I will never forget the empty feeling that Sunday morning when the news broke about Yordano Ventura dying in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Years before that, even though he was no longer an active player, Dan Quisenberry’s death from brain cancer at age 45 was heart-wrenching. And Quisenberry’s former manager, Dick Howser, was also cut down way too soon by brain cancer, devastating a fanbase that had seen the skipper lead the Royals to their first world title less than two years earlier.
But back when the Royals were still a very young franchise, they had their first brush with off-field tragedy fifty years ago today. The catch is that the player in question never played a game for the team. But the death of Chico Ruiz was painful for the franchise, and for baseball fans everywhere.
Hiraldo Sablon “Chico” Ruiz was not a star. The native of Santo Domingo, Cuba, was a lifetime .240/.279/.295 hitter. But his versatility and fielding ability kept him in the majors for eight seasons, and his sense of humor kept him in the fans’ good graces. Ruiz was known to use a seat cushion in the dugout, for comfort during long stretches on the bench. In 1970, his first season with the California Angels, the team had a seat cushion giveaway for the fans. Ruiz was given one, then exclaimed after the game that the item “might add five years to my sitting career.” He was also known to bring a battery-powered fan to the dugout and wear spikes made from alligator skin, all the better to stay comfortable. Once, after a stretch where he filled in for an injured starter and played every day, he told his manager, “Bench me or trade me!”
His wife Isabel even got in on the comedy act. Ruiz once broke his leg running the bases, leading her to ask if he fell off the bench.
On the field, Ruiz did have two claims to fame. He was the only player ever to pinch-hit for Johnny Bench; the fact it came in Bench’s debut is a minor detail. And, as a rookie, Ruiz pulled off a famous steal of home. As the 1964 season came to a close, the Philadelphia Phillies were cruising to the National League title. This was a big deal–the franchise had never won a World Series. They hadn’t even been in one since 1950. And since they got swept in that one, they were looking for their first postseason win since the 1915 World Series, their only other appearance in the Fall Classic. That’s right; two pennants in 80+ years.
On September 21, 1964, the Phillies hosted Cincinnati, with the home team holding a 6.5-game lead over the Reds and St. Louis and just 12 games left on the schedule. In the top of the sixth, with no score, Ruiz singled with one out. Vada Pinson singled, advancing Ruiz to third, although Pinson was thrown out at second trying to stretch his hit into a double. With fearsome slugger Frank Robinson at the plate, Ruiz danced off third base.
Perhaps the experience of seeing his homeland taken over by the Fidel Castro regime, and his family’s cigar business taken over by the state, made Ruiz fearless. He was not a dumb man; Ruiz had studied architecture at a Cuban college for three years before coming to America. And he was 25, so even though he was a rookie, he was hardly wet behind the ears.
And so, when Ruiz noticed Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey was basically ignoring him, and taking a long windup on the first pitch to Robinson, he made his decision. The third base coach didn’t know. The manager didn’t know. Robinson didn’t know (and thankfully didn’t swing the bat). On the next pitch, Ruiz broke for home. The startled Mahaffey threw his pitch to the backstop, Ruiz was safe, and the Reds went on to a 1-0 win. The Phillies proceeded to lose 10 straight games, while the Cardinals got hot and won the pennant by a scant one-game margin (this is where we, as Royals fans, sigh and say “Of course they did.”). The stolen base lives in infamy in Phillies history, despite two World Series titles and three other NL championships in the last 42 years.
Ruiz was a Red for six seasons before being traded to California with outfielder Alex Johnson for a trio of pitchers (Pedro Borbon, Vern Geishert, and Jim McGlothlin) following the 1969 season. The trade worked out well for the Angels in 1970 as Johnson won the AL batting title. But things deteriorated quickly in 1971. Johnson and Ruiz had become close friends; Johnson asked Ruiz to be godfather to his adopted daughter. But Johnson began acting erratically–not running out ground balls, refusing to take outfield practice, and so on. Part of that was apparently insulting Ruiz every time they crossed paths. After a few scuffles, Ruiz finally snapped. He pulled a gun–in the clubhouse!–on his one-time friend. Ruiz would deny he had done it, but eventually commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s investigation determined the incident did happen. Johnson’s standing with his teammates was reflected by the pitcher who anonymously told a reporter, “If Chico did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t pull the trigger.”
Obviously, Johnson had to be let go after that, but the Angels couldn’t find a trade partner in-season, so they suspended him. A grievance was filed, and eventually an arbitrator ruled the Angels should have put him on the disabled list with mental illness. The Angels eventually sent Ruiz to the minors, then released him once the minor-league season was over. Ruiz, who lived near San Diego, spent a few weeks working out with the Padres.
The Royals selected him in the minor league draft, but general manager Cedric Tallis said later that he felt Ruiz had an excellent chance to make the major-league roster. With Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek on the team, the Royals were set in the middle infield, but their top backup in 1971 was Bobby Knoop, who hit .205/.270/.286. Bobby Floyd was somehow worse, hitting .152/.233/.197. So the opportunity was certainly there. Ruiz spent the offseason preparing for his chance, still working out with the Padres. He also became a U.S. citizen in January
Chico Ruiz spent the last day of his life playing baseball. The Padres had an informal game scheduled against Mesa Junior College, but a couple of players were unavailable. So they asked Ruiz to fill in. He was driving alone on Interstate 15 to his home in Rancho Peñasquitos, when he lost control of his car and crashed into a signpost. He was rushed to a nearby hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Although Ruiz had only been in the Royals’ organization for a few weeks, the Royals’ Wives Club staged two different fashion shows, raising about $1200 for the family. The Padres set up a trust fund for them. Perhaps even more touching, Ruiz’s friend turned enemy Alex Johnson was one of the few active players to attend the funeral.
“In my heart I know I can play regular. I have to think I can play. If you don’t have pride, you have nothing.”–Chico Ruiz