PLACENTIA, Calif. –
Hold up three fingers to Bishop Amat (La Puente, Calif.)
slugger Rio Ruiz
and he immediately laughs. He recalls the story vividly or has heard it enough to memorize.
"Yes – I've been playing baseball and swinging a bat before I could talk," he said.
Seems Ruiz' father Rudy knew the president of the West Covina American Little League and convinced him to let Rio sign up early. Way early as it turned out.
"It was the first day and the coach was asking all the kids how old they were," Rudy said during Amat's 11-3 shellacking of second-ranked St. Francis
at the Hard 9 National Classic Tuesday. "Some were 7. Most were 5 or 6. When it got to Rio he still wasn't really talking so he just held up three fingers for 3 years old.
"The coaches were like, ‘What? Wow.'"
Ruiz has been wowing them ever since and is the most coveted player at the prestigious annual tournament in Orange County.
Check that. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound third basemen and pitcher is one of the most sought-after juniors in the country and a projected high pick in the 2012 draft.
His uber quick hands and powerful stroke, combined with soft glove, excellent speed (4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and rocket right arm keep scouts scribbling, opponents pacing and historians comparing.
Ruiz, who started as a freshman and has made MaxPreps All-American teams in his first two seasons, will challenge about every school record in the books. And Amat has a pretty solid list of baseball alumni, in recent years alone – Rangers infielder Michael Young, Angels hurler Dan Haren and multi-team utility man Mike Lamb.
Bishop Amat coach Andy Nieto doesn't bother with any of those comparisons.
"He's Eric Chavez," Nieto said. "That's who he is."
Nieto would know. IN HIS BLOOD
As an 11-year assistant for Mike Gillespie at USC, Nieto recruited Chavez out of Mt. Carmel (San Diego) High School in the mid-1990s.
Chavez, in fact, committed to USC but the Oakland A's selected him as the 10th overall pick in the 1996 draft and signed him in August that same year.
Like Chavez, Ruiz has committed to USC also, but other similarities are uncanny. Both are Hispanic, left-handed power-hitting third basemen with almost identical builds. Both are charming, handsome and extremely coachable.
Ruiz, at this stage, might be a little stronger, thicker and faster.
Nieto wouldn't be surprised come June if Ruiz isn't presented the same choice as Chavez, now a reserve for the Yankees whose injury-riddled 13-year career has featured 230 home runs and six Gold Gloves.
"(Ruiz) has that type of talent," Nieto said. "He's that special. He's the poster child for the Class of 2012."
What sets Ruiz apart not only from Chavez but most others is that he's also a superb football talent.
In his first season as starting quarterback, he completed 134 of 215 passes for 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, leading the Lancers to a 9-2 season. That came after he caught 35 passes for 469 yards and three scores as a sophomore receiver. One of those TD catches was the game-winner in overtime to beat Mater Dei 28-21 in the playoffs.
According to his dad, the USC baseball coaches have given Ruiz to the OK to play both sports in college.
"I'd love to play both in college," Ruiz said. "My greatest memories in high school are under the Friday night lights. I wouldn't trade them for anything."
But he makes no bones about it. Baseball is his first love.
Beyond his acclaim and gaudy career numbers — .447 average, 88 RBIs, 43 extra base hits, 29 steals in 32 attempts – Ruiz finds tranquility in the game.
"When I get on the diamond, everything else goes away," he said. "It's in my blood. It's what I wanted to do my whole life."
Rudy can corroborate that. When he dragged home from his family-owned 8-to-5 hazard waste job every day, Rio would be lying in wait.
"I couldn't get a foot in the door and there would be Rio with all the baseball gear wanting to play catch or hit the ball," Rudy said.
Said Ruiz: "I just remember the first time picking up a bat and it made me smile."
He just couldn't talk about it. Literally. Continue reading