September 21st is, quite simply, the darkest day in Philly Sports History. It was on this date, in 1964, that a mediocre utility infielder born with the name Hiraldo Sablon Ruiz did one of the stupidest things a baseball player can do, and in so doing started a chain of events that resulted in one of the most monumental collapses in the history of sports.
Born to a cigar maker in Cuba in 1938, at the time of the events in question he was a 25-year old rookie known as Chico. He is today more famous in Philadelphia than he is in his native city of Santo Domingo. If you don’t know who he is, ask your father. Or better yet, don’t. He seems happy. You’d hate to ruin his day. If your father is the salty sort, he’d probably just utter, “Chico F***ing Ruiz…I don’t want to talk about it.”
Ruiz is the gut punch in Philly that Bartman is in Chicago, and nearly as unlikely. He was a utility infielder with a .236 batting average when the Reds faced off with the Phillies that afternoon in 1964. The Phillies had Art Mahaffey on the mound, and a 6.5 game lead in the National League with 12 games to play. At 2:30 that afternoon, a young second baseman by the name of Pete Rose stepped into the batters box at Connie Mack Stadium, and the darkest day in Phils history began.
The 1964 Phils were a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The Giants had Mays, the Reds had Robinson, the Pirates had Clemente, the Braves had Aaron, the Phils had…Cookie Rojas. But it was a gritty team, the kind that Philadelphia falls madly in love with (see ’93 Phillies, 2001 Sixers). Go Phillies Go! bumper stickers started appearing on cars, and when World Series tickets went on sale in September, 90,000 were sold within hours. When their plane landed in Philly on September 19th after a West Coast swing, 2,000 fans had greeted them at the airport.
Mahaffey had his best stuff that day, and the game went into the 6th inning at double nil. With one out, Chico Ruiz got a single. Vada Pinson lined a screamer off of Mahaffey’s glove and into right field. Pinson tried to stretch it into a double, but Johnny Callison nailed him at 2nd with a perfect throw. And so, with two outs and Chico on 3rd, up to the plate stepped the dangerous Frank Robinson. Mahaffey quickly ran up two strikes on the right handed slugger, paying little attention to the Cuban dancing off of third base. Mahaffey wound up to deliver the pitch that he hoped would quell the Reds rally…and inexplicably Chico Ruiz broke for home.
If there is anything in baseball that is stupider than stealing home with 2 outs, 2 strikes, and a right hander at the plate, I can’t think of it off the top of my head. Mahaffey would explain why years later. “Chico Ruiz stole home with two outs and two strikes on Frank Robinson. Now you must realize that with two outs and two strikes, if you throw a strike Frank Robinson swings and knocks Chico Ruiz’s head off. It was just so stupid. Ruiz wasn’t even thinking. Robinson was so upset because he was one of the league’s leading hitters and near the lead in RBI and this guy’s stealing home with him hitting. It was just such a crazy thing. We didn’t know it was going to start a 10-game losing streak, but it couldn’t have started in more ridiculous way.”
Mahaffey was shaken by Rico’s brazen stupidity, perhaps scared that if he threw a strike he would be an accessory to an involuntary manslaughter. The ball went flying out of his hands, far outside of catcher Clay Dalrymple’s reach. Ruiz slid safely into home. There was a stone silence, as Phillies fans shook their heads in shock, and the Reds bench was dumbfounded by the stupidity of their 3rd basemen. “It was,” said Pete Rose years later, “The dumbest play I’ve ever seen. Except that it worked.” The Reds took a 1-0 lead, and they held it. The Phillies went 0-8 with runners in scoring position, and the game ended 1-0 in the Reds favor.
After the game, Phils manager Mauch would scream in the clubhouse, “Chico Fucking Ruiz beats us on a bonehead play of the year. Chico Fucking Ruiz steals home with Frank Robinson up! Can you believe it?” The next night, Mauch ordered his pitcher to drill him in the ribs. Ruiz smiled as he walked to first.
The “bonehead play of the year” started the monumental collapse of 1964. The Phils would lose their next 9 games as well, manager Gene Mauch would panic and start his two best pitchers (Bunning and Short) on two days rest 6 times, despite having Ray Culp waiting in the wings. The rest of the collapse is another story for another day. But today is a dark anniversary of the steal that started it all.
As for Chico Fucking Ruiz? In 1967, he became the first and only player to ever pinch hit for Johnny Bench. In 1969, he would utter one of the most hilarious sentences in baseball history. After starting for two straight weeks for injured shortstop Leo Cardenas, Ruiz stormed into the managers office with an ultimatum. “Bench me or trade me!” He was traded to the Angels, where he had a Gilbert Arenas moment with teammate Alex Johnson, allegedly pulling a gun on Johnson in the clubhouse. In 1972, he died in a car accident in San Diego. He was 33-years old. In his 8-year career, he stole home one time.