The unlikely family of Venezuelan prospect Keibert Ruiz

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/lad/" data-ylk="slk:Los Angeles Dodgers">Los Angeles Dodgers</a> prospect Keibert Ruiz (L) has a special bond with coach Travis Barbary. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)
Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Keibert Ruiz (L) has a special bond with coach Travis Barbary. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – About the job, then. Over almost a quarter century it becomes for him a calling, and so about raising ballplayers into catchers, and catchers into men, and men into good and generous human beings, and that’s when they become family too.

Not the hey-we’re-all-in-this-together noise either.

It’s a chair at the kitchen table, to his right, across from the wife who signed off on this, alongside his sons and daughter. The ballplayer becoming a catcher, a man, a good and generous human being even starts calling him “Papi” when he already has a Papi back home in Venezuela.

“I feel really fortunate I found someone like him,” the ballplayer says in careful English. “I don’t know how to repay him. They are like my family.”

Then he adds, to be sure he has it just right, “Mi familia.”

Travis Barbary is 46 years old. More than half his life he’s been a Los Angeles Dodger, including that one summer a long time ago when he was a minor-league catcher in Montana, and those four summers he managed 19- and 20-year-olds (and the occasional 31-year-old Dave Roberts) in Georgia and Utah, and those other four summers he toiled as a bullpen catcher in Los Angeles. He’s been with his wife, Raquel, for longer than he’s been a Dodger, and they have four children together near Clemson, South Carolina, along with two dogs and a cat. The cat is Lexie. The ballplayer is not too sure about Lexie.

“Weird eyes,” you see.

Barbary is the Dodgers’ catching coordinator, which means he travels the minor leagues adjusting, soothing, patching up and pointing in the right direction young men who, some days, probably wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into. One of those catchers was a delightfully skilled 16-year-old Venezuelan named Keibert Ruiz, a switch-hitter built strong and quiet and finding his way like the rest. They’d see each other in the Dominican Republic, in Ogden, Utah, in Glendale, Arizona. They’d talk, Barbary making do with the Spanish he picked up over the years, Ruiz following along best he could, sometimes nodding to be polite. Along the way they began to look for each other, and Ruiz became a prospect, and Barbary had an idea that wouldn’t just make Ruiz better, but make them both better.

“I just got a sense this is a special kid who’s got a chance to move quickly through the system,” Barbary said.

He talked to Gabe Kapler, then the club’s farm director. They spoke to Andrew Friedman.

What if Keibert, then 18 and fresh from hitting .374 in Rookie ball, came to live with him, in Clemson, during the winter? Keibert could learn English there. He could train in modern facilities. He could watch hours of “The Andy Griffith Show,” for which Barbary’s fondness is legendary. “It is the greatest show ever made for TV,” Barbary said with a laugh and absolute sincerity, having given no thought to the possibility the Dodgers’ catcher of the future might arrive at a mound not with the authority of Andy Taylor, but as a bug-eyed Barney Fife. When raising catchers, a man takes his chances.

“We thought it was a great idea,” Friedman said. “More than that, it would be interesting to see Keibert’s reaction. That would tell us something about him.”

*** When he was 14, Keibert left his home and school in Valencia, Venezuela, to become a baseball player. His father, Jose, played some softball, but otherwise Keibert’s obsession was his own. He attended a baseball academy in Puerto Cabello, only after promising his mother, Lady, that he would continue his education. Lady was an elementary school teacher. In the winters Keibert took online classes, and Lady would help with his homework.

At 16, Keibert signed with the Dodgers, showed up to play in the Dominican summer league, and began the not uncommon journey to discover whether he was good enough to do this. He would soon be in America, a place new to him and many of his teammates. The baseball was manageable. The culture was different, but exciting, and Keibert tried to keep up. The language barrier was real, however. By nature shy, he yearned to stand on a pitcher’s mound and hold a regular conversation, to sit on a bench between innings and rebuild a teammate’s confidence. The Dodgers preached communication between catchers and their pitchers, and Keibert, like many of the Latin players, was at a disadvantage.

Near the end of the 2016 season, he told Travis Barbary about that.

“He asked me, ‘You want to come to my house?'” Keibert recalled. “I say, ‘Yeah.'”

Travis called home.

Of his children, Colton, near Keibert’s age and a high school middle infielder, Carsyn Leigh, his daughter, and Cannon, a burgeoning soccer player they called “our mini Messi,” were still at home. His oldest, Chase, also a catcher, had left for college.

