Reliving the past is one way to briefly escape the mess we’re all in, and so without much else going on, Yankees minor leaguer Ben Ruta dug through boxes from his childhood when he came across a dream he had written about in 2004 and his mother had saved all these years.
The fantasy had him leading the Yankees to an improbable comeback against the Red Sox in the ALCS after going down three games to none.
“I literally didn’t even know that I wrote that,” Ruta said in a phone interview this week.
The reminder of a forgotten dream, of course, was not needed for Ruta. The versatile outfielder exudes a healthy dose of confidence needed to make the major leagues. He said, “my résumé,” which includes a steady climb throughout the Yankees farm system despite being a 30th-round pick in 2016, “speaks for itself.”
But the coronavirus is a whole other ballgame.
After showing off a strong bat with Double-A Trenton last season, Ruta was among the roughly 8,000 minor-league players whose seasons were stripped from them in late June with the cancellation of the minor league baseball season — the first time that’s happened in the system’s 119-year history.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” said the 26-year-old, who grew up in West Windsor, N.J. “Especially for someone like me, a late-round pick. Every year I’ve got to come in and really prove myself, and put stock into my name. To lose a whole year of that is tough to deal with, I’d say mentally, because you work hard in the offseason to try and make the changes that you feel are necessary to take the next step, and I’ve done that the last three years and had really good success with it. And I felt like this offseason I prepared even better.
Yankees minor leaguer Ben Ruta’s dream has been put on hold.Ben Ruta
“But everyone is dealing with it. So it’s not like it’s just me who got screwed over, or just a few guys, it’s everyone in baseball. It’s everyone in the world with most of their jobs. Everyone’s jobs are different now. I mean I was down about it for a few days, a week, but after that it’s like, ‘alright, you can’t just be down in the dumps. No one is going to feel bad for you. Everyone is going through something similar to you.’ ”
Ruta began turning heads last summer when he hit .406 in his first 19 games with the Thunder, eventually finishing with a .260/.330/.396 slash line with eight home runs and 55 RBIs in 117 games. Ruta also stole 25 bases while “just trying to cause havoc out there” on the basepaths.
His hunger to make it and dispel his draft status led Ruta to setting up a makeshift gym in the garage of his Tampa Bay townhouse, where he lives with fellow prospect and first baseman Brandon Wagner, about 15 minutes away from George M. Steinbrenner Field, home of the Yankees spring training complex.
Ben Ruta with the Yankees in spring training.Mark LoMoglio
Another reminder of his dreams are hung up on the garage wall in a framed Sports Illustrated cover commemorating the Yankees’ last World Series win, in 2009, and a poster of Ruta’s favorite player growing up — Derek Jeter.
Like so many others during the pandemic, Ruta has spent more time in the kitchen, attempting to channel the cooking prowess of his Italian father. He also started playing the piano again, hitting the keyboard hours on end.
But perfecting “Let it Be” on the piano or growing out a quarantine beard without the Yankees’ zero facial hair policy holding him back does not compare to being out on the field or in the Thunder clubhouse with his teammates and Rookie, the team’s bat-retrieving golden retriever.
Ruta said he would have felt comfortable playing this season, even after watching coronavirus outbreaks in clubhouses threaten MLB’s season.
Ben Ruta attempting to make a catch with the Trenton ThunderMichael Dill photography
Then again, he may not have had much of a choice, for minor leaguers’ baseball lives are precarious by nature — 45 minor leaguers were released by the Yankees in June, though Ruta said he was not at all worried that he was at risk.
So for now, Ruta’s career is safe, and he said he is ready should the Yankees come calling this season. It is a long shot, seeing as he is not part of the 60-player roster pool, but in this quirky year anything seems possible.
The Yankees have committed to paying minor leaguers a $400-per-week stipend through Sept. 7, which would have been the end of the minor league season, according to Baseball America. The salary of a Double-A player, while expected to increase next season, hovered around $9,350 in 2018, according to The Athletic, below the $12,760 poverty line for a single-person household in 2020, as listed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Ruta is one of the fortunate ones and has not yet had to think about getting a job outside baseball.
After driving 16 hours straight last month to spend time with family on the Jersey Shore, where he watched Yankees games more as a student of the game rather than the diehard fan he used to be, Ruta said he plans on ramping up workouts in the coming weeks with the hope that baseball will resume in 2021.
Then he can pick up where he left off his childhood dream.