Returning to realize a dream
At the end of the 2016 baseball campaign, Jose Ruiz Jr. had a decision to make. The then-freshman had already had an up-and-down season, though as the school year progressed, the bad times had started to weigh on his mind.
No longer was he the standout player that he was at Downey High School, where he hit .400 his senior year and earned All-CIF First Team honors. Instead, he was just a name on a roster, a talented name, but unlike in high school, a talent that everyone else on the team possessed.
“Freshman year, the game kind of got to me a little bit,” Ruiz, affectionately known as “Junior,” said. “It kind of humbled me. Coming out of high school, you don’t realize how good everyone is because when you’re in high school, you’re probably one of the best ones and you stand out. But once you get to this level, everyone’s either the same or better.”
With the season over, one in which he hit a sub-par .236 and played in just 31 of the teams’ 55 games, Ruiz decided that he couldn’t take it anymore — he needed to get out.
It wasn’t easy, though. Having grown up with the dream of playing Division I baseball and finally reaching that pinnacle of success that he had worked so hard for, giving it all up and starting over “was one of the hardest things” he had ever done.
“Coming out of high school, your friends, your family, your coaches, all that hard work you’ve put in, to play Division I baseball, that’s the stage you want to be at coming out of high school,” said Ruiz. “To leave that, I kind of felt like I was letting everyone down.”
Baseball head coach Greg Moore understood where Ruiz was coming from, realizing that, perhaps, he wasn’t ready for the college life yet.
“It was a good conversation,” Moore said about how Ruiz explained that he was leaving after just one year. “He just said, ‘I’m not ready at this point for this level.’ It was more off the field. He didn’t really either see the value or mesh with a lot that we were doing in the classroom and some of the things we expected off the field.”
The decision was made, and after the fall 2016 semester, Ruiz had transferred out of CSUN.
With no obligation to go to school or play baseball, for the first time in his life, Ruiz felt like he had no future.
“I didn’t know what my plans were,” said Ruiz. “I just felt like I needed to take a step back and figure out what I actually wanted to do. When I left, I didn’t know if I was going to play baseball again. I didn’t know if I was going to go to school again. That time made me realize what I wanted to do.”
After a couple of weeks off, he decided to give college another shot, enrolling at Long Beach City College in a bid to get back into baseball shape and continue to pursue his dream of playing Division I baseball. But the same problems that plagued him at CSUN followed him to Long Beach where he was set to redshirt, a decision that he made himself and told the Long Beach coaches he needed to “get stronger, faster, just get that year to get my mind right.”
With no season to look forward to and being unable to practice with the team, Ruiz again lost interest in school. He wasn’t attending classes, stopped watching the team practice and ultimately ended up taking the entire fall semester off as his future began to spiral further and further down a path that he may never have recovered from.
“It just didn’t feel like I really belonged (at Long Beach),” Ruiz said. “It made me realize … ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
As hope became all but lost, Ruiz was given a chance to prove himself. A friend who was at El Camino College had recommended Ruiz to the coaches at the school and they contacted Ruiz about possibly joining up with the squad for the 2018 season.
But Ruiz, who had already planned on attending Cypress College, had never really heard about El Camino before. So he did his research, finding out that the school actually had a few alumni who had transferred to Northridge, as well as a plethora of other Division I programs across the country. Some even made their way into the world of professional baseball after college. After that, all it took was one phone call to put Ruiz’s mind at ease.
“When (El Camino) called me, it just felt like that coaching staff actually cared,” Ruiz said. “It felt like it was more than just baseball and when I visited the school, it just felt like it was the place that I had to be at. It felt like it was the right decision to make. It was beyond baseball. It just felt like they cared for you as a person.”
Newly motivated to get back to the Division I level, Ruiz worked harder than ever to get his mind and body back into shape to prove to his coaches and the scouts watching him that he had what it takes to make it at the next level.
Previously working as an infielder during his time at CSUN, he made the transition to catcher while at El Camino, a position he was familiar with from playing it throughout his childhood, but still not 100% comfortable at. Despite that, he started all 48 games as the catcher, hitting .300 with 47 runs scored and 37 runs batted in, earning All-SCC South Division First Team honors in the process and prompting a bevy of schools to check him out as a potential transfer recruit.
