AFTER THE pregame rain delay, before the first pitch, Cliff Lee and Carlos Ruiz walked in from the bullpen, their steps broadcast on the big video board, the applause from the stands embracing and warm; like old times.
Chooch. It is a nickname, and (when it is pronounced in unison) it is a multisyllabic sign of affection, and (when you think about it for a minute) it is a reminder of what was.
Because Ruiz was in the middle of all of it, of pretty much every good thing that has happened to the Phillies in the last 6 years. He also has been suspended and injured and has seen plenty of the recent downside. Looking back, here is a lot about Ruiz that has been barometric for this franchise. How he has gone, they have gone.
But now the glory fades. The horizon that once was so clear and that seemed to go on forever is now crowded and clouded. This is the end. Whatever happens to the Phillies in the coming months, people will be leaving. What once was essential, what once was the very heart of the thing - of an era of unprecedented success for the Philadelphia National League Baseball Club - is about to be altered fundamentally. We all are about to be reminded that "core" is both a noun and a verb.
Which, of course, raises a question:
His contract is up at the end of this season. It is hard to know what he might be worth on the open market. So far this year, there has been the PED suspension, and the hamstring injury, and not a lot of hitting in between. You have to believe that how much he does or does not hit between now and the end of the season will have a lot to say about his mailing address in 2014.
If he hits a lot, and thinks he can get a 4- or 5-year contract on the open market, it is hard to believe that the Phillies would be interested.
If he hits a bit, though, things get interesting. If he is willing to go for a 2-year deal, or so, you would have to think the Phillies would be very interested - that is, unless they have decided to go all-in on trying to pursue Brian McCann in the offseason.
Because Ruiz, 34, brings a lot to the game, even when he isn't hitting particularly well. He brings enough that Phils manager Charlie Manuel is plainly thrilled to be getting him back from his hamstring injury - even if the hitting is going to be a work-in-progress kind of thing.
"I want him to be a real good catcher for us right now," Manuel said. "I want him to be able to throw. I want him to block balls, call the game like he always has, and his hitting will be a plus to us. I'm sure he'll hit enough to hold his own. He'll be able to get a big hit for you sometimes.
"But his defense, his game calling, means a lot to us."
It is no great secret that there has been a drop-off in that department - the defense and the game calling - in Ruiz' absence. For a team that has trouble scoring, that stuff is just magnified. But even as we all acknowledge that this is a franchise in transition, that stuff will still matter a lot next year - especially if general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is to believed, and if scorched earth is not over the next hill, and if the Phillies intend to contend for the playoffs in 2014.
Because you need a real catcher to contend. It would be hard to give a pitching staff anchored by veterans Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee to a rookie catcher - and that is assuming that Tommy Joseph does enough in the second half to make the Phillies think he is ready to be promoted. It would be hard to imagine that kind of a leap of faith.
There are so many possibilities here. Ruiz could get a long-term deal from somebody and go. Or the Phillies could be surprised by a big offer at the trade deadline, maybe from a desperate contender with a catching injury, and deal him. Or maybe they have their eyes on somebody better, like McCann. Or maybe he comes back to witness the franchise's turning of the page.
The Phillies don't have to make this decision yet, which is why all of that is still out there. There are still way too many moving parts. The only certainty is that, even if Chooch were to stay, it will be different. The only thing that will remain the same is the value the franchise places on his abilities behind the plate.
Because of that value, don't bet on Ruiz leaving just yet.
On Twitter: @theidlerich