A lasting memory: Ruzich excited to be headed back to Grand Junction
Grand Junction is so laminated into the memory of Steve Ruzich that it will never disappear.
Those memories are the foundation of his love of junior college baseball.
Only 52, Ruzich just finished his 28th year with South Suburban College, located in the shadow of Chicago in Holland, Illinois.
The veteran coach guided the Bulldogs to Grand Junction and the Junior College World Series in 1991 and 2006.
He candidly says that the school could and maybe should drop to Division II. But he quickly says it’s the memories of two trips to Grand Junction as the reason he wants to remain at the Division I level.
“That was the greatest thing, that was the ultimate,” he said about the two trips to JUCO. “It’s the Disneyland and Disney World for baseball.”
He chuckles when he throws out the quirky metaphor but he believes it wholeheartedly.
For a coach who is only 52, he said he was blown away by his election to the 2014 JUCO Hall of Fame.
His selection means he will make his third trip to Grand Junction, this time to be part of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“It was the greatest thrill ever,” he said. “That’s the ultimate and highest thing you can achieve.”
But he admits that reaching the pinnacle of his coaching career creates a conundrum.
“All I can think about now is ‘What do I do next?’ ” he said with a laugh.
South Suburban College President Don Manning, who has been at the school for 24 years, says that Ruzich is a true gem for the school.
“Steve has coached and mentored many young men who have gone on to be successful in their personal and professional lives,” Manning said. “Steve is one of the finest coaches and human beings that I know. He loves his job and his players love him.”
Ruzich was a catcher who almost made the major leagues during his playing days. He started his career with SSC at 24, not much older than the “kids” he was coaching.
Ruzich was with the Chicago White Sox in 1985 but that was the same year major league players went on strike. He then tried out with the Milwaukee Brewers and had a “great tryout.” But they shattered his dream.
“They told me they expect their players to be in the majors at 23, and I was 22,” he said.
So, even with the great tryout, he didn’t get the chance. It was time for Ruzich to shelve his Major League Baseball dream.
“It was time to hang ‘em up and do something else,” he said, adding that he never looked back and never regretted that decision.
He offered a scouting report on his abilities as a ballplayer: “Hard-nosed, an average hitter, good defensive catcher, very knowledgeable and knew how to run the game.”
Then he agreed with the old adage that catchers make good managers. However, a career in coaching wasn’t really on his radar when he quit playing.
“I don’t think I ever thought about going into coaching,” he said. “I just wanted to be around the game.”
Ruzich picked up his 1,000th career victory earlier this year and has now compiled a record of 1,018-602. He’s also led the Bulldogs to four sectional titles, 10 regional championships and two Midwest Championships. He’s won the Region IV Coach of Year 10 times and two College Coach of the Year awards.
As part of the 2014 Hall of Fame class, he understands how monumentally tough it is to reach the JUCO World Series, and sympathizes with the many coaches who have never made it.
His two trips were 15 years apart, which is another reason why the city of Grand Junction remains entrenched in his memories.
He appreciated every minute and remembers every detail of his trips.
In 1991, the Bulldogs trailed 9-1 in the seventh in their first game.
He laughs at the memory.
“The grounds crew had the rakes in their hands,” he said.
Then the Bulldogs scored eight runs and eventually won it 12-9 in extra innings.
“It was the Saturday night game, so the place was packed and half the people left when we were down 9-0,” he said.
In 2006, South Suburban lost two straight, but it was still special making it to the big show. Ruzich said the memories of Grand Junction are as much about what happened off the diamond as on it.
“Everything about the trip was special. The host people, the vistas, the (Colorado National) Monument, everything,” he said. “I think the greatest thing about (JUCO) is how the city of Grand Junction embraces the entire thing.”
Over his career, Ruzich has coached 12 All-Americans, and 22 players have been drafted. Five of those players have moved on to the majors, including Tony Cingrani, a left-handed pitcher currently with the Cincinnati Reds. Ruzich said he is proud that 251 of his players have gone on to play at four-year colleges.
He said many things have changed over his career but there’s one thing that remains the most difficult aspect of coaching at the junior college level.
“You get players here in the fall and you have them for nine months,” he said. “Then when they finally start understanding and buying in and you start seeing a change in them, boom the season is over.”
The main thing he tries to do is coach the person and not just the player.
“There’s a lot of guys who have been successful. You ask yourself, ‘Why are you doing it?’ You just try and make a difference in a kid’s life. Try and make a difference in their life and teach them something about life.”
He says one of the highlights of his career was coaching his two sons.
Tim, 25, was a left-handed pitcher who was with SSC when Ruzich got his 800th career win. And Nate, 21, was a catcher when Dad got his 900th win. Nate currently plays for Northern Illinois, and Dad says he has a shot at the making it to the show.
The coach at 52 is different than the young ultra-competitive coach of 24.
“In my younger days when I was crazier and more competitive, winning was everything,” he said. “Now, you still want to win but there are things that are just as important or more important in life.”
Ruzich said baseball is about family to him. That’s why his sons, 16-year-old daughter Amanda and his wife of 27 years, Patti, will all be making the trip to Grand Junction to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Ruzich admits that maybe SSC might be better suited to play at the Division II level today. But it’s the memories of two trips to western Colorado that stir every time he considers the move.
“That’s why we stay at the Division I level, we want to go back to Grand Junction. That’s how much Grand Junction means to me.”