YEARS AGO, when Carlos Ruiz was young and I was, well, younger, I stood aside a bilingual reporter named Jorge Ortiz on the steps of the Phillies' dugout. This was amid that five-year run of division championships, when Ruiz had ascended from his status of part-time catcher to trusted handler of the best pitching staff we have ever seen in Phillies uniforms.
Chooch was already a beloved figure by then, the photo of him wrapped around Brad Lidge after the final out as commonplace in these parts as a signed photo of you or a relative standing next to Bobby Clarke. But he was also a one-dimensional character to most. "Cute" was a word I heard a lot back then.
Ortiz had a mother from Puerto Rico who spoke Spanish and a father from the Continental United States who spoke English (or the other way around, I can never remember). I was then, and still am, envious of that, and when I occasionally speak at high schools and grammar schools and am asked for advice, it starts there. Pay attention in Spanish class. Go somewhere it is the primary language, if you can, and practice using it.
Because, I tell them, if your lack of understanding Spanish hasn't frustrated you yet, it most certainly will soon.
We are living in a bilingual world here in the United States. If your own experience hasn't taught you that, then take a gander at any trend study out there. The Pew Research Center, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan fact tank," puts the number of Latinos in the United States at 57 million. While the percentage of their population growth has slowed in the United States over the last seven years due to an immigration dropoff and a declining birth rate, Latinos still accounted for more than half (54 percent) of the total U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2014.
As is often the case, baseball is a reflection of that society. The percentage of Latin American players on this season's Opening Day rosters, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, increased from 28.5 percent in 2016 to 31.9 percent, continuing the upward trend that began decades ago.
Overall, 259 - or 34.6 percent - of all players came from outside of the United States. Among the holes in Mike Schmidt's contention that Latin players like Odubel Herrera are not players you can build around, and cannot ascend to leadership roles because of language and cultural differences, is that in several instances they already have. Mariano Rivera was such a player in New York, improving his English along the way. Carlos Correa, 22, and Jose Altuve, 27 are the current middle infield of the sizzling Astros. Each is hitting near or above .300.
I'm OK with building around them.
As for style of play. Well, then, Bryce Harper must have a lot of Latin in him. Truth is, flamboyance in any color, shape and size is here to stay in baseball. And most young, or even middle-aged fans - if they're being honest - like most of it.
As a leadership tool, language is overrated anyway. Players from all nations tell you that all the time. Does anyone think Chase Utley became the undisputed centerpiece of the Phillies' clubhouse because of his elocution? Freddy Galvis rose to the leadership position that manager Pete Mackanin mentioned the other day not through his words but through his actions, and his unlikely ascent from utility man to, at 27, one of the better everyday shortstops in the league - at least defensively.
Which brings us back to that day with Ruiz. He was perceived as a one-dimensional character because of our shortcomings, not his. Ortiz had a good interview, wrote a revealing story as I remember, and over the years, as Chooch grasped the English language, we learned that the last word that should have been used about him was cute. His upbringing was rough, his road from Panama to the big leagues tough and unforgiving, and his durability over the years - averaging 114 games over an eight-season stretch - was superhuman.
Oh, yeah, there was that very special relationship with English-speaking Roy Halladay. The four no-hitters he caught. His masterful handling of a very talented but sometimes temperamental staff. His uncanny ability to mimic anyone on the team, including the manager.
And his clubhouse leadership. Not only for Galvis and the stream of young Latin players beginning to reach the Phillies who, to this day, reference his influence. But also for guys like Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp who, when he first saw Ruiz when the Mariners visited last month, enveloped him in a bear hug that virtually swallowed any trace of his 5-8 mentor.
Just minutes before, Ruiz sat at a podium in front of a roomful of familiar faces and spoke wistfully about his old team and the area in which he still makes his home. His English better but not great, he spoke emotionally about the Phillies players he influenced here.
"That's one thing I tell my teammates now with the Mariners," he said. "You know, it's about family. Staying together."
A great message. For any culture. In any language.