Many mornings Darin Ruf wakes up, flips on the TV and sees both what could have been and what once was.
And then he looks down and sees what is.
It’s often too early — 6 or 7 a.m. — when he picks up baby Olive so his wife, Libby, can get an extra hour or so of sleep after she cared for Olive throughout the night. He cradles the newborn as he watches the league he played and dominated in for the last three seasons. ESPN is airing Korea Baseball Organization games, and Ruf can see the friends and foes he played with and against from 2017-19. He doesn’t root solely for the hitters, remembering the respect that went around the league: “We always used to say, ‘I hope I go 1-for-3 with a single and a walk off of you. That way we don’t do too much damage to your line.'”
Ruf still might be damaging those lines if not for Olive, born March 27. When Libby got pregnant with their second child, the family had to decide if he would be going back for Year Four with the Samsung Lions. They wanted to have the baby in the US, and he wouldn’t have been able to see the family for months after the child was born. So Ruf, at 33, his last game in the majors having come in 2016, launched a comeback attempt with San Francisco.
“Launch” might be the operative word after his few weeks in Scottsdale, where he showed no respect for opposing pitchers. In the Cactus League, the big righty slashed .429/.469/1.000 in 32 plate appearances that included three home runs. The first baseman and corner outfielder was beginning to get more outfield reps when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and spring training 1.0 was canceled in mid-March.
If some would look at it as an unfortunate bit of timing — being taken away from the field when you’re at your hottest and forcing your way into a roster discussion that wasn’t happening a few weeks prior — Ruf sees what it has allowed him to do rather than what he’s been prevented from doing.
“I don’t want to say ‘blessing in disguise,'” Ruf said this week over the phone, acknowledging the grim nature of the virus that has claimed so many lives and left so many out of work. “… But as far as my personal situation, to be able to be here for the two months that I have been — these are probably the two trickiest months and the months a mother and a wife would want their husband to be there, and the husband would want to be there to help.”
He has been there, in Nebraska, where he was allowed to be there for Libby as Olive was born. “But I was the only one that was allowed in [the hospital room],” Ruf said.
Originally, he took some time off from baseball to care for Libby, but as hope for a baseball season has risen, so has Ruf. “Three-and-a-half or four weeks ago” he was able to get back into his local gym, owned by his longtime trainer. Recently he and a few area players have been hitting inside at Westside High School, his alma mater. The ramping-up period has begun.
Ruf, whom Farhan Zaidi fleetingly acquired with the Dodgers, too, before he went overseas, might have gained a new way onto a roster if baseball is indeed played this season. The National League is expected to adopt the designated hitter with so much interleague play on the table in an abbreviated season, and Ruf is squarely in the mix after the show he put on in February and March.
While he’s played his entire major league career with Philadelphia in the NL, he DH’d some in the KBO, which he said doesn’t “really believe in full days off.”
“My DH day would kind of be my rest day,” said Ruf, who went up and down in the Phillies organization but always demonstrated a good power-to-strikeout ratio. “… I think it would be weird to do it every day. But I think position players in general don’t mind getting a DH day when they’re an everyday position guy playing defense every day, too. Being able to transition one day to just hitting that day to keep your rhythm offensively and not be on your feet quite as much.”
Ruf, like so many around the league, is optimistic something will get done that would turn these hypotheticals into realities. He’s ready to go back to work, as appreciative as he is for what this break has meant for his family.
It wasn’t well-timed for an aging slugger trying to crack his way back into the majors. But it was helpful for a man who wanted to be a good husband and father, which he could because he was watching KBO games instead of playing in them.
“That would have been pretty difficult to get back in time and everything,” Ruf said. “Yeah, just glad everything worked out.”