Chico Ruiz has not started a game for the Cincinnati Reds in six weeks now, and he has come to the dugout prepared. In one hand is a cushion, for the bench and what it will meet; in the other a glove, for infield practice. Under an arm are a pair of special spiked shoes, soft alligator spikes that make Chico's feet feel so comfortable as he sits on the bench. It is already very warm in Crosley Field, and if it gets much worse Chico will go back into the clubhouse and get the battery-driven fan the people in St. Louis gave him. Those people were very thoughtful; St. Louis can be murder in August, sitting in the dugout.
Dumping his equipment on the bench, Chico ambles down to the watercooler. On the way back he glances at the lineup card taped to the dugout wall, and suddenly Chico cannot believe his big brown eyes. There it is, so simply, yet so unexpectedly, in small block letters printed by Manager Dave Bristol: before ARRIGO, 1, and after HELMS, 4, the card says, RUIZ, 6.
He swallows hard. It has been a long time and maybe he has forgotten how it feels to face the same pitcher more than once. In the sixth, though, with the Reds down 1-0, it is Ruiz who gets a hit against the San Francisco Giants—a two-strike, bad-ball, wrong-field double off the mighty Juan Marichal. And then he scores the first run in a game the Reds are to win 4-3. But such moments are rare, for Ruiz is a hardcore substitute. He is, in fact, the prototype substitute. Chico has played first base, second, third and shortstop, left field, center and right. He is, in the lexicon of the game, a utility man, and, indeed, he perfectly suits the dictionary definition of utility: "the quality or state of being useful; usefulness." Or, to take the definition a step further, Ruiz possesses, like the phone company (sometimes), "power to satisfy human wants."
Certainly, these are the best of times for the Ruiz types. The logistics of modern baseball—schedule, travel, expansion—have made the versatile subs more in demand than ever. They are especially valuable in the midsummer months, when so many young stars are required to attend two weeks of reserve military training. With one thing or another, the Reds have had to start Chico this year more than ever before.
August 24, 1969
Still, whether it is soldiering, sickness or slumps that gets Ruiz into the lineup, he has never been able sufficiently to satisfy the human wants of any of his Cincinnati managers—Dick Sisler, Don Heffner or Dave Bristol—to stay in the lineup. Chico has been sitting on the bench now for five years.
He is, of course, not alone in this occupation. Except for a couple of seasons when he did play regularly, Ducky Schofield of Boston has been a part-timer in the majors for 15 years. Others in the elite of the utility include players like Dick Tracewski of Detroit, Chico Salmon of Baltimore, Jose Pagan of Pittsburgh, Jerry Adair of Kansas City, Tom Satriano of Boston and Frank Quilici of Minnesota. Go to the park early and you will not need a program to identify players like these. Utility men are easily distinguishable because they always take batting practice first and then scatter to various parts of the field to run down balls hit by the regulars.
After a game, if they are on the road, the utility men often go out together. They have learned to enjoy each other's company, for they know each other very well—all the strong points and weak ones, the prides, prejudices and hangups. Sit on the bench with a guy for seven months and you get to know him better than if you are playing next to him.
Utility players also often learn more about the game than do the regulars who have to concentrate on playing their own position. Considering, as well, that the subs naturally tend to be tolerant of others with limited talent, it is perhaps not surprising that a good number of them finally beat out the regulars at something—making manager. Gene Mauch, Ralph Houk, Dick Williams and Joe Schultz are present managers among the many who graduated from the bench. If you do not get to see your favorite journeyman emerge from the shadows of the dugout this season, come back in a decade or so and you may find him in the spotlight, carrying lineup cards to the plate and escorting pitchers from the mound.
Virtually all substitutes will admit that warming a bench in a professional manner was hardly what they had in mind when they set out in baseball to make fortune and fame. Some are, in fact, bitter about their experience. A few somehow remain indifferent to it all, but most of them soon become realistic about their status and even learn to accept it with humor. When Al Spangler of the Cubs cost his team a game a couple of years ago by dropping a relatively easy pop fly, he apologized afterward to Manager Leo Durocher. "I'm sorry, Leo," he said, "but it's this glove. I've been trying to break it in for 10 years."
