During his final years with the Phillies, Carlos Ruiz was always a wonderful mentor to the team's young Latin players. (Heck, he was even a great mentor to the guy who took his job, a kid from Texas named Cameron Rupp.) But Ruiz had an extraordinary bond with the guys from Latin America. From a sandlot in Panama, where he was signed as a converted infielder for $8,000, a pittance by baseball stands, to the big leagues and ultimately the World Series, Ruiz had walked the miles that every young player from Latin American dreams of walking, and he was always willing to guide and share his wisdom.
So when Ruiz returned to Philadelphia as a member of the Seattle Mariners on Monday, one day ahead of a two-game series against the Phillies, it was no surprise that he welcomed so many of his former young Latin teammates to the home he still owns in South Jersey.
Steak. Ribs. And Chooch.
"It was a special time with an old friend," Andres Blanco said. "We miss him."
In addition to Blanco, Freddy Galvis, Maikel Franco, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos were in attendance.
"It was special, them showing up over at my house, giving me a hug," Ruiz said. "That was huge.
"It was a special night. I was really happy to see them. We're like brothers. And I always say, it doesn't matter what team I'm on, I have respect for those young guys over there and I really miss them. That's one thing I tell my teammates now with the Mariners. You know, it's about family. Staying together."
Ruiz, 38, spent 11 seasons with the Phillies, blossoming from a shy, part-time catcher into an All-Star, an October hero and a fan favorite for his smile, humility, unselfish dedication to his pitchers and his lunch-pail approach to the game.
Boy, was he a fan favorite.
Can't you still hear the echoes from countless calls of Choooch?
They echoed around Citizens Bank Park again Tuesday night. Ruiz was not in the Mariners' starting lineup - he will be Wednesday afternoon - but the Phillies welcomed him back with a video presentation in the middle of the third inning. Ruiz came to the top step of the dugout, waved to the fans and tipped his cap as the crowd stood, cheered and bellowed.
Before the game, Ruiz appeared at a news conference in the same room in which his $8.85 million contract extension in January 2010 was announced.
Ruiz, the one-time $8,000 kid, beamed that day.
On Tuesday afternoon, he almost cried.
He became emotional as he talked about his time in Philadelphia, his relationship with his many former teammates and club officials and his bond with the fans.
"I have some really cool memories here in Philly and I thank you for the support," Ruiz said. "There were a lot of good things in my career when I was here and this is a special day for me and I can't wait to see the fans and see my teammates on the other side, so I'm happy.
"These are great fans and I think when you play hard and when you do your best to win they appreciate that. It was fun to be part of this organization and play for this city. I really enjoyed the time I was here."
Ruiz was traded from the Phillies to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 25 of last season. The Phillies' front office was under no pressure to deal Ruiz. In fact, it gave him the option of shooting down the deal and finishing the season with the Phillies and taking a bow in front of the fans, a la Ryan Howard, on the final day of the season.
Ruiz thought about the deal for a day then finally OK'd it.
It wasn't easy leaving a place he loved, a place that had given him so much, a place where his dreams had come true.
"It really was hard for me when I left," he said. "That was a tough position, but I had a chance to go back to the playoffs and that was big. I can remember that day and it was hard when I had to go and I got a lot of texts. I know there are a lot of people over here that I really love and they're still here and I'm really happy, so I can't wait to see them."
The Phillies were on the road, in New York, when Ruiz was traded. So this is his first trip back to Citizens Bank Park.
He drove himself to the ballpark Tuesday afternoon, took the route he'd taken all those years that he was a Phillie.
"It feels a little weird, you know, coming into the other (clubhouse)," Ruiz said. "But at the same time when I was driving back and we were getting close to the gate outside, a lot of things were (in my mind). The one thing was that it was special. I felt a little excited and nervous, and at the same time, I couldn't wait to see you guys, my teammates, guys that work security, everybody."
Ruiz and Howard were the last two members of the 2008 World Series champions to appear for the Phillies. Cole Hamels is in Texas now. Jayson Werth is still doing damage in Washington. Chase Utley is hanging on with the Dodgers. Jimmy Rollins was cut by the San Francisco Giants in spring training. Howard was released from his minor-league contract with the Atlanta Braves on Monday.
Ruiz is hitting just .115 and playing part time. This could be his last season.
But he'll always cherish the memories of that great Phillies team of 2008, back when everyone was still in their prime.
"Those are special guys," Ruiz said. "I know it's a business and they would like to continue to play because when you play with passion and you play with love, you want to be on the field every day. It's hard when you know (the end) is close, that it's the end of your career. So you just have to keep the good memories that we have. That as such a special group. I definitely miss those guys.
"I'm really happy that Howard had another opportunity. I believe he can still play. It's hard, you know? But like I said, I miss everybody."
And Phillies fans miss Ruiz. That much was evident by the reception he received in the third inning Tuesday night.
More to come Wednesday.