Count Ben Ruta among the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South graduates to return to the area to work after college.
And although Ruta is thrilled to return home, although he’s hoping it won’t be his final stop.
Ruta is playing for the Trenton Thunder, the New York Yankees’ Double-A affiliate, after finishing last year at Single-A Charleston.
The assignment brings him back minutes away from where he grew up dreaming of playing for the Yankees.
“My first thoughts were I was pretty excited to be close to home and I called my parents because I knew they would be just as excited if not more excited to be able to watch me play more,” Ruta said. “My next thought was I was grateful for the opportunity to move up, and it’s a great opportunity for me to show my ability at a higher level.”
Since making his debut on opening day on April 6, Ruta has wielded a hot bat.
As of April 22, Ruta’s batting average was 13 for 33 with 4 walks over the last 10 games. The outfielder’s .409 batting average was at the top of the Eastern League.
When Ruta made his Thunder debut in the season-opener early this month, it was his first time playing at Arm & Hammer Park in six years. He had a chance to play there in the summer of 2012 for the West Windsor-Plainsboro American Legion team. Ruta also had a handful of chances to play on the field for South.
“Back then, that’s always your dream to be able to play with the real team,” Ruta said. “When you get to be in the dugout and play in the field, you’re just dreaming the whole time that maybe this could be me some time. It’s just crazy that it worked out that way for me.”
Ruta has a built-in local crowd that will be pulling a little extra for him.
“It’s exciting,” said High School South head coach Don Hutchinson. “It’s very exciting, especially being local like that. The last [WW-P baseball player] who played professionally was Kevin Barry, and he played his minor ball in Richmond.”
Hutchinson usually attends a few Thunder games each year, but says he’ll likely make a few extra trips to take in Ruta. Hutchinson has kept track of Ruta’s progress, and is looking forward to seeing him play in person.
“I always thought Ben was a good high school player,” Hutchinson said. “He surprised me a little that he got that far. He evolved. He hit the ball opposite field well in high school, and that’s important. He was home a couple years ago and took BP when he came back during one of our practices, and I don’t know how many home runs he hit off me pulling the ball.”
Ruta played shortstop for Hutchinson, and he always envisioned his professional career a little differently. For one, the Derek Jeter fan always figured he’d still be playing shortstop. He’s played outfield in the minor leagues, and is being groomed at all three outfield spots for the Thunder. He’s adjusting to a new level of play too, though his surroundings are familiar.
“Definitely the first day we were at the stadium, not doing too much baseball stuff, I got to walk around the clubhouse and walk around the field and just recognize some of the things I used to see being in the stands and playing there,” Ruta said. “It was like a full circle moment, and you take it all in and realize you’ve come a long way since then and you have a lot more work to do to get to the Bronx, but you just enjoy the little things about being in the position I’m in now.”
Ruta has especially enjoyed being close to where he grew up. After his parents moved to Hoboken, Ruta is living with a friend, and the return has made part of his climb to Double-A a little easier.
“I definitely look at it as an advantage,” Ruta said. “When you get assigned somewhere, you have to get an apartment, all the stuff that comes along with that, like Wi-Fi, you have to figure out where to get food, you have to figure out how to get to the stadium, all the roads, all that stuff is just extra things to deal with that I don’t have to worry about. I have a place, I’m staying with my good friend’s family, I know the area, so all that stuff is off my shoulders, which I think makes the transition easier.”
Ruta played 53 games last year for Charleston and hit .273 and stole 11 bases for the RiverDogs before his season was cut short by a wrist injury. He returned to spring training this year determined to make the adjustments to move up in the Yankees system.
“It’s going to be pretty similar,” Ruta said. “I want to make a lot of contact. I want to use my speed more and try to steal a lot of bases and cause havoc out there. The focus is the same and hopefully I’ll gather a few more base hits this year.”
‘It’s probably the greatest opportunity I’ve had so far in my professional career.’
It’s his third year in the Yankees organization since they drafted him in the 30th round in 2016 after he graduated from Wagner College. He’s been progressing each season.
“I was pleased with how last season went,” Ruta said. “The ending wasn’t great obviously. I got injured and had to get a minor surgery. That’s always in the back of your mind in the offseason. I was happy with the amount of contact I was making and the quality of contact I had last season, but I really wanted to try to get more gap power.
“I made a few minor tweaks in my load, not necessarily in my swing, and that seemed to be helping a lot and I was able to drive some more balls in spring training and so I’m going to keep doing that and see if that translates into games here.”
Ruta started off scorching the ball. He was hitting .455 after the first weekend series of the year.
It’s always nice to get off to a good start to start a season,” he said. “I’m just building on what I did at spring training, sticking to my approach, and getting with the hitting coach Ty Hawkins. It’s going out there and trying to execute and so far it’s working out.”
His early success affirmed some of the adjustments that he made to his swing. He’s happy to have a chance to test them at a higher level after bypassing high Single-A.
“You have some older guys with a lot more experience,” Ruta said. “Any time you get around guys like that, it’s positive in the sense that you have guys on your team with more experience so you can ask them questions, feed off them and get an idea how they get through some situations.
“But then you’re also playing against similar guys that have been there before and they know how to get through situations that you maybe haven’t experienced before. So I would say that’s the hardest transition is getting through those older guys. It’s a great opportunity to compete against that sort of competition.”
Those that saw Ruta play six to 10 years ago can now see him at the pro level. Seeing him with the Thunder is an eye-opener as to how far he has come.
“It’s a different step in the pitching,” Hutchinson said. “There are guys right there a step away from the majors.”
Ruta says that in addition to playing in close proximity to his hometown, he also has a good group of players around him to help ease his move up.
“I’m very familiar with most of the guys on the team which is nice,” he said. “I played with a lot of them before, and even some of the guys I haven’t played with, I’ve played with in spring training, so I definitely know everybody which is good for the comfort factor at the new level. I have some pretty good friends on the team.”
He also has a lot of friends and interested fans pulling for him from the area. Getting assigned to Trenton brought him back on their immediate radar.
“I’ve had a lot of friends reach out to me,” Ruta said. “It’s nice to have that support. I know a lot of them will be coming to games, but I think they’re going to wait until it warms up a little bit, and I don’t blame them.”
Ruta began the season relying on his cold weather experience from growing up playing at WW-P South and then at Wagner College. Ruta is happy to be home and thrilled that it brings him one step closer to the Yankees.
“It’s probably the greatest opportunity I’ve had so far in my professional career so I’m looking forward to seeing how this year goes,” Ruta said.