"I got used to not playing pretty early," Spangler says easily. "You have to or you won't be around very long. You've got to keep yourself in a good frame of mind. If you're lucky, the manager or some of the coaches will help you out because somebody has to make you feel as important as the starters; you can't do it all yourself."
"The first day I feel unwanted, I quit," says Jimmy Stewart of Cincinnati. "If I ever get the idea they just want me to stay down there at the end of the bench, out of everybody's way, I'll be looking for a new job the next day. But Bristol's done a good job on this club. He talks to us a lot; he seems to sense how lonely you can feel sometimes."
"It comes on as you get older," says Jim Hickman of the Chicago Cubs. "Every day you have to prepare yourself to play even though you know you probably won't. You've got to run and stay in shape, but at the same time you've got to pick your spots. If you work too hard one day you might come to the park all stiff and sore the next day—and that's the day they'll want you to play."
"What hurts more than anything," says Stewart, "is to get a chance and blow it. I worry about that all the time. Whenever they do send you up there to hit it's man, we really gotta have a hit. So maybe you pop up. Well, you just want to lay down and die because you know you might not get another chance for four or five days."
"The hardest thing," says Tracewski, "is playing defense and knowing you just can't make an error. A few years ago I was with the Dodgers and we were always in the pennant race. I'd go in about the eighth or ninth and it seemed like we were always one run ahead or one run behind. Then they'd get a couple runners on and you'd know you just had to have the double play and you're scared you'd blow it. After not playing in two or three games you were almost afraid to go in."
"I have a tendency to get down on myself," says Hickman. "I wish I played more; I even wish now I'd taught myself how to switch-hit, like our shortstop, Don Kessinger. Switch-hitting saved Don's career. But it's too late for that; I've talked to Don and he says it takes about three years to perfect it. I'm 32 now, and if I play three or four more years I'll be lucky. I'll just have to do the best with what I've got." Hickman chuckled. "I guess that's why I get down on myself; I look and see what I've got and I ain't got too much."
With his own limited abilities, Hiraldo Sablon Ruiz is now working on his sixth year in the major league's munificent pension plan. At least you gain equal credit for that, playing or sitting. A round-faced sprite with shiny white teeth and a very large smile, Chico is a switch-hitting (.238 lifetime) Cuban who put in time in places like Geneva and Visalia and San Diego, where he now lives. He is a comic, liable to enter an airplane playing his guitar—favoring Day O—and he enjoys practical jokes. One time he sliced Pitcher George Culver's sports jacket into shreds and then sewed it back together loosely so that it fell apart as soon as Culver put it on.
Several years ago he spent the season pasting large stars to the dugout roof—one for every game he failed to start. Considering how many there were, the place must have looked like the Hayden Planetarium. Last season he spent his time on the bench fashioning a huge ball out of gum wrappers that he found on the floor.
A few years ago a jeweler Ruiz knew fell into debt and Chico loaned him $500. When it came time for Ruiz to leave for spring training, the jeweler did not have enough ready cash, so he gave Chico some watches, rings and necklaces instead. Ruiz at first planned to sell them, but before long the financial advantages of holding a few raffles changed his mind. Now, whenever the Reds open a new series and Ruiz appears in the dugout, somebody from the other side inevitably will yell, "Hey, Chico, what are you raffling off today?"
Not too long ago the Reds were on a big winning streak. They had been winning, in fact, ever since Bristol—who refuses to walk under ladders—had chosen to dress out in the clubhouse, leaving his personal manager's office vacant. By the time the Reds reached Los Angeles, Ruiz had moved into the office lock, stock and beer cooler. Naturally, he played the role to the ultimate, calling in a player here, another there, for private, closed-door discussions. When the writers came into the clubhouse after a game, Ruiz invited them into his office where he offered them sandwiches and beer. "Well," he'd sigh, slumped in a chair behind the desk, "that was sure a tough one tonight. Why I am in this business, I will never know." And, of course, he expounded philosophically on the advantages of playing them one at a time.
