ANAHEIM – When his family and friends from his Los Angeles-area high school saw Braves third baseman Rio Ruiz on Monday, they might have thought he looked younger than he did at graduation five years ago. That’s what a buzz cut on a guy in his early 20s can do, and Ruiz got that haircut last week after losing a bet when Ender Inciarte got five hits in a game.
“My girlfriend told me she doesn’t like it,” said Ruiz, who turned 23 a week ago. “Feels like she was dating me before I turned 21 -- that’s what she said.”
But the hair will grow back quickly. All of Ruiz’s people were just thrilled to find out he’d be with the Braves in their first interleague trip to Anaheim since 2011. And not just on the 25-man roster, but likely in the starting lineup for all three games in the series against the Angels.
Ruiz has been the primary third baseman while Adonis Garcia’s been on the 10-day disabled list with Achilles tendinitis, and the rookie has impressed so much that the Braves plan to keep him on the big-league team after Garcia’s expected return later this week. Ruiz hit .273 (9-for-33) with two doubles, a home run and a .776 OPS in 11 games before Monday, despite going 1-for-8 in three games (two starts) during a series at San Francisco that ended Sunday.
After getting five hits and two RBIs in two games Wednesday and Thursday against the Pirates, Ruiz said something before Friday’s series opener at San Francisco that showed how far he’s come mentally, how prepared he was to deal with success or struggle.
“I don’t want to get carried away with it,” he said after the five hits in two games had raised his average to .320 and his OPS to .873. “I want to keep my feet on the ground, definitely. I don’t think too much of it. I think of it as just trying to help the team win. I was very fortunate that I was able to be put in a situation to where I was kind of forced to get knocks, get those hits, get some big hits and keep rallies going, and I’m very fortunate for those things to happen.”
But, he added, “Anything can happen. You never know with baseball. You can be the hottest hitter in the world and then the next day you start an 0-for-20. You know what I mean? In baseball you’ve just got to take the negatives and roll with them and take the positives and stay humble with that. And that’s the best way to look at it.”
This week’s series feels like a homecoming for Ruiz, in more ways than one. His hometown of Covina, in Los Angeles County about 20 miles east of downtown L.A., is some 45 minutes to an hour from Angel Stadium, depending on traffic. Dodger Stadium was closer than Angel Stadium to Ruiz’s home, but he grew up an Angels fan -- an a fairly hardcore one, at that.
“I was an Angels guy because my favorite player was Darin Erstad,” Ruiz said of the former first baseman and outfielder who played 11 seasons for the Angels beginning in 1996, when Ruiz was 2 and the team was still known as the California Angels. The changed their name to the Anaheim Angels in 1997 and then to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before the 2005 season.
Erstad was a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover for the Angels, played for them through 2006 and had a crucial home run in Game 6 of their seven-game 2006 World Series win against the San Francisco Giants.
“He was my favorite player,” Ruiz said again, before launching into a rundown of his Angels. “Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, David Eckstein, Garret Anderson, Scott Spezio…I mean, I could go on and on.”
He and his brothers didn’t get to many major league games, but when they went it was almost always Angels games, not Dodgers.
“We went to as many as we could,” Ruiz said. “My dad would try to take us to as many things as he could, but it just didn’t work out for us very much. But as many as we could and I really cherish those moments.”
Now, he’s creating memories. For himself, his parents, his siblings and all those who’ve followed his career, from two-sport star at Bishop Amat – he had committed to play football (quarterback or cornerback) and baseball at the University of Southern California before opting for pro baseball – to fourth-round pick by the Astros in 2012, and a January 2015 trade to the Braves along with Mike Foltynewicz in exchange for Evan Gattis and a minor league pitcher.
After Ruiz’s disappointing 2015 season in Double-A, he heeded the advice of Braves president of baseball operations John Hart and “took ownership of his career” by diving into a much more rigorous offseason workout and diet regimen. Ruiz went from a self-described “fat” 240 pounds in 2015 to his current (much) leaner but stronger 220, and repaired his prospect status with a strong Triple-A season in 2016 that earned him a brief September call-up.
Now he’s in the big leagues with a chance to show the Braves that he’s worthy of a spot in their long-range plans. Teammates and Braves officials and coaches have praised his maturity and dedication to improve.
“The first thing that’s noticeable, in my opinion, is just his consistency in how he carries himself and how he approaches things,” Braves rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “It’s kind of mirrored in how he plays. He doesn’t get too low, he believes in himself a lot and expects a lot of himself. That’s a feeling I know can almost be a weakness at points if you let it be, but I think it’s definitely one of his strong suits that he carries himself that way.”
Swanson added, “I also think he’s a real headsy player – he’s played baseball a long time, so he has a good IQ and feel for the game and plays the game the right way. So, he fits right in here.”
Snitker noted that Ruiz, much as they did during early mornings at spring training, has continued to work on defensive drills with third-base coach and infield instructor coach Ron Washington during afternoons before batting practice.
“Wash has had him out here early,” Snitker said. “There’s some things he can improve on defensively with some work, I think. And again, it’s good for those guys to – they do things, they work on things in the minor leagues, and you get here and the speed of the game is different. And the only way they’re going to get the speed of this game is to play at this level, and then I think they understand some of the things they have to do.
“He improved last year from when we started until the end, and he continues to work and get better. He’s a young player that’s getting better.”
During the weekend series at San Francisco, Ruiz was still trying to figure out how many tickets he’d be able to get to meet some of the many requests he’d received.
“I don’t know if I will be able to (fill them all),” he said, smiling. “I’ll see what I’ll be able to do. Parents for sure, brothers and sisters for sure, and then we’ll go from there. It’s gonna be one expensive trip, that’s for sure.”
He was asked if his famous agent, Scott Boras, who is based in nearby Newport Beach and has season tickets behind home plate at Angel Stadium, might be able to help with the ticket requsts. Boras does, after all, have a great relationship with Angels owner Arte Moreno.
“I don’t know, we’ll see,” Ruiz said. “I’ve talked to him a little bit about it. Hopefully, I think he may be able to slide a couple of people into his special spot down there. I’m not gonna ask him for much; he’s done enough for me.”
• On Memorial Day, let's close with this poignant classic from George Jones.
"50,000 NAMES ON THE WALL" by George Jones
and old photographs that mamas bring
That daddies with their young boys, playing ball.
There's combat boots that he used to wear,
When he was sent over there.
There's 50,000 names carved in the wall
and notes that say I miss you dear
and children who don't say anything at all.
There's purple hearts and packs of gum
fatherless daughters and fatherless sons
and there's 50,000 names carved in the wall
In pickup trucks and mini vans
Searching for a boy from long ago
They scan the wall and find his name
The teardrops fall like pouring rain
and silently they leave a gift and go
and crucifixion figurines
and flowers of all colors large and small
There's a Boy Scout badge and a merit pin
Little American flags waving in the wind
and there's 50,000 names carved in the wall.