Saturday, August 27, 2016

Chooch's Place in Phillies History

It was just two days ago that the announcement came, one that I had expected would be coming by this year's MLB trade deadline or soon thereafter: the Phillies had traded away longtime starting catcher Carlos Ruiz.
I wanted to wait a couple of days before writing anything, letting the departure of Chooch sink in fully, before trying to write anything that might have been overly emotional or sentimental in the immediate aftermath of the deal.
Unfortunately, that is simply not possible with the Phillies primary catcher for the vast majority of the past decade, one of the pieces in what I have come to refer to as the Phils' "Core Five" that dominated the National League for a half-decade or so.
Along with teammates Jimmy RollinsChase UtleyRyan Howard, and Cole Hamels, Ruiz helped the Phillies win five consecutive NL East crowns from 2007-11.
The group won the 2008 World Series together, back-to-back NL Pennants in 2008-09, and set a franchise record with 102 victories in the 2011 season.
With all of the victories came a cleansing of sorts. More than a century of mostly frustrating futility from the franchise, aside from the oasis from the mid-70's through early-80's, was washed away.
Chooch and company turned Citizens Bank Park in South Philly into the city's place to be
, and every one of those players will be remembered with fondness by generations of fans, vetted in ceremonial reunions for decades to come.
I never played professional baseball, so I'm not going to pretend that I know what the grind of trying to catch 130 or so games over the course of a 162-game Major League Baseball season is like.
However, for the better part of a decade and a half, I played men's softball and was a catcher. I know what it is like to squat behind home plate, to work an umpire, to frame pitches.
Over those years I was involved in home plate collisions, picked off runners at first base, positioned fielders on defense, and communicated well with my pitchers. My primary team won six championships over a decade between 1985-94.
Bottom line is, I have a nice appreciation for catchers, who have always held a special place in my heart and for whom I have a great deal of respect.
I think that my own playing experience and my general knowledge of the game over the last 45 years gives me a solid base from which to make evaluations on their worth.
To say that Carlos Ruiz is the 4th best catcher that I have seen in a Phillies uniform during my lifetime is absolutely no slight to the beloved Chooch. In fact, I place him in elite company as one of the four greatest in that time.
The other three whom I would rank ahead of him are all Phillies Wall of Famers. In chronological order they are: Bob BooneDarren Daulton, and Mike Lieberthal.
Jul 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame member Boone during the Burrell (not pictured) induction ceremony before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Boonie was the Phillies catcher of my youth. The club's 6th round choice in the 1969 MLB Amateur Draft out of Stanford University, he made his big league debut in 1972, and by the following year was the team's starting backstop.
Boone squatted behind the plate for 1,095 games over parts of ten seasons between 1972-81. He finished 3rd in the 1973 NL Rookie of the Year voting, was a three-time NL All-Star while with the club, and won NL Gold Gloves in 1978-79.
That was just his Phillies work. Sold to the Angels in December 1982 at age 33, Boone would go on to catch through age 42 in 1990, adding another five Gold Gloves and a 1983 All-Star appearance while in the American League.
During his decade in red pinstripes, Boone hit for a .259 average with 65 homers, 456 RBI, and 349 runs scored. He was probably second only to the legendary Hall of Famer Johnny Bench for defensive excellence behind the plate in the NL during the 1970's.
Daulton was the Phillies 25th round pick in the MLB Amateur Draft during the summer of 1980, joining the organization while Boonie and his mates were marching towards the franchise' first-ever World Series championship.
Jul 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame member Daulton during the Burrell (not pictured) induction ceremony before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
The man who would become beloved here in his own right was known affectionately as "Dutch", and he made his own big league debut in a cameo with the 1983 "Wheeze Kids" team that won a National League Pennant.
Daulton would suffer a series of debilitating knee injuries during his career, but finally emerged as the primary catcher in 1989, a role he would maintain for the better part of the next eight years as he caught in 965 games for the Phillies.
In 1993, Dutch was the team captain, leader of the "Macho Row" band of misfits and mullets who stormed the National League in a worst-to-first campaign that took them all the way to Game Six of the World Series before they were finally stopped.
Moving on to the Florida Marlins in a deal just prior to the 1997 trade deadline, Daulton became an immediate locker room presence on a team of veterans, helping them to the first playoff appearance in franchise history, and ultimately the first World Series crown as well that fall.
An NL All-Star in 1992, 1993, and 1995 while with the Phillies, Daulton hit for a .245/.357/.427 slash line with 137 homers, 588 RBI, 511 runs scored, and even stole 50 bags over parts of 14 seasons with the Fightin' Phils.
Lieberthal was the highest draftee of the bunch, the 3rd overall pick in the 1st round of the 1990 MLB Amateur Draft out of a California high school.
Jul 31, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame member Lieberthal during the Burrell (not pictured) induction ceremony before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
He made cameos with the 1994-95 Phillies, and then began to take over partially for Daulton during the 1996 season. He earned the starting job by 1997, moving Dutch to a role at 1st base and in the outfield.
Over the course of 13 seasons with the Phillies, Lieby set a team record by catching in 1,139 games. He banged out 150 home runs, drove in 609 runs, scored 528 times, and had a .275/.338/.450 slash line.
Lieberthal was an NL All-Star in both 1999 and 2000, and he won the National League Gold Glove Award in the 1999 season.
He was the catcher during the lean years of the late-1990's, helped the club move through the end of the Veteran's Stadium era and into Citizens Bank Park, and was able to hang on until just before the recent Glory Era began.
Boone was elected into the Phillies Wall of Fame in 2005, Daulton was honored in 2010, and Lieberthal was enshrined in the 2012 season. They are the three greatest catchers in franchise history.
At some point in the next few years, that trio will be rightly joined in the Phillies Wall of Fame by Chooch, who earned his place with his individual play and with his contributions to a championship team.
Assuming he never plays another game in a Phils uniform, Ruiz finishes with 1,029 games behind the dish, third behind Lieberthal and Boone in club history.
Ruiz was a 2012 National League All-Star, and received NL Most Valuable Player votes each year following the 2010-12 seasons. He produced 68 homers, 401 RBI, 388 runs scored, and hit for a .266/.352/.393 slash line over parts of 11 seasons with the Phillies.
I have so many great personal memories of all of these players. But I do have three particular memories of Chooch that will always stand out more than any others from his career. I am sure most Phillies fans who followed the club during his career remember them well.
The first came from that 2008 World Series victory. His slow dribbler to 3rd base that brought Eric Bruntlett charging home with the walkoff game-winner in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game Three, a win that moved the Phillies up 2-1 on the Tampa Bay Rays.