Ruiz grew up in Santo Domingo, Cuba, where his father operated a cigar factory. The elder Ruiz had hopes his son would work in the factory, learn it from the floor up and someday take over. Chico, however, was not anxious to work in a factory of any kind—even if his father ran it—and after high school he entered college to study architecture. He completed three years at a Cuban college, concentrating on residential housing, and he would like to go on for his degree at some U.S. university.
Baseball, of course, has a monopoly on his time right now—and he particularly enjoys playing for Bristol, a former utility man, who uses him more than Heffner or Sisler did. "Bristol is my overtaker," Chico likes to say. "He took me out of the grave and started to play me."
Ruiz believes, however, that by learning so many positions he actually created a permanent place on the bench for himself. "Because I am so versatile," he says, "a manager would just as soon leave me there, too—until he sees how the game goes and can fit me into the situation. If I were a manager, I would probably play me the same way."
Ruiz points out that while the ability to play various positions enhances one's chances of getting in a game, it also increases the margin of error. "An outfielder, all he has to do before a game is go out and shag a few fly balls," says Ruiz. "He checks the wind, the background and warms up his arm. But me, I have got to go out to third and short and pick up some grounders. Then I have to move over to second, 'cause the ball comes at you different over there. If I get a chance, I grab a first baseman's glove and take a few throws—and I really will not feel ready unless I catch a few flies in the outfield, too."
But when the game begins, Ruiz is on his cushion on the bench. Early this year Chico's wife Isabel brought their two little girls out to Crosley Field. After all, even though they might not see their father play, they could at least see him in his uniform and snappy red socks. It was game time when Mrs. Ruiz walked into the park and sat down behind home plate. She immediately peered into the Cincinnati dugout looking for Chico, but he was nowhere to be seen. A few minutes passed and Mrs. Ruiz began to wonder if something had happened to him on his way to the park. Maybe he was in the clubhouse, ill, or in a hospital. Then, at last, a helpful visitor pointed out where Chico was. "Somebody had to show her I was out at shortstop," Ruiz says. "She never thought to look for me out on the field."
Another time last year Ruiz had been playing much more than usual. Two, three, four games went by, and he started every one of them. So between innings during the next game he trotted off the field, slammed his glove to the floor in disgust and marched up to Bristol. "Look," he snapped, "I have had this playing regular up to here. I am sick and tired of it. Either bench me or trade me!"
"The kid is great to have on this club," Bristol says. "I'm not afraid to put him in anywhere, and he keeps everybody loose. And, do you know, every time I do put him in it seems like the first ball is hit to him—no matter where he's playing. It's almost as if they're testing him."
Chico says he is always among the last Reds to sign his contract each year because the front office does not appreciate him to the extent it should. But, even though he has to battle for every penny, Ruiz works hard at keeping a good attitude. "That is why I do the crazy little things I do." he says. "I do not pull for guys to do bad so that I get a chance to play. I have been lucky, for I have always been with a contender. If the regulars do good, then we win. If we win the pennant, then I get an equal share, just like everybody else. I hope everybody hits .400 with 100 home runs.
"I keep telling myself that everything works out for the best. Sure I sit on the bench a lot—but I can name a few guys like me who sat around for a long time, and when they got a chance to play regular they played themselves right out of the big leagues. Ernie Bowman of the Giants was one of those guys."
Chico Ruiz will be 31 in December, and one night in Houston not long ago he sat in Bristol's office. The door was closed. Chico had a roast beef on rye in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, and his elbows were resting on his knees. He was not kidding around, for he was talking about how time was running out on him. "No matter what they tell you, every ballplayer wants to play regular. They want to be out on the field, not on the bench. The one thing I hope for is that someday I can prove to myself that I was good enough to play regular in the big leagues. If the chance comes and I blow it—well, I can always say I was a pretty good utility player. But if that chance never comes, it will hurt. It will hurt very much."