On February 9, 1972, Kansas City Royals infielder Chico Ruiz died in a car accident in San Diego, California. Ruiz was just 33 years old and presumably still had many years left playing baseball in the major leagues. Ruiz started his career in Cuba and was one of the last players to successfully leave the country before the borders were closed. The Cincinnati Redlegs signed him as an amateur free agent in 1958 and Chico would make his major league debut with the Reds in 1964.
Chico’s debut was on April 13, 1964, against the Houston Colt .45’s. He went 1-for-4 and stole a base — his first of 11 steals during his rookie season. Despite not being known as a big-time base stealer (he was only 34 for 50 in his career), Chico managed to steal one of the most improbable bases in the history of the sport. This occurred during a game on September 24, 1964, against the Philadelphia Phillies. After a one-out single, Ruiz found himself on third base with two outs. There were also two strikes on the batter — none other than five-time All-Star and former (and future) Most Valuable Player Frank Robinson.
Somehow, in Chico Ruiz’s mind, it made sense to try to steal home at this very moment. Remember, there were TWO strikes on Robinson, one of the most feared hitters in the game, so not only was the opposition concerned that big Frank could change the game with one swing, Chico had to have been concerned for his well-being. If Chico got a good jump and Frank swung at a pitch not knowing he was coming, Chico would have been in great danger. If Robinson swung and struck Ruiz with a line drive, not only would Chico have likely been injured, but he may also have been called out depending on whether he was within the base line. Finally, if Ruiz was thrown out trying to steal home with Robinson at the plate, the play may have gone down as one the biggest boneheaded plays the game has ever seen. An infield single would have scored Ruiz; so would a wild pitch.
It was the fact that Ruiz was successful that made this play so memorable. Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey saw the runner breaking for home and hurried his delivery. That resulted in a pitch that could not be handled by his catcher and an easy run for the Reds. The run happened to be the only one of the game, as the Reds defeated the Phillies, 1-0, the first of ten straight losses by the (then) first-place Phillies. Of course, the Phillies had a 6.5-game lead with 12 games to play after the loss. The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League pennant that season with a victory over the New York Mets in the final game of the season, 11-5. Bob Gibson came on in relief to pitch four innings to get his 19th win of the season, while Mets pitcher Galen Cisco suffered his 19th loss in the game as well.
Ruiz himself would never get to play in the postseason. He was traded after the 1969 season to the California Angels in a five-player deal. One player he was traded with was his friend Alex Johnson. Unfortunately, their relationship turned sour during their time in California, though Johnson was known to have problems with many players and management during his baseball career. Johnson, who himself passed away less than a year ago, played for eight teams in his 13 big league seasons.
The Reds won the National League West division in 1970, something the team would do in five of the next seven years. Meanwhile, it seemed as if the Angels had turned the corner after winning a franchise-high 86 games in 1970. However, things fell apart during the 1971 season and the Ruiz/Johnson relationship symbolized the clubhouse atmosphere in California. After the season, general manager Dick Walsh and manager Lefty Phillips were relieved of their duties and Johnson was traded. Ruiz was released and eventually signed with the Kansas City Royals to be a utility player for the 1972 season, something that ultimately never happened.
Ruiz holds the distinction of being the only player to ever pinch hit for Reds catcher Johnny Bench, in Bench’s first major-league game in August 1967. He also pinch hit for Pete Rose in 1964. Apparently Dick Sisler (Cincinnati’s manager in the latter part of 1964) and Dave Bristol (the Reds manager in 1967) saw enough in Ruiz to think that he could be an everyday player. It never worked out during his time in Cincinnati, as Chico spent time behind the likes of Rose, Deron Johnson, Tommy Helms, Leo Cardenas, and others. A very good defensive player, just at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is interesting to wonder how he could have responded if he got a chance to be a regular player.
Looking at his career statistics, Ruiz should be viewed as a utility player at best. His career OPS was .574 and his batting average was just .240 over the course of his eight big-league seasons. However, during his three-plus seasons in Triple-A (he was held back more than one season because of depth at the major-league level), he had an OPS well over .700 and hit 22 home runs during that time. While we will never know how Ruiz could have performed as a full-time big-league player (he hit .283 filling in for Cardenas in Cincinnati during the 1967 season), his lack of offensive production over the course of his eight seasons was not impressive. He was looking at an opportunity to earn playing time in Kansas City in 1972.
Forty-four years have now gone by since Chico Ruiz perished. Though his career batting line shows numbers such as a batting average of .240, two home runs, 133 runs scored, 37 doubles, and 10 triples in 1150 at-bats, it is impossible to say his career would have been over if his life had not been cut short. Because of that, his claim to fame will always be his steal of home in the late season of 1964 against the Phillies. It will forever be remembered as one of the turning points in the late-season collapse of the 1964 Phillies season.