The second came on his end of what has famously become known in Phillies lore as "Utley's Deke",  the play that I consider, along with Richie Ashburn's throw in the bottom of the 9th inning of the final game of the 1950 season, to be one of the two greatest defensive plays in franchise history.
I am talking about the tremendous heads-up fake throw to first and strike to the plate by Chase that kept the Phillies tied at 3-3 in the top of the 7th inning of the decisive Game Five during that 2008 World Series.
While everyone properly credits and remembers Utley for the play, the fact is that without a tremendous finish on the back-end of that same play by Chooch, taking the ball and diving out to catch Rays' shortstop Jason Bartlett at the plate, it doesn't work.


The final of my three favorite Chooch moments was one that my wife and I had the pleasure to witness in person from a hundred feet above, sitting in the upper deck above the 1st base bag, a little bit out into right field
It was the top of the 9th inning of Game Two of the 2010 National League Division Series between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds, and Phils pitcher Roy Halladay had a no-hitter going with two outs.
Brandon Phillips was the batter, and the speedy Cincy 2nd baseman took a two-strike hack at an offering from Doc, dribbling it out in front of the plate.
Chooch scrambled out from behind the dish, nearly tripped over Phillips' bat, which had fallen in his path, and from his knees fired a strike to nail the runner by a stride, preserving the no-hitter and giving the Phillies a 2-0 lead in the series.


The trade details are really of no consequence. I have written a number of times over the past year or so regarding potential trades of both Chooch and The Big Piece.
I have always stated that any trades of these respected, aging veterans would simply be deals that would allow them to get one more shot at contending while bringing little back in return.
In the end, Ruiz was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the same place that JRoll was traded in December of 2014, and that Chase was sent a season ago.
In fact, Utley is still there, and he and Chooch will again be teammates as they try to win another World Series title at the end of their careers.
Coming back to the Phillies are veteran catcher A.J. Ellis, pitching prospect Tommy Bergjans, and a player to be named later.
Ellis will be a free agent following this season, and likely finishes the year as Cameron Rupp's backup with the Phils.
Jul 22, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Rupp (29) reacts as home plate umpire Tony Randazzo (R) addresses both benches during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The Phillies have a pair of catching prospects who are nearly ready to contribute to the big league club in Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro.
The latter is likely to see time with the Phillies in September, and both will come to spring training next year with a shot at making the team.
Bergjans was the Dodgers pick in the 8th round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft following his graduation as a senior at Haverford College in the Philly suburbs.
The 23-year old righty had an outstanding 133/29 K:BB ratio over 130 innings at High-A, but had also allowed 138 hits and had a 4.98 ERA in 24 games, 21 of those as starts.
He is not considered a top prospect, but will become an interesting organizational arm with the Phillies, probably slated for the AA Reading Fightin' Phils next year.
As for the PTBNL, that could be almost anything, or could end up nothing.
That Ruiz is only fourth on the all-time club catching rankings is really not an "only", and is again no slight. The three ahead of him rank among the greatest players in Phillies franchise history.
The fact is that Chooch leaves behind his own unforgettable legacy, one that will remain positive with all Phillies fans who got to enjoy watching him play. He will take his place alongside his fellow catching greats with a plaque on the wall in Ashburn Alley soon enough.

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