By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
El Pescadito's troubles followed him to Dallas. On top of his MLS duties were piled the intense demands of World Cup qualifying, a disintegrating marriage and even a paternity suit filed in Los Angeles. Injuries and absenteeism limited Ruiz's contributions. "It was a lot of pressure, and I didn't handle it well," Ruiz says. His efforts were still enough to earn him an All-Star spot once again, but on the day of the July 30 match in Columbus, Ohio, Ruiz was nowhere to be found, with conflicting reports on his status. It later turned out that Ruiz had been excused after pleading extreme fatigue, but skeptics pointed to a Guatemalan newspaper photo from the day before showing a grinning Ruiz surrounded by busty brunettes at a Hooters opening in Guatemala City.
The fact remained, though, that when he is on, Ruiz can dominate any game. He returned from injury for the playoffs and scored two goals in the conference semifinal that FCD eventually lost on penalty kicks. Yet Ruiz was still a second-class striker on his team come payday. The marketing-friendly Florida native Eddie Johnson saw even less action in 2005 than Ruiz because of a remarkably stubborn toe injury, but early that year he signed a three-year contract for a reported $875,000 a year--more than 12 times what Ruiz was making.
In February, FC Dallas at last corrected the obvious injustice. Though European clubs had stopped knocking on Ruiz's door, the MLS came through with a four-year deal that reportedly pays him close to $500,000 a year if he earns all the incentives. Head coach Colin Clarke proclaimed to anyone who would listen that signing Ruiz was priority No. 1, and proved it by sending Johnson to Kansas City. Clarke insists that Ruiz's personal conduct never came up in the negotiations, but Ruiz recognizes the challenge the deal represents--and says he's up to it. "I want to change," he says simply.
Ruiz has finally found a team that wants him as indisputably as the Municipal of his youth, and he's doing his best to return the sentiment. But when, in an unguarded moment just after the team's preseason charity dinner, he is asked how he feels about his contract, the Little Fish doesn't seem all that happy to be caught. He gazes at the ground in silence for a beat, then sighs, "It's four more years, man."
The old Carlos Ruiz probably would have let that comment stand, or might have added a list of places he'd rather be. This year, however, the new Carlos Ruiz has made his debut as the responsible team player. He looks up after he says the words, aware of how they may have sounded, and quickly adds, "But the team made the effort to get me, and that means a lot." It means that Ruiz is at last ready to confront his image problem. If he succeeds, as he has in so many things, El Pescadito could start bringing in fans through the gates of gleaming new Pizza Hut Park, trophies to the still-unfinished cases and offers from Europe, the biggest pond of them all.
Carlos Ruiz doesn't remember those words, spoken to him in 1981 when he was 2 years old. His father wouldn't live much longer, but he was around his only son long enough to make a prediction--even though it started as an excuse.
Ruiz kicked the ball and, as is the way of balls kicked indoors, it collided with the cabinet where his mother stored all the china, porcelain knick-knacks and souvenirs.
"Boom! It hit the cabinet and everything fell and broke," remembers Ruiz's mother, Maria Gutierrez. "I was so mad at him." But when Gutierrez began to lecture Ruiz about the proper place for kicking soccer balls, his father cut her off. "Leave him alone. He's going to be the best player on the Guatemalan national team one day."
Gutierrez was so surprised she burst out laughing and told her husband he was out of his mind--but he persisted. "You watch," he said. It was a casual boast that could have been uttered in a million households in Guatemala, but in only one would it become prophecy.
The family lived in Zona 21 in Guatemala City, in a neighborhood called Bellos Horizontes, or "Beautiful Horizons." The hilly terrain on the southern outskirts of the city can afford some sweeping views, but the vast sprawl of rusting corrugated metal roofs and narrow streets is more known for limited prospects. "In my neighborhood, if you looked at the future, you would either go to jail, get killed, or do whatever you could to get out," Ruiz remembers.
As Ruiz was growing up, the civil war that had plagued Guatemala since the 1960s was slowly winding down, but the political strife took a back seat to the gangs that were beginning to make their presence felt all over the city. For many of Ruiz's friends, gangs seemed like the best hope of gaining respect and earning income. "Of all the friends I had in the neighborhood, I was the one that played soccer the least," Ruiz says. "They were all incredible soccer players. But for some, their families were so poor that it made them join gangs as a way to make easy money."