The big man put up big numbers in 2016, setting career highs in nearly every statistical category. One thing that isn’t big about Rupp, though, is his ego. Despite belting 98 hits, 16 home runs, and 54 RBIs in 2016, Rupp remains as grounded and down-to-earth as they come. He always knew he had the kind of talent to play professionally, but the fact he’s a Major League Baseball player who now gets recognized on the streets of Philadelphia is still a bit surreal.
“I guess I’m considered a public figure,” he said humbly. “It’s always nice when somebody sees you outside of the field and wants to say hello or take a picture. It’s cool to have fans that support you.”
Growing up, Rupp spent his free time like countless other kids in America, playing baseball in his backyard and pretending he was stepping up to bat with the game on the line. Rupp doesn’t have to use his imagination these days. He is embarking on his third full MLB season in 2017, and reaching the highest level of the sport is something he truly cherishes.
Rupp, 28, has his family to thank for getting him hooked on baseball. His father Kevin played A-level pro ball in the Montreal Expos organization, and his uncle Chris was a college player and coach.
“Baseball has always been kind of in our blood,” Rupp said.
Even with a strong baseball background, Rupp’s journey to the majors required patience and perseverance. In high school, Rupp reached a bit of a crossroads. He was a standout in both baseball and football, and college scouts were eyeing him up.
“Whenever my football coach would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, what’s your interest level in college football?’ I’d say, “None. I would love to play, but I’m gonna play baseball. Don’t even tempt me because I might make the wrong decision.’”
Rupp loved playing football, but he didn’t think he could make a living out of it. Baseball, on the other hand, could turn into a professional career.
“I was better at baseball,” Rupp said. “I had opportunities to go play football in college, but I knew that I had a better chance with a future in baseball.”
Rupp committed to play baseball at the University of Texas at Austin, but that spring, he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 43rd round of the MLB Draft. Just as Rupp was tempted by offers to play college football, the allure of a professional baseball contract with the Pirates was hard to resist. However, he believed in himself enough to know that re-entering the draft later on, with a few solid college seasons under his belt, could result in a more lucrative offer.
“I kind of priced myself out,” Rupp said. “And I knew how important it was to go to school, not only academically, but for the experience as well.”
Rupp decided to major in education, so if his baseball career didn’t pan out, he could be a teacher and also work as a coach at the school where he taught.
“That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, is working with kids and giving them lessons and helping them become better players,” he explained.
Even though he was prepared to do so, Rupp never had the chance to teach. After three strong college seasons, the Phillies drafted him in the third round of the 2010 draft. The decision to spurn the Pirates in 2007 and attend school paid dividends, and looking back on his college years, Rupp knows he made the right choice.
“After I went through the lower levels of the minor leagues, I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it coming out of high school,” he said. “College prepared me for it. I’m very, very glad I went.”
Rupp spent three seasons working his way up the minor league ranks, and late in the 2013 season, he was rewarded and called up to the big leagues. On Sept. 10, 2013, he made his MLB debut when manager Ryne Sandberg penciled him in as the team’s starting catcher against the San Diego Padres. The Phillies lost that night, but Rupp recorded his first major league hit, and the experience was one he will never forget.
“It’s something that you dream about since the time you could pick up a baseball,” Rupp said. “The first time you put that big league uniform on, it’s special.”
Of course, just because Rupp had made the majors didn’t mean the hard work was over. He found himself right back in the minor leagues to start the 2014 season, although he once again earned a call-up. After joining the Phillies in June, Rupp started 18 games that year—an improvement on the 3 games he started the year prior, but a mere drop in the bucket compared to the 104 games started by 2008 World Series-winning catcher Carlos Ruiz. Still, any MLB playing time is a plus, and Rupp worked to further establish himself.
Rupp did more than simply show he belonged. His powerful arm, reliable defense, and consistent bat won over the trust of his manager and teammates. Rupp split the 2015 schedule equally with Ruiz, and in 2016, Rupp’s name was posted on the dugout lineup card more often than not. The torch was fully passed to Rupp when the Phillies shipped Ruiz to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August.
“The goal is to get to the big leagues and then to stay,” Rupp said. “Establishing myself as a starter is a great feeling.”
As happy as he is to have such a large role on the team, Rupp can’t get complacent. Two of the Phillies’ top 15 prospects—Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp—are catchers. Such is the life of a baseball player. There’s always going to be someone younger in the pipeline. Rupp takes the situation in stride and insists he doesn’t feel any pressure from the young guns nipping at his heels.
“Pressure? Not really, but motivation, yes,” he said. “It’s just like with any job. If you’re not improving, if you’re not successful, somebody is going to come take your job. That’s the way it is at anything that you do.”
Although Rupp was alrerady the team’s undisputed starting catcher entering spring training, he does not take the luxury of an MLB roster spot lightly.
“I continue to tell myself that I’m competing for a job every year,” he said. “Whether I’ve got one year of service time or ten years of service time, somebody wants my job. They’re going to do everything they can to show that they belong. It keeps me going. I just take it and run with it.”
Rupp is looking forward to contributing in 2017, his second season in the number one role.
“I want to do whatever I can to help the team win,” he said. “Whatever numbers those are, whatever is going to help my team win, that’s what I want. If it’s not behind the plate and I’ve gotta do it offensively, great. If I’m struggling offensively, I hope that defensively I’m sharp and I’m helping our pitching staff get better each night.”
In 2016, Rupp had a lingering arm issue (“I wouldn’t call it an injury,” he said. “It was just, my arm wasn’t 100 percent last year”), but he feels completely healthy heading into 2017. He’s excited to see what he and the up-and-coming Phillies can do.
“I’m fired up,” Rupp said. “We’ve got a lot of young talent, especially on our pitching staff. We’ve got a lot of young arms, not only that are gonna be in the rotation this year, but in the years to come. We saw a lot of young kids make their debut last year that helped us win some ball games late in the year, and then we’ve added some veterans. It’s in the upswing and it can only keep getting better.”
Most pundits have the Phillies pegged for a few more tough years of rebuilding before the team finds itself back in the postseason, but Rupp believes the light at the end of the tunnel is a lot closer than people think.
“Experts can say we’re gonna compete in the next couple of years, yeah. But you know what? We’re gonna come out to compete every night this year,” Rupp said. “We’re gonna come out ready to win, we’re gonna have fun, and it’s gonna be an exciting year for us.”
Regardless of when the Phillies re-establish themselves as a championship-caliber team, the big Texan is thrilled to have found a home away from home in Philadelphia.
“I want to play where I’m wanted, and I feel like I’m wanted here,” Rupp said. “I’m playing where I’m wanted and I enjoy every minute of it.”
Photographs by Miles Kennedy