Ruggiano, Valaika look to pick up the pieces after Tino-gate
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter March 9, 2014 10:27PM
TEMPE, AZ - MARCH 07: Shortstop Chris Valaika #60 of the Chicago Cubs gets ready to tag out JB Shuck #3 of the Anaheim Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium on March 7, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Updated: March 9, 2014 10:46PM
MESA, Ariz. — Chris Valaika was in New Orleans and healthy again, hitting as well as he had all year, when he got the spirit-crushing news that seems incomprehensible even 6 ½ months later.
The Marlins’ front office and field staff made the move to call him up from the minors to replace the injured Placido Polanco — only to have owner Jeffrey Loria veto the move over a grudge stemming from Loria-favorite Tino Martinez’s resignation as hitting coach a few weeks earlier.
“It was frustrating to hear that,” said Valaika, a versatile infielder trying to win a job with the Cubs this spring. “I was in Triple-A, so I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes things that go on with those decisions. After a lot of things that went on, I wanted to go somewhere else.”
Consider it the modern-day Cubs’ version of No-Money-ball, in which the franchise is starting to exploit market inefficiencies one team at a time.
In this case, they’ll take advantage of what’s widely considered the most dysfunctional ownership in baseball if they get decent value from Valaika or another guy caught up in the Martinez fiasco, Justin Ruggiano.
The Miami Herald reported that Loria overruled his baseball department on Valaika’s promotion because of the infielder’s role in the player-abuse complaints against Martinez that led to the resignation once the allegations were made public. Martinez, hired directly by Loria before the season, was involved in verbal and physical altercations with several players — including Ruggiano —according to Herald reports.
“It was unfortunate,” said Valaika, who made the big-league club out of spring training last season and stayed there until suffering a wrist injury in May. “I felt like I played well, and there were a lot of great people over there. It was just tough at the end of the year.
“Once the end of the year came I made the decision I wanted to be elsewhere, too. So my agent and I put a plan together, and I was really lucky to land here.”
Valaika, 28, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, is a natural middle infielder who also played parts of two seasons with the Reds. He has played all four infield spots.
Ruggiano, 31, an outfielder acquired in a December trade for Brian Bogusevic, has impressed so far, going 7-for-his-last-10, including 3-for-3 on Sunday with his second homer of the spring.
“I have no idea about whether that situation [with Martinez] played into the fact that we’re over here now,” Ruggiano said, “but I dealt with that situation last year. The awkwardness that it creates for the clubhouse, it’s something that can put a strain amongst the guys. That’s something I don’t really want to revisit.”
Ruggiano, who spoke to Miami media in defense of teammates, said he has since talked with Martinez and made peace.
“Tino and I, if we had our differences, we solved them,” Ruggiano said. “Tino and I, we’re fine, and I wish him nothing but the best.”
Maybe it’s no accident that Ruggiano has looked and felt unusually comfortable at the plate, compared to past springs. Looking to “erase last year” and start fresh with the Cubs, he said he hit more during the offseason than he has in 10 years.
And he’s found a strong rapport with new Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller and assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley.
“There’s something about just me being on the same page with my hitting coach this year and establishing a good routine,” said Ruggiano, who hit .222 with 18 homers — and weathered an 0-for-42 skid that fell three short of the major-league record. “[Mueller’s] very positive and energetic. So far he’s created a great work environment. As a hitter, that’s all you could ask for from a hitting coach.”
Nobody figures to get more out of a fresh start than Valaika, who just wants to know he has a chance to earn a place.
“it wasn’t meant to be there,” said Valaika, who expects “added fire” if he gets to face the Marlins. “Hopefully, it’s meant to be here.”