But those schools never pulled the trigger, leaving the door open for another school to come in and swoop him up without any real contest.
“After my junior college season, like towards the end, my head coach called me and goes, ‘Hey, what do you think of going back to Northridge?’” Ruiz said. “And I said, ‘Northridge?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, coach Moore called me. He’d love to have you back.’”
It was pure coincidence that CSUN would find Ruiz at El Camino. Matador assistant coach Tony Asaro was doing a routine scouting trip there when he noticed the talented Ruiz catching behind the plate in an intersquad game, not knowing that he had been at CSUN only two years before.
After some more scouting and talking to the coaches on the El Camino staff, CSUN associate head coach Jordon Twohig gave Ruiz a call, expressing interest in having Ruiz come back to CSUN after his junior college season ended.
“I remember calling him, and I called him reluctantly because I remember when he left,” Twohig said. “And when I talked to him on the phone that second time, I remember calling coach Moore and saying, ‘Boy, that’s a different kid.’”
When the other schools on his radar ended up not following through, Ruiz finally decided to make the decision to go back to CSUN.
“Honestly, when I went back to El Camino, obviously getting back to playing at a Division I level was my goal, but it didn’t matter where,” Ruiz said. “To tell you the truth, I had no intentions of coming back. I didn’t know it was going to happen … I just felt like I needed a different scene but I ended up telling coach Moore, ‘I want to finish what I started.’”
It just so happened that the Matadors were losing their starting catcher, Minnesota Twins’ 2018 MLB draft pick Trevor Casanova (coincidentally also an El Camino alumnus), leaving a spot behind the dish that the CSUN coaching staff felt confident that Ruiz could fill.
It all seemed to be working out for Ruiz, but there was a problem: when he arrived at CSUN in the fall of 2018, what had been a gaping hole at catcher was suddenly four players deep, with sophomore Victor Cerny, freshman Austin Elder and fellow junior transfer Sean Skelly all joining Ruiz as potential candidates for the catcher’s spot in the lineup.
With the gluttony of catching prospects blocking Ruiz’s path to consistent playing time, Ruiz was forced to make another position change, this time moving back to the infield where he had began his career as a Matador back in 2016, a decision made by both him and the coaching staff as they tried to find a way to get his bat in the lineup.
So it was, and Ruiz began to work out in the infield, taking reps at third base, shortstop and second base as he attempted to win over the coaching staff.
“It was pretty seamless with Junior because he’s so athletic,” assistant coach Riley Goulding said about Ruiz’s transition back to playing the infield. “He did a really good job of (catching at El Camino), and then came back, it kind of fit the team best to have him back in the infield. He’s so athletic that, you know, you give him a couple of keys and he can pick it up pretty quickly.”
To Ruiz’s credit, he embraced his role as the team’s utility man, and so far this season has played games at third base, shortstop, second base and even left field in a pinch. That versatility, coupled with a vastly improved approach at the plate, has made him an indispensable player for the Matadors, playing in 36 of the team’s 42 games thus far, earning the start in 29 of them.
“The guy can play all positions,” Twohig said. “Heck, he even thinks he can pitch.”
That consistent playing time has led to Ruiz being one of the best hitters on the team, compiling a .290 batting average to go along with a .413 on-base percentage and .410 slugging percentage.
And though he is experiencing success now, Ruiz has not forgotten what it’s like to struggle, having grown up without role models like himself, playing as a young kid with the Tomateros, a travel ball team that still exists and travels to as many of Ruiz’s games as they can. And every time he sees them, he is reminded that his story means something to them.
“It feels good because you were once in those kids’ shoes,” Ruiz said. “They come, and they support and they see. I know they’re young, but they want to be here and it means a lot because a lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to play at this level and there’s so much talent and there’s so much hard working kids where I come from … It’s amazing to see how much they look up to us and want to be where we’re at. It’s just, giving back as much as we can is a great feeling.”