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Ruiz's roots in Panama made him the player he is

PHILADELPHIA -- Carlos Ruiz played baseball every Saturday as a child in Chiriqui, the province where he grew up in Panama.

Well, nearly every Saturday.

Ruiz's mother, Inocencia Rios, made one thing crystal clear to her oldest son: school was to be his No. 1 priority. If he had a bad week at school, he would not play on the weekends.

Ruiz's mother remained true to her word.

"A lot of times I didn't do well during the week, so I would miss a Saturday," Ruiz said. "It was tough."

It is partly how Ruiz developed his work ethic, one he has maintained to this day, one that helped him develop from a second baseman into a catcher, from a backup into a starter, from a respected signal caller to an offensive force in the Phillies' lineup. Had Ruiz not missed several weeks this season because of an injured left foot, he would have had a very real chance to win the National League batting title.

Had Ruiz won that title, he would have joined select company in Panama. Fellow countryman Rod Carew won seven batting titles in his Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Twins and California Angels.

"Everybody in Panama talked about him," Ruiz said of Carew.

Growing up, Ruiz knew about most of the Panamanians that reached the big leagues, players like Omar Moreno, Manny Sanguillen and Juan Berenguer. Ruiz, 33, was just 16 years old when Yankees closer Mariano Rivera threw his first pitch at Yankee Stadium.

But Ruiz's respect wasn't limited to Panamanians.

"When I signed with the Phillies as a catcher, I always liked to watch Pudge Rodriguez," he said of the native Puerto Rican.

Ruiz has become one of the best Panamanian players ever to play baseball, ranking eighth all time in hits. He is one of six Panamanians to make an All-Star team. Ruiz caught Roy Halladay's perfect game in 2010 and Halladay's no-hitter in the postseason that same year.

Ruiz also caught the final pitch of the 2008 World Series, giving the Phils their second championship in franchise history.

Panamanian president Martin Torrijos called Ruiz's mother the night Ruiz caught that strikeout pitch from Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge and congratulated her. Torrijos later invited Ruiz to Palacio de las Garzas, the president's home, for a ceremony.

Ruiz also had a parade in his honor in his hometown of David.

It would not be the last time Ruiz heard from his country's leader. Torrijos called a few months later to ask why Ruiz had decided not to play with Panama in the World Baseball Classic. It was a simple answer, really. Ruiz's No. 1 goal is to help the Phillies win. And he wanted to work with the Phils' pitchers in Spring Training in preparation for the 2009 season.

But a funny thing happens when your country's leader personally calls you on the phone and asks you for something.

You listen and you do it.

Ruiz represented his home country in the Classic and still went on to help the Phillies win the 2009 NL pennant.

"It surprised me," Ruiz said of the phone call. "And there's no way I can say no to representing my country. I had no problem to do that. But he called, and I answer and say, 'OK, I'll go.' I can't wait for next time, because I would like to play again."

It has been a remarkable rise for the kid from David. Phillies scout Allan Lewis came upon Ruiz in 1998, when he was playing second base. Phils international scouting supervisor Sal Agostonelli didn't think Ruiz had the range to play in the infield, but he really liked his arm.

That arm could work behind the plate, he thought. Philadelphia eventually signed him for a whopping $8,000.

The Phillies have gotten an unbelievable return on that investment. Ruiz is highly regarded in the Phils' clubhouse and around the league. He is a valued game-caller and no longer just an eight-hole hitter in a lineup.

"Everyone here loves him," Halladay said. "He's your favorite guy to root for."

Philadelphia Phillies, Carlos Ruiz