The truck left Tacoma with six days left in the regular season, carrying Justin Ruggiano’s life back to Rockwall, Texas.
His assumption was that he would be right behind it.
“Then I got a phone call and my world changed again,” he said, sitting in the Dodgers’ clubhouse, adding one more hand to the pennant push.
Ruggiano and his wife Shelly called the same audible they’d called many times before. Instead of finishing up a Triple-A season for the Mariners, he got dealt to the Dodgers, also known as Outfielders R Us.
On Tuesday night he reached down and pulled a down-and-away, 3-and-2 pitch into the left-field seats, to lead off what would become a 6-4 win by the Dodgers. He’s had hits in four of his five Dodgers games. He is 33 and he smiles at the mere concept of plans.
But all of his wanderings suddenly gain meaning at moments like this.
Ruggiano has played 570 games in Triple-A. The one year he landed in one place and stayed there was 2013, when he hit 18 home runs for the Marlins, who rewarded him by shipping him to the Cubs.
“Shelly has been nothing but supportive,” he said Wednesday. “Moving two kids from place to place, it’s definitely been something of a challenge. The game can wear on you a little bit. Without her, there would have been times I might have quit.”
Their kids are Brooks Ryan, a baseball name if there ever was one, and Ava. They enrolled in school Aug. 14. When the Dodgers called, the whole group hit the road, and now they will catch up with kindergarten later.
“I hadn’t seen them for three weeks and if I didn’t bring them, it would be a month and a half and that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Don Zimmer was a Tampa Bay coach when Ruggiano was there. He told him, “The most important thing when you have a family is to travel with them. Make it work. If you have to pay for plane tickets, do that.” Ruggiano never forgot.
Meanwhile, it’s one more day of service time, one more chance to make a scout whisper something into his tape recorder, one more way to get one more year.
But the other side of this September story is that it could have happened so muich earlier.
The Dodgers drafted Ruggiano in 2004. The next year he was in Jacksonville, the Double-A team, with James Loney, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Hung-Chih Kuo, Chad Billingsley and a sure-thing shortstop named Jose Guzman.
Ruggiano was also there in 2006, with Matt Kemp and A.J. Ellis.
The manager was John Shoemaker, the fundamentalist heart of the organization to this day. Ruggiano anticpated riding all the way to Dodger Stadium with that group.
“I have a lot of fond memories,” Ruggiano said. “The attention to detail that the Dodgers showed was something I still remember. I didn’t know what was in store, but I know we were beating everybdy else in the minor leagues. I knew we were good. A lot of those guys, you wouldn’t think they’d play as long as they did, but they fed off each other.”
The Jacksonville Gang did not bring the anticipated World Series titles, and Guzman never sniffed the big leagues. Ruggiano was dealt to Tampa Bay in mid-2006, the player to be named later as L.A. shipped Dioner Navarro south and got Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson.
“I basically just traded dugouts that night,” Ruggiano said. “We were playing Montgomery (Tampa Bay’s AA team), so I just moved over. And I got to play with Evan Longoria and we won the (Southern League) championship.
“But that’s when you get the wake-up call and you learn it’s the business.”
Ruggiano kept paying attention. When he landed in Florida he played Philadelphia frequently. “I saw Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and saw how professional they were, every at-bat,” he said.
Now he sees it in person.
“One reason this is special,” he said, “is that I can be around these superstars and watch how they deal with everything. And it’s amazing how humble this group is. I hope it leads to great things.”
And when the Marlins dealt him to Chicago? By then the nerve endings were gone.
“I think by then I understood I’d be living out of a suitcase,” he said.
And the clothes?
“They’re being unloaded as we speak,” he said, smiling.
It’s always better to leave your baggage at home.
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