Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa Bay Rays' Justin Ruggiano, 29, finally gets his big-league turn

Justin Ruggiano, grabbing Dustin Pedroia’s hit to left in the sixth for an out, now gets that his value is as a role player.


Justin Ruggiano, grabbing Dustin Pedroia’s hit to left in the sixth for an out, now gets that his value is as a role player.

ST. PETERSBURG — You follow the rules, and you do what you're told. You work hard, and you stay out of trouble. You keep your mouth shut, and you wait your turn.

But what do you do if your turn never comes?

What do you do when you are approaching 29 years old and looking at a fifth consecutive opening day in Triple A, as Justin Ruggiano was a couple of months ago?

What do you do when you see hot shots such as Evan Longoria and David Price pass through Durham like they were sightseeing? What do you do when Fernando Perez passes you on the depth chart and Ben Zobrist is told to grab an outfielder's mitt?

What do you do when the organization spends its offseasons making trades for Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld, or signing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez?

What do you do when your life does not measure up to your dreams? If you are a 25th-round draft choice with more than 3,000 plate appearances in the minor leagues, you change everything.

You stop pressing. You stop pushing. You stop worrying about what you are not and accept what you are. You stop fighting the tide and enjoy the ride. And when your turn finally comes, you have the most hellacious week you could have imagined.

The Rays have been one of the hottest teams in baseball the past eight days, and Justin Ruggiano has been their hottest hitter.

For the first time in his big-league career he is in the lineup every day, and it's as if a decade of frustration has been turned loose. Ruggiano is hitting .484 with two home runs and six RBIs in the past eight games, and the Rays have won six times.

Obviously, it is not sustainable. Not even close. But for now, it is enough.

"When I was younger, pride is what kept me going," Ruggiano said after hitting a home run in a 4-0 victory against Boston on Tuesday. "But when I'm through playing, I want to be remembered for someone who enjoyed being in the game. For being gracious about being here."

Four months ago, Ruggiano was a garage sale item. All those years in Durham had gotten him nowhere. When the Rays signed Ramirez and Damon in the offseason, they had to remove Ruggiano from the 40-man roster and put him on waivers. And 29 other teams decided he was not worth the roster space. "I was upset," Ruggiano said, "but I was probably more disappointed."

It's not as if Ruggiano is without upside. He'd been a .300 hitter in Triple A. He'd regularly stolen 20 bases or more a season and had a 20-home-run season. He is a good defensive outfielder, and there have never been complaints about his work ethic.

The problem is the Rays saw Ruggiano as a fourth outfielder and Ruggiano saw himself as something more. He never seemed to grasp that his best chance for success was to embrace a role as a part-time starter and defensive replacement.

So the Rays kept sending him to Durham, where he looked like a Casablanca extra in search of an exit visa. He'd grown so tired of minor-league life, Perez began calling him Scrooge.

"A couple of years ago we hit him between the eyes pretty hard on certain things we wanted to see and how he could carve out a role with us," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's one of those things where it's hard to get a young player to have the mind-set that they're content playing two, three, four times a week.

"His mind-set was, 'I can't do that. I don't think I can thrive in that kind of role.' To see the way he has evolved from a maturation standpoint has just been incredible to watch."

Ruggiano has been to the big leagues before. There was a brief stay in 2007. There were multiple callups in 2008 and another blink-and-you'll-miss shot in 2010. Each time Ruggiano felt as if he had to cram a career's worth of highlights into a handful of at-bats. It was not what the Rays wanted, and it was not a productive approach.

This spring, the Rays talked to Ruggiano once more about becoming a player who could fill a certain niche, and they assured him he was still in their plans.

"Given the circumstances and the past five years, it was kind of hard to believe that," Ruggiano said. "I guess at that point I took a step back and took a look at myself. I decided I'm playing this game because I love it and I'm not going to let where I'm at dictate the way I play or the attitude I bring to the clubhouse."

Six weeks into the season the Rays had a need for a fourth outfielder. They didn't want Desmond Jennings or Brandon Guyer sitting too much, so they turned to Ruggiano.

"I have respect for the word 'perseverance' and those it applies to," said manager Joe Maddon. "With a guy like Rugg, it took some time and it took losing his spot on the roster, but he persevered and made it here."

Tampa Bay Rays' Justin Ruggiano, 29, finally gets his big-league turn 06/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 12:33am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31


    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  2. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win


    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  3. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Saturday's Rays-Orioles game

    The Heater

    RHP Jake Odorizzi admitted he probably should have gone on the DL sooner than late July for the back stiffness that was keeping him from throwing the ball where he wanted to. He has since found an impressive groove, with another strong outing Saturday.

  4. Matt Baker's takeaways from Florida State-N.C. State


    RB Cam Akers still looks like a former high school quarterback at times. His first two touches (30 yards) were special, but the freshman juked instead of powering ahead on his third (an unsuccessful third-and-1 rush). That's why the Seminoles are easing him in, as they did with Dalvin Cook three years ago.

    Running back Cam Akers carries for a first down during the third quarter as FSU eases the freshman into the college game.
  5. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.