Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Mickey Mantle Baseball Cards

Growing up in the sixties, baseball cards held a hallowed place in our hearts. Other than the occasional Saturday Game of the Week, it was the closest chance we had to actually see our heroes. Each year, there was an unspoken contest to be the first in the neighborhood to get the new year's cards. We couldn't wait to see what the design was, what jokes or little factoids were on the back, and what pose our favorite players had. There was an incredible joy in opening the waxy packs, smelling the sweet chalky aroma of the bubble gum and finding out who we had gotten. There was nothing like the feeling of our aching jaws as we tried to meld that tenth piece of the brittle foul-tasting bubble gum into the wad which stretched our aching jaws to the limit. There was nothing like the ecstatic squeals from our bubble-gum loaded mouths as we discovered a Mays or an Aaron in that last pack.

We didn't need no stinking price guides to tell us what our cards were worth. We didn't know and didn't care about rookie cards or limited runs. Mint condition was something that made your breath smell good. The only thing that mattered to us was the man on the front of the card. We all knew that a Bob Gibson was worth more than a Juan Pizarro, a Harmon Killebrew was worth more than a Rich Reese, a Mickey Mantle was worth more than anybody and two Mickey Mantles were worth more than any punishment known to western civilization.

Back then cards came ten in a pack (plus an insert of a game card, poster or coin) for a dime. For a few hours work riding our bikes around collecting Coke bottles for the two cent refund, we could get quite a few cards. It wasn't always easy to find cards though. Frequently the food stores, dime stores and gas stations only bought a few boxes--and there were always jokers around who bragged about "buying out" the stores. The most reliable place for us to score some cards was a 7-11 store which, unfortunately, lay on the other side of a four-lane road which we were forbidden to cross without adult assistance.

 One fateful day in 1969 my brother and I heard from a guy who knew a guy who said that there were only a few cards left at the 7-11. With ready cash burning holes in our pockets, we decided that we could not simply wait for it to be sold out and we decided to sneak over there. To our amazing good luck, our haul included two Mickey Mantles! The Mick, the All-Time World Series Home Run Leader himself, the last remaining link to the great Yankee dynasties--to the time when giants roamed the Earth (or at least roamed New York). He had already announced his retirement and we knew this was the last baseball card he would ever have. To a kid in 1969 this was like finding the Hope diamond in a box of Cracker Jacks.

With a sibling cooperativeness usually reserved only for snooping for Christmas presents, my brother and I quickly agreed to divvy up the loot fairly (one Mantle each), hid the cards in the garage, put on our best poker faces and marched into the house. We were amazed to find out that we were already busted. Somehow my mom was always one step ahead of us. Later we discovered that our neighborhood held an elaborate network of mother-spies which would have put the CIA to shame--kids in that neighborhood never had a chance--and someone had seen us crossing the road and ratted us out.

 My mom confiscated our treasure and put it on top of the refrigerator, announcing that we would be lucky to get them back before winter. We were semi-celebrities at school that week as news of our great fortune spread quickly. Along with the notoriety, however, came scoffs from wise guys who doubted our story and said that since we couldn't produce the evidence, we must be lying. Finally after an eternity (one week) of torture, my mother, understanding the gravity of the situation, commuted the sentence and the cards were ours.

I don't know what happened to my brother's Mickey Mantle card, but I know what happened to mine--I still have it. According to Beckett's Price Guide grading scale, the rounded corners and numerous creases the card sustained as it went to school in my back pocket every day that week 42 years ago make it virtually worthless now. But, like I said, we never needed no stinking price guides to tell us what our cards were worth.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bench me or trade me: remembering Chico Ruiz

