Ruf thankful to be stateside during shutdown

May 18th, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO -- After three successful seasons in South Korea, returned stateside this offseason to take another shot at the Majors.

He signed a Minor League deal with the Giants in January and was making a serious push for a roster spot when Spring Training camps were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Ruf has come to view the stoppage as a blessing in disguise.

With baseball on hold, Ruf headed home to Omaha, Neb., where he and his wife, Libby, welcomed their first daughter, Olive, on March 27. Had the regular season been underway, Ruf would have been allowed to miss a maximum of three games while on paternity leave. Instead, he has been present for the first couple months of Olive’s life and spent quality time with his 4-year-old son, Henry.

“There's been a much bigger silver lining for me than probably most people,” Ruf said during a recent phone interview. “I’m definitely blessed that I got to be here for as long as I have. I really get to enjoy the family time.”

Ruf, 33, cited his growing family as the driving force behind his decision to return to the United States following a three-year stint with the KBO’s Samsung Lions. He hit .313 with a .968 OPS and 86 home runs over 404 games.

“That was the biggest factor,” Ruf said. “The fact that [Libby] was due in early April. I knew I didn't want to be halfway across the world, having to scramble back or maybe not make it back in time. That was a big factor in coming back.”

Major League Baseball continues to monitor national developments and explore paths for a potential return to play, but Ruf’s former KBO club is already back in action. Two weeks ago, the KBO became one of the first leagues to resume play during the pandemic, with the Lions facing off against the NC Dinos in an Opening Day matchup that was broadcast on ESPN.

The 14-hour time difference between Daegu and Omaha kept Ruf from tuning into the live broadcast, but he recorded the game and later turned to his old teammates for his baseball fix.

Ruf said he knew “very, very little” about the KBO when the Lions first expressed interest in signing him ahead of the 2017 season.

“I thought going into that offseason I would more than likely go to Japan because I knew some teams had been scouting me in Triple-A that year,” Ruf said. “But I had no idea about KBO teams scouting me, so I didn't really dive into much information on the league. Once Samsung reached out, I tried to do as much research as I could real quickly.

“The scout that ended up signing me showed me the video of the games he was in attendance for. I think I hit four homers in the three games he was at. I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, no wonder you went out of your way to try to sign me.’ It was kind of funny when he showed me that. He was like, ‘I want to see you do this.’”

Ruf ultimately delivered, emerging as a prolific slugger for the Lions, though he said adjusting to a new country and league initially proved difficult.

“I showed up halfway through Spring Training, so everything was a big rush for me to get ready for the season, to meet my teammates, learn their names, get to know them and then try to get to know the league, as well,” Ruf said. “Performance-wise, I really struggled my first month. Then I got sent down to the Minors for 10 days, where I really got the opportunity to collect myself and just take a breath. I tried to figure out what I needed to do to be successful in the league, and luckily when I got called back up, I played much better.”

Despite differences in the level of play and approaches to coaching, Ruf said he appreciated his time in Korea and is happy to see the KBO receive more exposure in the United States. He tries to wake up around 6 a.m. every day to catch the tail end of whatever KBO game is airing on ESPN. He mentioned Kim Hyun-soo and Yoo Kang-nam of the LG Twins, Kang Baek-ho of the KT Wiz and Park Sok-min of the Dinos as some of his favorite players to watch.

Ruf is eager to return to the field and has been trying to keep his body in baseball shape by working out in the weight room and hitting outside at his old high school. Ruf maintains regular contact with the Giants’ coaching staff, including first-base coach Antoan Richardson, who leads a Zoom call for the club’s outfielders on Thursdays. 

Ruf, a first baseman and corner outfielder, opened eyes by hitting .429 with three homers, five doubles and one triple over 14 Cactus League games this spring. With expanded rosters and a universal designated hitter potentially on the table this year, the Giants could have more flexibility to carry another big right-handed bat and give Ruf a chance to play in the big leagues for the first time since 2016.

“From a personal, selfish standpoint, to get a few more opportunities to make the team and chances to get a few more at-bats that I might not get, I’d be all for it,” Ruf said. “I think a lot of people around America -- players, fans -- would benefit from seeing a live baseball game here and there. I hope it works out. I understand if it doesn't from a health perspective, but I would love to get on the field. I'm sure a lot of players would, as well.”