Mr. LaGrange College baseball: Joe Ruth bids a heartfelt goodbye to the Panthers

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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As Joe Ruth bids his final goodbye to LaGrange College, he leaves quite the legacy behind. He has the Division III record holder in hits with 356 and the numbers truly speak for themselves, but the leadership and all-around production will be even harder for the Panthers to replace on the diamond.

Ruth is Mr. LaGrange College baseball. Nobody has quite done it like him in red and white. He made the all-conference second team as a freshman before missing out on the all-conference teams in his sophomore season. That would be the final time as over the next four years he would rack up Division III Player of the Year in 2022, All-American honors, conference Player of the Year and so much more during that time. All the individual success would be trivial if it were not for the teammates and the team success they have had along the way. 

“If you would have told me back in 2019 that I would leave this place with not just the records but win all the championships too,” Ruth said. “A conference championship, a regional championship, a Super Regional Championship and a World Series appearance, that alone would have been incredible, but on top of all that to be able to hold the single season hit record as well as a career hit record, that’s when I would have thought you were crazy if you told me I could have done that back in 2019. But I’ve been very fortunate enough to play with some unbelievable ballplayers over the last six years and all their hard work and sacrifices made it possible for me to succeed in the position I was in.”

The records he has set are astounding. 

Ruth broke the NCAA DIII hits record (330) on March 30th. He also broke the sacrifice fly record with 29. Ruth set the record for hits in a single season for Division III with 109 back in 2022. 

Ruth cannot imagine breaking records anywhere else. LaGrange College has become a second home for him.

There were chances to depart over the years for bigger opportunities. Ruth had the chance to play Division I ball, a lifelong dream, for Kansas State during his final season of eligibility, but he just was not ready to say goodbye to the Panther brotherhood.

“I haven’t told a lot of people this but midway through last season, I actually committed to Kansas State. I put myself in the portal and Kansas State reached out and they have a great program with great coaches and I loved my time there when I went on a visit, but at the end of the day, I decommitted and I decided to come back here because this place is home,” Ruth said with tears in his eyes. “I sat back and thought about how I wanted to spend that year and what I wanted to get out of it and I realized that no matter what I could have done there, I felt like the legacy I could leave behind here would mean a lot more to me than playing one year at that level.”

The LaGrange College baseball team is truly a brotherhood. The teams that Ruth was a part of always shared a tight bond, but when Stephen Bartolotta and Jacob Brown tragically passed away in a car accident after the team won the conference championship in 2022, the bond strengthened to the point where it is unbreakable.

“That team was just a family, it was one heartbeat, moving in the same direction to accomplish the same goals. And then, after having to go through all that it did bring us closer, it gave us even more purpose. It kind of fueled the fire that was already in us and we were playing for them,” Ruth said. “It’s crazy to think that it was two years ago, but what people don’t realize is even though that was two years ago, and a lot of the people who are on that team have gone their own ways, but that team is still as close as ever.”

The team still has a group chat where the family bond remains intact.

Ruth has grown from a boy to a young man in LaGrange in a lot of ways. He graduated with his Master’s degree and has always been a man who prides himself just as much in the academic world as he does on the diamond.

“Something that’s really preached in this program is not only do we want to be a championship-caliber baseball program, but we want to represent ourselves and our program the right way, whether it be in the community, and the classroom as well,” Ruth said. “Academics here and graduating here are just as big as winning championships.”

Simply put, there is no replacing Ruth. He is one of one.

While this looks like the end of the road for Ruth on the diamond as a player, he is far from done with the game of baseball. Look out for coach Ruth in a dugout near you in a few years.

“I sat on it for a while about all the possible roads to go down, but I’m just excited to take what I’ve learned in this program and start a coaching career,” Ruth said. “I never really thought about coaching until playing under Coach (David) Kelton and a handful of other coaches over the years. I think the mentorship they’ve given me and they’ve given these teams over the years has really opened my eyes to it. Taking what I’ve learned here into my coaching career, I think I’m set up to make a pretty good impact on the generations coming up.”