Chico Ruiz was one of the more colorful characters and popular members of the Reds in the 1960s. When 25 year old Hiraldo Sablon Ruiz, known to all as Chico, joined the club in spring 1964, he had several very good years in the minors behind him and was ready for the majors. He grew up in Santo Domingo, Cuba where his father operated a cigar factory. Chico and teammate Tony Perez were part of the last of the wave of great players to come from Cuba before Fidel Castro shut down the pipeline. In the fifties the Reds had a great thing going in Cuba. Reds’ general manager Gabe Paul was good friends with the owner of the Havana club and the Reds actually made Havana a triple-A team a few years. Baseball had been introduced to Cuba in the early 1900s and the island had a great baseball tradition, more than any other Caribbean country at the time. Ruiz told reporters in early 1964, “Where I live in Cuba, if baby is boy, his first gift is always a bat.” The Reds occasionally took spring training trips to Havana in the fifties. The Reds got first shot at a large number of great players thanks to their relationships on the island. In addition to Ruiz, Cardenas and Perez, other players such as Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzalez and Cookie Rojas--players who had long successful careers in the majors--were brought in and traded. Unfortunately, soon after taking power Castro decided to favor the Communist Reds over the Reds from Cincinnati and he put an end to baseball players leaving the island for the major leagues. The early days of the Castro uprising had centered in Ruiz’s native area of Santo Domingo and had closed the secondary school he was attending. Ruiz’s father had opposed Chico signing a baseball contract which would take him to the United States. His father’s fears were confirmed as, once the Castro government had been established, Chico, like other Cubans playing major league baseball, could not visit his home because of the uncertainty of being allowed to leave to return to the United States. It would be years before Chico saw some members of his family again.
Chico was popular with his teammates on the Reds. He was always smiling and bubbly--a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.  He was proud of the control he had gained of the English language through hard work, without any educational assistance, and he mixed well with his teammates.  “Everybody liked Chico,” says Sammy Ellis.
“Chico Ruiz was extremely funny,” says Mel Queen. “He was always joking.” One of the characters on the team, he kept teammates laughing. One season, he spent his idle time in the dugout making a huge ball of bubble gum wrappers. He became renowned for the alligator shoes he bought and fit with spikes. “When we were going to be on the Saturday Game of the Week on TV,” adds Queen, “Chico would wear his alligator shoes and sit in the front part of the dugout with his feet up so everybody on TV could see them.”
Ruiz was once spotted on the bench with his own personal cushion and a battery-operated portable fan. “If you’re going to sit on the bench, why not be comfortable?” he said. He loved practical jokes, once slicing a teammate’s sports jacket into shreds and then sewing it back together loosely so that it fell apart as soon as it was put on.
While Ruiz had blazing speed, he was not near the all-around player Cardenas was and could not beat him out at shortstop. Although the switch hitter had a good batting average in the minors, he was never able to hit much more than .250 in the majors. But he was a very valuable player to have on a team because of his disposition and because he could play, better than adequately, every position on the field except pitcher and catcher. He started at third base early in 1964, however Steve Boros won the job after the first few weeks. Starting or not, Chico’s attitude was the same. Later in his career, as a utility infield-lifer, he was forced by injuries to others to be in the starting lineup for several weeks in a row. He came into the dugout after a game, slammed his glove on the bench, complained that playing every day was killing him and jokingly yelled the immortal phrase, “Bench me or trade me.”
Late in spring training of 1964, Earl Lawson had run a column discussing the great speed of Chico Ruiz, who had led the league in stolen bases every year in the minors from 1959 through 1963. Three times in his career, he had gotten doubles on bunts and once had reportedly gotten a triple on an infield popup. “God give me speed,” Chico told Lawson, “I got to use it.”
Lawson quoted coach Regie Otero as saying, “If Chico make team, we be the terrors of the National League. . .  we drive pitchers crazy.”  Lawson and Otero did not know at the time that six months later their words would seem like prophecy. 
That prophecy would come true on September 21, 1964. The Reds were in Philadelphia to take on the Phillies who were seemingly in command of first place--a six and a half game lead with twelve games left to play. In the top of the sixth inning of the scoreless game, Chico found himself on third base with two outs.
Frank Robinson stepped into the batter’s box. After a great month of August, Robinson had remained hot in September, his batting average now over .300. Robinson menacingly took his familiar stance, head bent, elbow leaning over the plate, daring the pitcher to give him anything close. Phillies pitcher Art Mahaffey peered in for the sign. He knew he would have to be careful with Robinson. With first base open, there was no need to give him a good pitch, but the next batter, Deron Johnson, had also been hitting well and so Mahaffey didn’t want to intentionally put Robinson on. The righthanded Mahaffey slowly went into his wind up and fired a fastball which Robinson took a vicious swing at and missed.
