Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz returned to his Philadelphia home Saturday night after helping rookie pitcher David Buchanan earn his first major league win. But baseball quickly became an afterthought for Ruiz as horror struck back in his native Panama.
"I came back to my house and my brother [Samy] was knocking on the door real hard," Ruiz told ThePostGame exclusively Sunday. "I was thinking something bad happened. I opened the door, and he looked at me and asked if I knew what happened in Panama. I asked if something happened with Mama."
The news did not involve Ruiz's mother, but instead his hometown friends, Walter Dubarran and Jose Mercedes Rodriguez. They were among three men who were tossed into the sea when their fishing boat capsized. As word spread of the missing men, the National Air and Navy Service of Panama (SENAN) soon began searching for them.
Blas Pitti, the third man of the boat, was the only one rescued Saturday shortly after the boat capsized. A diabetic in his 50s, Pitti was found by SENAN, floating on a gas tank that had been part of the boat.
Ruiz's friends were lost in the water for 35-40 hours, but they were rescued thanks in part to Ruiz, who hired boats, helicopters and airplanes to search for them. "For almost two days, we were so worried," Ruiz said. "We didn't know if something was going to happen to them. I'm so happy they are OK. Now I can get back to the field."
As it got dark Saturday, SENAN put off the search during the night. Ruiz, 35, couldn't sleep and felt time was pressing.
"Carlos was going to fly to Panama and everything," his childhood friend, Omar Urriola, told ThePostGame by phone from Panama.
Carlos stayed in Philadelphia, but one of the private boats he hired had a search team that included his uncle, Manuel Rios; his brother, Joaquin, and other family friends.
On Sunday morning, Carlos arrived at Citizens Bank Park for the Phillies' 1:30 p.m. ET game against the Dodgers.
"I went to the ballpark and I make these phone calls to Panama," Ruiz says. "The people were really nice to me. They said, 'Don't worry. Play hard.' We'll see if we can find them."
Ruiz had been told Saturday afternoon that he would be sitting out the Sunday matinée with Wil Nieves getting the start at catcher. Ruiz, who broke into the majors with the Phillies in 2006, explained his situation to the coaches Sunday and promised to be on call if needed.
"I didn't feel good," Ruiz says. "If something happened with Nieves, I would have been available to catch. I explained to them what happened and it was tough to focus on one thing.
Ruiz never entered the game, which ended up being a no-hitter by the Dodgers' Josh Beckett. Despite all that was going on, Ruiz described the game as a "tough loss."
Meanwhile, in Panama, the search continued. While Beckett wowed the crowd in Philadelphia, miracles were taking place in the Gulf of Chiriqui. SENAN restarted its search Sunday and found Rodriguez, who used a cooler top as a flotation device.
When Ruiz arrived at his locker after the game, he had seven missed calls from Panama. He breathed easier knowing Rodriguez was OK, but he still feared for Dubarran's life.
Perhaps the rescue of Dubarran was even more impressive. Dubarran strapped himself to a buoy to help him float. As he had been in the water for 35-40 hours, he started to become weak as Sunday afternoon neared night. He was dozing off on the buoy.
As Joaquin told Carlos, Dubarran was on the surface enough to trigger the attention of the boat that Ruiz deployed.
"[Joaquin] saw something and said, 'Hey, look! There's something. The captain saw there was something and they went there. They jumped in the water and found them. I told my brother he did a great job."
The crew told Dubarran it was Carlos who funded his rescue, and he got on the phone with Carlos as soon as he got to shore.
Here is exclusive video of Walter Dubarran moments after being pulled aboard the rescue boat. Carlos' brother, Joaquin, wearing the checkered shirt, is next to him.
"The first thing I did was I prayed to God and said thank you and wow," Ruiz says after getting the news about Dubarran in the car home from the game. "When I came into my house, I got a hug from my brother, my wife and my little kid. It was grand. I was so happy."
Pitti and Rodriguez suffered burn wounds from a mix of gasoline and sun on their bodies. All three were dehydrated, with Dubarran especially fatigued. The three were taken to a nearby hospital.
All three were moved to a private hospital Sunday evening when Ruiz paid for their transition. Urriola said Sunday the men are in stable condition.
Ruiz grew up in Boquerón, a town in the Chiriquí province of Panama. Ruiz lost his father, Joaquin, a police officer, at age 7 to a car accident. He was forced to grow up quickly, while working as a laborer in the coffee bean fields to help sustain his family. Rodriguez, who is in his 50s, served as a role model, and Dubarran, 38, was a close friend.
"We are together almost every day when I'm home. I was really sad and it was really hard to deal with a lot of different things going on," Ruiz says.
Ruiz, who drove in the winning run in Game 3 of the 2008 World Series, returns to Boquerón in the offseason and spends time with Rodriguez and Dubarran. He says they are like part of his family.
"It’s a small town. Everyone knows everything. All the families have been here for generations and generations," says Urriola, who has visited Ruiz in Philadelphia. "Carlos is someone everyone knows. He's always giving to the place he was a kid.
"[Carlos] is always there in the offseason. He built his ranch. He enjoys animals, horses and the rodeo. He does a lot of work for the people in the town and province where we grew up. If there needs to be a light in the stadium, he puts it in."
After a two-day whirlwind, the pride of Boquerón can sleep easy. In the midst of a two-game stretch over Memorial Day Weekend, he organized a naval search party that saved one of his childhood friend's lives and provided for their medical care.
The Phillies host the Rockies at 5:05 p.m. ET Monday. If they can manage it in the hospital, it wouldn't be a surprise for Blas Patti, Walter Dubarran and Jose Mercedes Rodriguez to be watching the hero who made it from Boquerón to Major League Baseball, the hero who put all his efforts into saving a few lifelong friends back in his homeland.
-- Special thanks to Yesenia Miranda and Everth Morales for the video and photos. Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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