Sitting in front of his locker in a padded folding chair, across the room from the raucous noise of Howard and Byrd and Rollins and rap, the man they call Chooch is for a moment alone, quietly looking down at the glowing screen of his cell phone.
It is nearly five hours before the Phillies – the 1-and-8-and-1 Phillies, the worst-spring training record-in-baseball Phillies – will take the field for Grapefruit League game number 11. And Carlos Ruiz, who returned to the team on a much-chided three-year, $26 million contract, is tuning out the cacophony.
Inside the locker room and outside as well.
“I feel great with the group we have,” says Ruiz, who turned 36 on Jan. 22. “If we stay healthy, we can do a lot of good things.”
If we stay healthy.
While many outside the organization have argued that the Phillies might have been better off if they hadn’t resigned Ruiz, given his age, his position and an off year that included a 25-game drug suspension and stint on the DL with a hammy whammy, those inside know that a productive Chooch is a key component to any hope of avoiding a repeat of last year’s failure to reach the playoffs.
“He’s big,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg will say many hours later with very good reason during the post-game pow-wow.
For now, Ruiz sits at his locker in a room full of question marks and patiently answers inquiries pinging across the time-space continuum.
In the present, he says he will miss the collisions at home plate, which new baseball rules have been designed to avoid.
“I will miss that, definitely,” he says. “You walk to the dugout, all your teammates they say ‘good job,’ you take pride in yourself when you get hit at home plate and still have the ball and he’s out.”
The past, particularly the suspension for using the stimulant Adderall to control his ADHD — a non-factor now that the league has approved him taking the medicine — is a faded memory, says Ruiz.
“I forget about that stuff,” he says. “I feel great. That is very important. My family supports me. The team. The Phillies. My fans. I’m real happy.”
As for the future, Ruiz says the team has one goal.
“Go to the World Series.”
The brisk Florida morning air (in the 60s, of course all things are relative) is filled with the unmistakable sickly sweet scent of buttery popcorn cooking inside the stadium.
Standing on the practice mound just outside Bright House Field’s labyrinthian offices, another vital, non-Howard/Rollins/Utley piece of the puzzle that is the emerging 2014 Phillies is also happy.
“Ha-ha,” says the bullpen catcher enthusiastically as Mike Adams, one of baseball’s best set-up men over the past couple of years with the Padres and Rangers, throws a heavy fastball that not only hits the spot — lower half of the strike zone — but has a velocity that makes that loud mitt-pop every pitcher loves to hear and every batter loathes.
After 35 pitches, he walks off the mound pleased with the session and the “advances I made over the past couple of bullpens as far as my delivery and how it is coming out of my hand.”
“I have normal shoulder soreness,” says Adams, whose 2013 was cut short in July after just 25 innings by shoulder surgery. “I’m not expecting it to be zero. You get on the mound, you are going to have some soreness.”
Adams, who turns 35 in July, says that so far, he is pleased with where the ball winds up once it leaves his hand.
“Good, very good,” he says when asked about his location, which is the essence of successful pitching. “Not every pitch is where I wanted it to be, but the majority of them are on point. The main thing, obviously, is keeping the ball down. That’s what I am doing now, so even if I miss my location, if the ball’s down, I’ll take it.”
Same for that loud craaaaack that fills the air when his fastball explodes into the catcher’s mitt.
“That’s a good feeling,” he says. “There’s a little bit of velocity there.”
Moments later, Jack Hughes, a local college professor who serves as a baseball chaplain at the Clearwater complex, says divine intervention will have little role in whether the Phillies meet Chooch’s stated goal.
“Ah, I don’t know that God cares who wins or loses,” says Hughes, 68, who grew up in Pottstown. “But it’s going to take some health issues. That’s much more important.”
When it comes to the Phillies, health — particularly that of its core — gets more play than Obamacare did at the recent CPAC convention.
First baseman Ryan Howard, 34, played only 151 games over the past two seasons due to injury. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 35, has been durable, but was in decline last year, hitting six homers compared to 23 in 2012. And oft-injured second baseman Chase Utley, also 35, played in 131 games last year, which was his most since playing in 156 in 2009.
Larry Bowa, until Rollins the best shortstop in the history of the team, its former manager and now coach, repeats the wellness mantra when asked how far the team will go this year.
“This is a team that has to stay healthy, no question about that” says Bowa, graciously putting down the sandwich he is eating to talk about the future. “We don’t really have a lot of depth. If we lose a Howard or Rollins or Utley or Ruiz, it would be harder to compete, you know? But with these guys’ health and the way Ryne Sandburg uses his whole roster, I think he can keep them fresh the whole year.”
Howard, he says, “looks good right now. We’ve only played nine or 10 games right now, and uh, coming off that injury. Hopefully by the end of spring he’ll be where be where he should be.”
And the pitching rotation?
“Obviously starting off with Cole [Hamels], I don’t know how much he is going to miss,” Bowa says of the rehabbing starter who has shut himself down after arm fatigue, casting doubt on any bid to open the season in the rotation. Ticking off the projected starting staff of Cliff Lee, who was actually even better last year than the year before, newly acquired free agents A.J. Burnett and Roberto Hernandez, and the returning Kyle Kendrick, Bowa says that “when Cole comes back, obviously he will add depth. We are in the same situation a lot of teams are. Somebody goes down, you can never have enough pitching.”
As for the bullpen, Bowa says that closer Jonathan Papelbon “is throwing the ball well right now. Adams looks like he is on schedule now. That’s a key part of our bullpen. If he’s healthy, everybody moves down a slot.”
So Larry, does it get old answering questions about age?
“Yeah it gets old because every team, when guys reach 34, 35, you start talking about that. Sometimes you can use that — I don’t like to use it as age, I like to say they are experienced so they know how to play.”
Beginning with starter Larry Keuchel, Astros pitching holds the Phillies hitless through four and two-thirds.
Though 10 games, the much-needed firepower has been lacking. Howard has a .200/.238/.300 slashline with no homers, Rollins is at .167/.375/.417 with one homer and Utley is .125/.176/.125 with no homers. Between them, they go one for nine Saturday, with Howard’s sixth inning double the troubled triumvirate’s only hit.
His team limping bloodlessly toward another loss, Chooch changes things with one out in the fifth, lashing a single for the team’s first hit and later coming around to score the Phillies’ first run on third baseman Cody Asche’s three-run homer that put the Phils up 3-1. An inning later, Ruiz would break the game open, sending a 3-1 hanging slider deep over the leftfield wall for a three-run blast. The Phillies would go on to win 11-3.
In his post-game wrap-up, Sandberg expounds on a number of positives from the day, including Asche responding to being put in the leadoff spot with his jack and a double, Freddy Galvis showing versatility by manning center and the oft-lambasted John Mayberry Jr. hitting a bases-loaded triple in the seventh.
On Chooch, who hit his second spring homer, Sandberg says, “he’s big.”
“He was a good guy over the offseason to bring back , not only for what he does behind the plate but for his right-handed bat,” says the manager. “He was behind last year for a long time up until the last four or five weeks. I just see with the early power and the batting practice and being in shape and everything, that goes a long way.”
Ruiz, says Ryno, “is a guy that could possibly bat fourth, fifth. That type of a hitter, as long as, when, you know, he is going right, is a big bat in the lineup.”
Howard Altman covers national security for The Tampa Tribune.