Leading off third, Chico Ruiz watched the windup and pitch. Had Mahaffey checked him or was he focusing only on the dangerous batter at the plate? Ruiz looked at Mahaffey, then looked at homeplate, then back at Mahaffey. As the pitcher lifted his left foot to bring it back to start his wind up Ruiz . . . took off!
Out of the periphery of his vision, Mahaffey detected movement in a place where his brain quickly registered no movement should be. Having already committed to his windup, Mahaffey could not break off and simply throw the ball home for fear of committing a balk. Was it a bluff, a steal or a squeeze bunt? Why would they squeeze with two outs? Why would they steal or squeeze with Robinson at the plate? With two outs?! Mahaffey’s brain quickly tried to process the information in a fraction of a second while completing his windup as 20,000 screaming fans, along with the players and coaches from both teams reached the astonishing conclusion at the same time: he’s trying to steal home!!
Robinson also noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and sort of half turned as if to bunt and stuck his bat out. “I did what I could to protect him,” he later told reporters. A pitcher’s normal response to a squeeze or steal of home is to throw the pitch either at the batter to force him to get out of the way or to throw it outside where it can’t be reached with a bunt attempt. Perhaps Mahaffey’s brain quickly ruled out throwing inside due to the standing order from Mauch not to ever throw inside to Robinson. Perhaps he just threw it as fast as he could. The ball reached home in time to get the streaking Ruiz, but it sailed too high and outside. Catcher Clay Dalrymple jumped but couldn’t reach it. Ruiz scored.
A steal of home is one of the rarest plays in baseball. Most are part of a double steal with a man on first and third. A straight steal from third is an almost impossible task off a major league pitcher. The baserunner is betting he can sprint almost ninety feet faster than the pitcher can throw a ball sixty feet. Most managers tend to discourage taking such chances. Ruiz had taken this chance entirely on his own. Indeed, perhaps the most surprised person in the park to see him running was acting-manager Dick Sisler. When Ruiz broke for home, Sisler jumped up screaming, “No, No!” To take a chance like that, in that situation, at that stage of the season was mind-boggling. And for a rookie to risk laying there at homeplate, being tagged with the third out and looking up at the unhappy face of Frank Robinson, standing there holding a baseball bat, defies comprehension.
“Chico Ruiz was a smart player who wasn’t afraid to take a chance,” says Billy McCool. “Of course, if Frank had gotten a good pitch and turned on it, Chico would have died a whole lot sooner.”
“If he had been out they would have shot him,” says Ellis.
“It was about the dumbest play I’ve ever seen,” Rose said years later, “except that it worked.”
 Reds pitcher John Tsitouris blanked the Phillies the rest of the way, striking out the final batter with a man on third, and the Reds won, 1-0. After the game in the Reds clubhouse, a jubilant Ruiz told reporters, “I was hoping I would be safe because I didn’t want to hear what the manager would say if I was out.”
“On the first pitch to Robby, Mahaffey only look at me once and then went into a slow windup,” Ruiz explained. “He did the same thing on the second pitch and I run.” Ruiz admitted that he had stolen home a few times in the minors but had never attempted it in the majors. “I don’t think I try again,” he laughed, “I keep my record perfect.”
“I didn’t give Ruiz the steal sign,” Sisler told reporters. Then, stating the obvious, added “with Robby up there at the plate, I’d rather gamble on him hitting than Ruiz stealing.”
“When I saw Ruiz start running I just went blank,” said third base coach Regie Otero. “I couldn’t say anything.”
Phillies manager Gene Mauch certainly could say something. In the clubhouse he was beside himself. “Who the f--- is Chico Ruiz?” he screamed to no one in particular, “If he had been thrown out he would be sent back to the minors where he belongs.” The play had defied logic. It was an affront to all that Mauch believed in. To lose a game on a play like that, by an unknown player like that, was more than he could stand.
“Chico F---ing Ruiz! Chico F---ing Ruiz!” he screamed over and over at his demoralized team. “I can’t believe it. You guys let Chico F---ing Ruiz beat you.” The Phillies had reached their highwater mark. They would never recover. 

The Phillies promptly went on an epic losing streak. That, coupled with a Red winning streak which reached ten in a row, brought the two teams back together at Crosley Field the last weekend of the season in a virtual three-way tie with the Cardinals.
          Unfortunately for Chico Ruiz, the 1964 season would be the high point of his major league career. He never topped the number of games, at bats or hits he recorded that season. As an infielder he was cursed with bad timing: Reds shortstop Leo Cardenas was one of the best in the National League throughout the 1960s and the second baseman, Rose, was pretty fair also. A few years later, Rose was moved to the outfield and Tommy Helms, who also made a few All-Star teams, took over second base. The Reds eventually used third base for power hitters, first Deron Johnson, then Tony Perez, leaving Chico without a legitimate shot at a regular place in the line up. As will happen, Chico's skills, and perhaps his confidence, eroded the longer he sat on the bench. But he remained a valuable member of the team due to his readiness and upbeat attitude. Every ex-player I interviewed had nothing but good things to say about Chico. 
Chico Ruiz was traded to the Angels in 1970 and was tragically killed in a car accident in California in 1972 at the age of 33 years. Here's to you Chico, bench  me or trade me.