By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Ruiz successfully executed his plan, and with two friends and one pair of soccer shoes among the three of them, he made his way to the field in the city center. "I remember the stadium was full of children, thousands of them," Ruiz says. "I was thinking, 'Man, some of these kids play soccer for real. They're going to be really good.'" As the youngest, Ruiz's turn with the shoes came first, and he began a 15-minute scrimmage under Grill's watchful gaze. Ruiz made the cut and was invited to keep training with the youth team.
For three months Ruiz kept his triumph secret from his mother, sneaking out through the ceiling every Tuesday and Thursday until a neighbor alerted her to the strange goings-on. "When she found out, man did she hit me!" Ruiz says. He was grounded as punishment, and it appeared his career with Municipal was over--until several days later, when a knock came at the door. To Ruiz's amazement, Grill himself had come looking for him, but Ruiz wasn't about to risk his mother's wrath again. He told Grill to come back on Sunday afternoon when Gutierrez would be home.
When the Municipal coach began to lay out his case to Ruiz's mother the next Sunday, Ruiz could hardly believe his ears. "[Grill] said, 'I've been in Argentina, I've been in Chile, I've been in Mexico, and I've never seen a player of his age that can play like he can,'" Ruiz says. Though he sat meekly while his mother and his coach argued back and forth, Ruiz was doing backflips inside. Finally Grill offered to place Ruiz in the team's youth academy, where he would get free schooling, room and board. Gutierrez didn't like the idea of her only son leaving home, but the offer was just too good, and she tearfully agreed. "She said, 'OK, you can go, but you'd better be the best player in Guatemala.'"
From that moment, Grill became the closest thing Ruiz had ever had to a father. "Carlos was a special case from the beginning," Grill says. "He never knew his father, so we began talking a lot." The coach had two children of his own, but Ruiz quickly became a third. Grill knew he had a prodigy on his hands. Now 84, Grill still marvels at the twist of fate that brought them together. "I have a pretty long résumé, 55 years as a coach, and I understand that I can make mistakes like anybody," Grill says. "But out of all those kids, I picked him because I knew he would be the one."
Ruiz made his debut with the adult Municipal squad at the unheard-of age of 16. It was a dizzying rise. Suddenly he was making $2,000 a month in a country where people live on $200--and he hadn't yet learned to drive. "You always dream of playing soccer first of all," Ruiz says. "Then you dream of playing for one of the big teams in Guatemala. Then you dream of playing for the national team. And for me it all happened so fast." When Ruiz went to the MLS, an entire country shifted its sporting attention northward. "Whenever Los Angeles had an important game, it was like the national team was playing," says his mother. "And when Los Angeles won the championship, it was like it was Christmas."
Outside Gutierrez's new house in a much nicer section of the city, the children still play soccer in the streets, but now she can hear them yell out to each other, "Look, look, I'm Carlos Ruiz! I'm El Pescadito!" Her walls, she says, are covered with pictures of Ruiz, and her coworkers at the Colgate factory always ask her for the latest news from El Pescadito. "They tell me, 'If you had had three Carloses we would have made it to the World Cup for sure,'" she says.
Grill is well known for his connection to Ruiz as well. "People come up to him in the street and say, 'Oh, you're the father of El Pescado,'" Ruiz says. "'Please tell him good luck in the U.S. and that we're counting on him in the World Cup,'" Ruiz says. Grill has visited Ruiz in Los Angeles and Dallas. "Sometimes he cries when he sees me because he says he sees reflected in me everything he knows."
"Carlos Ruiz is a player with a lot of responsibility, and unfortunately his life is a mess," says Byron Vasquez, editor of Guatemala en USA, a small Los Angeles-based paper and Web site. "This came to our attention when his wife called us and said she didn't have electricity at her house in Guatemala, and it's true. I was there. And the way he has mistreated her, the way he has abused her--we have video as well." Vasquez hastens to make clear that the video is not of Ruiz abusing his estranged wife, Laura Mendez, but rather of her detailing a long history of the financial and emotional difficulties she says she has suffered.