
|August 3, 1971, for the California Angels|
|Runs batted in||69|
Hiraldo "Chico" Ruiz Sablon (December 5, 1938 – February 9, 1972) was a Cuban professional baseball player. An infielder, Ruiz played in Major League Baseball for the Cincinnati Reds and California Angels from 1964 through 1971. He was the only Major League player ever to pinch-hit for Johnny Bench. He is, however, best remembered for a zany play he made his rookie season that has entered baseball folklore.
Ruiz was born in Santo Domingo, Cuba, on December 5, 1938. His father owned a cigar factory, while his brother, José, headed the labor force of Cubatabaco. Ruiz's father wanted his son to succeed him in running the cigar factory. However, Chico attended college, where he studied architecture.
Ruiz signed with the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1958 at age 19. He was among the last of the Cuban players to make it out of Cuba before the borders were sealed. He batted .275 with 28 home runs over six seasons in their farm system before making the renamed Cincinnati Reds out of spring training in 1964. Though he was a shortstop by trade, he made all 79 of his appearances on the field at either second or third base.
Ruiz married Isabel Suárez Navarro on October 4, 1961. They later had two daughters, Isis and Bárbara Isa.
On September 21, 1964, facing Art Mahaffey and the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruiz singled with one out in the sixth and the score 0–0. He advanced to third base on a single by Vada Pinson; however, Pinson made the second out of the inning trying to stretch it into a double. With two outs, Frank Robinson stepped to the plate.
Mahaffey got two strikes on Robinson. With two outs and two strikes on a right-handed batter, and a right-handed pitcher on the mound, Ruiz inexplicably broke for home. Seeing the runner, Mahaffey rushed his delivery and uncorked a pitch that Phillies catcher Clay Dalrymple could not handle. Ruiz stole home, accounting for the only run of the game.
At the start of that game, the Phillies had a 6.5-game hold on first place with 12 games to play. The Phillies then lost ten straight games to finish tied for second place. Phillies third baseman Dick Allen is quoted in Crash, The Life and Times of Dick Allen by Tim Whitaker as saying that the play "broke our humps". Chico Ruiz's steal of home has evolved into a popular culture legend. Some Philadelphia sports fans still refer to the "Curse of Chico Ruiz" as the reason for many of their teams' misfortunes. A novel by Gregory T. Glading entitled 64 Intruder centers on what might have happened had Ruiz been called out on the play.
"Bench me or trade me"
With Pete Rose at second, Deron Johnson at third and Leo Cárdenas at short, Ruiz was squeezed out of a very solid infield, and saw very little playing time over the next two seasons. He took it in stride, bringing a cushion to sit on the bench, a pair of special soft comfortable alligator spiked shoes and a battery-driven fan the people in St. Louis gave him to games to keep himself comfortable on the bench.
His chance finally arrived in 1967 when Cárdenas broke his finger. He performed admirably in Cárdenas' absence, batting .283 with five runs scored and four runs batted in while providing solid defense at short. This was followed with a two-week stint at second while second baseman Tommy Helms shifted over to short. During the stretch, Ruiz joked that playing everyday was killing him and jokingly asked Reds manager Dave Bristol, "Bench me or trade me."
Regardless of his "demand", Ruiz remained with the Reds for two more seasons. Following the 1969 season, he and outfielder Alex Johnson were traded to the California Angels for pitchers Pedro Borbón, Jim McGlothlin and Vern Geishert.
Angels and Alex Johnson
Johnson had a reputation as a malcontent. Regardless, he and Ruiz were good friends. In fact, Ruiz was the godfather of Johnson's adopted daughter. Johnson won the American League batting crown in 1970, their first season together with the Angels. However, during spring training in 1971 several bouts of "indifferent play" landed him in the middle of Angels manager Lefty Phillips' crosshairs. The trend continued into the regular season as Johnson was benched three times in May for indifferent play. Meanwhile, the relationship between Ruiz and Johnson also began to sour. Johnson would scream obscenities at Ruiz whenever they were near each other, and Ruiz had reportedly challenged Johnson to a fight on more than one occasion, regardless of the fact that Ruiz was much smaller.
Tensions hit a climax when Johnson claimed that Ruiz pointed a gun at him while the two were in the clubhouse following a June 13 loss to the Washington Senators. Ruiz denied the claim but Angels GM Dick Walsh later admitted during Johnson's arbitration case over his suspension that the incident had indeed occurred. Shortly after the alleged incident, Ruiz was demoted to the Triple A Salt Lake City Angels.
The Angels would clean house after the season. Phillips and Walsh were both fired, Johnson was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and Ruiz was released. Shortly afterwards, Ruiz signed with the Kansas City Royals.
Ruiz became a U.S. citizen on January 7, 1972, something that made him very proud. Early in the morning of February 9, just before he was to join his new team, the Royals, in spring training, Ruiz was killed when he drove his car into a sign pole while driving alone outside of San Diego. Johnson attended the funeral.
- "St. Louis Cardinals 3, Cincinnati Reds 2". Baseball-Reference.com. September 17, 1967.
- Scott Schaffer (September 2004). "The Legend of Chico Ruiz: Forty Years Later, A City Still Bleeds". Magazine Americana.
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- Johnny Goodtimes (September 21, 2011). "Chico F***ing Ruiz and the Bonehead Play of the Year". Philly Sports History.
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- Whitaker, Tim (1989). Crash, The Life and Times of Dick Allen. Ticknor & Fields. p. 55.
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- "Alex Johnson Says He Can't Wait to Play Baseball for the Cleveland Indians". The Miami News. October 6, 1971. Retrieved September 25, 2012.
- "Accident Kills Royals' Ruiz". Palm Beach Post. February 10, 1972.
- Armour, Mark. "Alex Johnson". SABR.