Going into last season, Justin Ruggiano was your classic AAAA player. A soon to turn 30-year-old outfielder, he’d appeared in 98 big-league games over three seasons, hitting just .226. The Rays had released him over the winter, and the team that picked him up — the downtrodden Astros — had sent him to Triple-A.
Then he got the opportunity he’s long been waiting for.
On May 26, Ruggiano was traded to the Miami Marlins and promptly jumpstarted his career. In 91 games, the native of Austin, Texas hit .313/.374/.535, with 13 home runs and 14 stolen bases. He also played solid defense in center field, where he is slated to begin the 2013 season in a Marlins uniform. As he famously Tweeted to Ken Rosenthal in November, “I got this.”
Ruggiano recently sat down to talk about his 2012 campaign, as well as the Marlin’s controversial salary dump, steroids and the Hall of Fame, and much more.
David Laurila: You had a breakout season. Why?
Justin Ruggiano: You can’t have a breakout year if you’re never given an opportunity. It was basically my first chance to play an extended amount in the big leagues, and once the dust settled, I was able to relax and play my game without being too caught up in the moment. I felt like I was playing baseball again, as opposed to in years past, where I was the 25th man on the team and didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, if I’d still be there or if I’d be going back to Durham.
It was a satisfying season, because I was able to back up what I’ve thought I was capable doing this whole time. Can I go out and duplicate what I did last year, every time? Not necessarily, but that’s baseball. That said, I think I proved I can play at this level.
DL: Earlier this winter, Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Marlins need a centerfielder. Your response was “No we don’t. I got this.”
JR: The night before, I was on Twitter checking the news before I went to bed. In the morning, my kids got me up early — I think it was about 7 o’clock — and when I checked my phone, the first thing that popped up was a news article about Ken Rosenthal saying that. Still half asleep, I responded to the Tweet, not even thinking about what might happen. After I had my coffee and ate breakfast, I turned on MLB TV and there it was. I thought it was pretty funny.
DL: How many guys are there in Triple-A who could do what you did, given the same opportunity?
JR: I think there are plenty. The thing is, coming up in baseball, everyone is a critic. There’s always going to be a knock on you for something. You can always find reasons to keep a guy down, whether he’s not fast enough, or whether it’s something else. There are guys out there who have been passed up numerous times who are capable of playing in the big leagues.
A lot of labeling is done in baseball, and that’s fine. It’s part of the game. But you never really know what you have until you give someone an opportunity. You never know what you might uncover if you give a guy a chance.
DL: Some people will attribute your success to a high BABiP, but you’ve had a high BABiP throughout your professional career. Can that be explained?
JR: I guess I just swing hard in case I hit it. That’s all I can say, really. I’m trying to hit the ball with authority, and if I strike out more times than people would like… I can’t really let that get in my way. I try to hit the ball as hard as I can, just about every time I’m at the plate.
DL: Is “he strikes out too much” a label that held you back?
JR: I was actually told that. Honestly, it’s not that I was offended or angry with it. I think it helped me grow as a player. It made me look in a mirror and ask myself what I needed to fix, and how I was going to fix it. I had to work on making more-consistent contact and swinging at pitches I should be swinging at.
At the beginning of this year, including the time I spent in Triple-A, I was just about even with my walk-and-strikeout ratio. Then I had this little injury, and my strikeouts escalated a bit, but overall I was pretty happy with the adjustments I was able to make. I look forward to improving on them more this coming season.
DL; What was it like to play for Ozzie Guillen?
JR: It was excellent. It’s always hard to play, regardless of who your manager is, when you’re losing. But Ozzie is a great manager to play for. He’s a player’s manager and he knows the game really well.
Ozzie has a good time. If things had gone right and we’d won 90 games, we’d have been having the best times of our lives. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. It was unfortunate he was canned, but that’s just baseball.
DL: The team made a controversial trade this offseason. What do the players think about it?
JR: I don’t really know, to be honest. I’ve been home in Texas and haven’t really been interacting with many of the guys. But again, that’s just part of baseball. It’s the direction the Marlins want to go, and I think we have some very good young players. I don’t think the trade means we’ll lose more games. Look what happened with Oakland last year.
You can’t make a name for yourself until you’ve been given a chance. Derek Jeter was once a rookie and now he‘s a household name. You don’t know what might happen with the players we got in the trade.
I was also really impressed with our young players last year. With guys like Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi and A.J. Ramos, we have some really good young arms. I’m excited to see them over the course of a full season, because they’re going to help us battle for some games. People aren’t expecting us to score a lot of runs, so hopefully they’ll step up.
DL: How good is Giancarlo Stanton?
JR: He’s the best player on the field when he’s healthy. I’ve said this before: We’ll be hearing his name in story books down the road. That’s how good he‘s capable of being.
I’ve never seen anyone hit a ball harder, or farther. And he does it to all fields. He can hit a ball farther to right-center than I can hit it there twice. If you could give yourself a body to play baseball, I’m pretty sure 99 percent of the guys would take his.
DL: Whether players suspected of using PEDs should be elected to the Hall of Fame is a hot topic right now. What are your thoughts?
JR: That’s a tough question. There are two sides of it. There was a steroid era, but the hitters who were on steroids had to face pitchers who were on steroids. In my opinion, the playing field was pretty even, because it appears as though everybody was doing it. If a pitcher was doing them, and he’s up for the Hall of Fame, there’s a chance 80 percent of the guys he was facing were as well.
In a couple of years, I think we’ll mostly forget about the steroid era. I think they’ll be letting in the guys whose numbers say they’re deserving to be in. To be honest, now that the dust is starting to settle on what was going on — players are more opening admitting it was in the game — I don’t think people are going to be caring as much. That’s kind of the way history has gone. Traumatic events happen, and then things calm down.
DL: Torii Hunter was recently quoted as saying he would be uncomfortable knowing one of his teammates was gay. Do many players feel that way?
JR: That’s his opinion. I have no issues with gay people or being around one in a clubhouse environment. I doesn’t affect me. I know who I am, and have no worries about what any of my teammates might be looking at, or anything like that.
I think what he said has gotten a little overblown. I think Torii is a good guy and his comments were just in reference to his Christian beliefs. I don’t think they were reflective of him being a homophobic person. They were mostly blown out of proportion, but again, that’s baseball. Things get said, things get written, players get labeled.