ALLENTOWN Darin Ruf's goals were quite simple a year ago. He approached his fourth professional baseball season just wanting to play well enough to make sure he had a job in 2013.
He accomplished that goal, and so much more. He didn't just become a legitimate power-hitting prospect for the Philadelphia Phillies, he became a cult hero.
The hashtag BabeRuf was born on Twitter thanks to his Ruthian month of August which saw him hit 20 home runs and nearly win the Eastern League triple crown. He was a fan favorite the day he stepped foot in Philadelphia for a September call-up.
Ruf didn't just secure a spot in the Phillies' organization for 2013, he secured his spot in baseball for years to come.
During Monday's annual media day for the Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Ruf said the last eight months have been life-changing. The Phillies sent him to Venezuela during the winter in order to work in left field, in hopes he might be the right-handed power answer the Phillies needed this summer. He came into spring training with every opportunity to win a job in Philadelphia's unheralded outfield.
A player who had never really done much throughout his professional career to stand out in the minor league system, Ruf is now one of the most intriguing prospects in baseball. Despite that, there's no disappointment in not starting his season in the big leagues. He understands the organization's position, and he's ready to put in the work to get back to Citizens Bank Park.
"I realize I have to get better and prove myself," Ruf said inside the IronPigs' clubhouse Monday afternoon. "If (the Phillies) want me to do it here, that's great. Hopefully one day I'll get an opportunity to go back and I'll be better prepared."
Ruf was a 20th-round draft pick out of Creighton in 2009 as a first baseman. He made his professional debut with the Gulf Coast League Phillies that summer, hitting .326 in 20 games. He graduated to Williamsport, where he primarily hit seventh for a Crosscutters lineup which featured more prominent prospects at the time like Sebastian Valle, Anthony Hewitt and Leandro Castro.
Hitting has never been a question for the 26-year old. In four minor league seasons he has a career .305 average and .907 OPS. He hit .300 for four of the five Phillies' affiliates for which he played. But he had never had a breakout season like a year ago, which saw him named the Eastern League MVP after hitting .317 for the Reading Phillies with a minor league baseball-leading 38 home runs and 108 RBIs, both career highs.
His August alone was one of the most mind-boggling months in professional baseball history as he hit 20 home runs, leading to him to break the 45-year old franchise's single-season home run record previously held by Ryan Howard. Former Williamsport Crosscutters pitcher Adam Morgan, who had been promoted to the Reading Phillies midway through the season, said Monday players were sitting in the dugout calling when Ruf would hit his next home run.
"I tried to keep it like every other day at the ballpark, but it's hard to put a historic month like that in the background and ignore it," Ruf said. "I was trying to have fun with it. The guys in the clubhouse were really having fun with it. It was a lot of fun for everybody."
It was the kind of month that earned him a September call-up to Philadelphia when rosters expanded for the final month. He had to wait a while to play as the Phillies flirted with the National League Wild Card. But when he finally got his opportunity, he didn't disappoint.
He was 11-for-33 for the Phillies, hitting three home runs all against the Washington Nationals and driving in 10 runs. His first major league hit was a home run to left field off former first-round pick Ross Detwiler, which was followed by an epic five-minute silent treatment from his teammates in the dugout.
It was a small sample size, and by no means an indication of Ruf having a potentially monster career in the big leagues. But Ruf saw his experience in Philadelphia as quite the boost in confidence. He showed himself he could play on the highest level of professional baseball and have success.
"It's always in the back of your mind as a minor league baseball player coming up that once I get to that stage, will I be able to perform?" Ruf said. "To go out there and get the opportunity and start in a few games and get some at-bats, and then go out and have a little bit of success, it was nice.
He'll be back, but first he has to find a position. Ruf is a natural first baseman who won one of the first Rawlings Gold Glove awards handed out to collegiate players while at Creighton.
But with the former MVP Howard and his ample contract locked into first base for the Phillies, Ruf had to find a new spot. He began playing left field last year, and then during the offseason played the outfield in the Venezuelan Winter League.
He came into spring training with the opportunity to win the starting left field job for the Phillies. But he hit just .246 in 19 games with two home runs and 10 RBIs. He was sent to minor league camp late in spring training for more outfield work.
Ruf said the biggest adjustment has been learning what balls he can and can't get to, as well as when to be aggressive going after a ball and when to sit back. He said he tried not to annoy other outfielders during spring training with questions, but the more veteran outfielders were more than happy to offer help.
His disappointment in his demotion to minor league camp came from thinking he was further along in his progress as a minor league outfielder than he actually was.
"The ball can come at you a bunch of different ways in left field," Ruf said. "I'm trying to see as many balls as possible. I'm going to make mistakes. But I'm going to try to limit the mistakes and hopefully know when to be aggressive on a ball and when not to be in certain situations in a game."
It's clear, though, the game has slowed down for Ruf. He's as dangerous a power-hitting prospect as the Phillies have in their minor league system. And more importantly, he's a major-league ready power-hitting prospect.
Now it's just a matter of getting the opportunity to prove it once again. He's earned a little bit of job security to get that chance.