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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.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

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 06/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 1:33am]

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