“What do you think about this?” Travis asked Raquel.

“Sure, we have room,” she said.

(More than a year later she’d laugh and say, “That’s sort of how our baseball life has gone. I say, ‘Sure!'”)

“As soon as you meet him you’re going to know why I’m asking,” he said.

The Barbary family with Keibert Ruiz at Dodger Stadium. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)
The Barbary family with Keibert Ruiz at Dodger Stadium. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)

Keibert would take Chase’s bed, sharing a room with Colton. And he’d take Chase’s seat at the dinner table. He’d begin twice-weekly English lessons, tutored on Tuesday and Thursday nights by a nice woman from church. Keibert and Colton would play video games at night, after days spent becoming better ballplayers. The Barbarys wore out Google Translate, but found as baseball season approached they needed it less and less. Raquel eyed Travis’ nightly attempts to draw Keibert into the cult of Andy Griffith, then recorded every “The Fast and the Furious” movie she could find. Some nights, Keibert would FaceTime his mother, father and brother, young Victor, another switch-hitting catcher, and Travis and Raquel would wave from the background, all of them damming up tears.

He stayed a month, then went and hit .316 over two levels of A-ball, at 18 playing three or four years over his head, and in January returned to Clemson, to his other family, to the Barbarys who are his other parents, the Barbarys his other brothers, the Barbary who is his sister. Even Lexie, the cat with the eyes. The same seat at the table, to Travis’ right. The same bed that used to be Chase’s. The same challenge that is a new language in a new place, a few words at a time, a little confidence at a time, a few inches closer to learning if he were good enough to do this. He practiced “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am,” and, because they were in the South, even, “How y’all doin’?”, which amused everyone to no end. He attended Cannon’s soccer games and Carsyn Leigh’s pageant, spoke to students at the local high school about his journey, about leaving his family for this family in order to find his dream, and came to love Chick-fil-A biscuits and Krispy Kreme donuts.

“He’s so nice,” Raquel said. “He’s kind. He’s polite. It really was not like we brought a stranger into our home. I finally had to tell him, ‘Keibert, you do not have to ask me if you can get something out of the refrigerator.’ The truth was, he needed us. And we needed him.”

This spring, Keibert is in big-league camp for the first time. Travis had run him through the etiquette of a 19-year-old in a major league clubhouse – don’t park in the player’s lot if it’s going to be full, don’t ask too much of the clubhouse guys, be respectful, keep a low profile. He also advised, “You’re a great kid. Be yourself.”

About the gesture then. Over almost a quarter century, you see enough young men work so hard, want it so bad, it becomes a part of you, too. It can be an assembly line down there – next man up, next man up, next man up. It’s lonely and scary and all the street signs are in another language, and home is so far away. So many fail. So many, perhaps, did not have to.

“God,” Travis said, “it’s hard for anybody, even American players, that road from Rookie ball to the big leagues. Sometimes you take it for granted.”

*** Seven years ago, A.J. Ellis was on what players call “the train,” riding it to the big leagues, back to the minor leagues, over and over. Ellis had been optioned again to Triple-A, and he was unhappy. He called Travis to vent, expecting a sympathetic ear.

This spring, Keibert Ruiz is in big-league camp for the first time. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)
This spring, Keibert Ruiz is in big-league camp for the first time. (Courtesy Raquel Barbary)

“What are you talking about?” Travis said. “Why are you complaining? Your job is to be a servant. There’s a pitcher down there you need to serve. Now go down and serve him.”

Ellis packed his bag.

“He is one of the most influential people in my baseball career,” Ellis said. “Travis is special. A special man. More than baseball, it’s his life and relationships.”

He paused when the next words caught in his throat.

“Sorry, I get emotional thinking about him,” Ellis said. “He’s a selfless, humble guy. So genuine.”

In the Dodgers clubhouse, Keibert searched for the words. Two weeks before reporting to camp, he’d taken his first written driver’s test. He’d never had a driver’s license. The test was in Spanish. He failed. Somehow, he failed.

“Papi,” he said, “I didn’t understand the questions. The phrases were all wrong.”

“We’ll do it in English then,” Travis told him.

“English?”

They studied together, line by line through the booklet, Travis quizzing Keibert, Keibert shooting back speed limits and rights of way and what all those signs said. On a Monday morning, 10 o’clock, they returned to the DMV, confident. Nervous. An hour later, they walked out with a temporary driver’s license. Keibert had gotten 27 out of 30 right.

“My family,” he said finally. “They are my family.”

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