When Frederick Keys designated hitter Randy Ruiz has time to put down his bat and return home to New York, he often picks up a stick.

"I started playing baseball when I was about four or five years old, playing stick ball and Whiffle ball in the schoolyard," Ruiz said. "I still play for fun when I go back home."

That Ruiz, 25, still can play baseball, or some derivation of the sport, for enjoyment is partly why he has been able to stay focused during a five-year career that has taken him across the country and to Puerto Rico during the winter. It also helps explain his measured reaction to his release by the Cincinnati Reds' organization near the end of spring training.

"I never thought I was going to get released, but I hold no grudges," Ruiz said. "This game is a slow process. I just want to get better."

Ruiz is trying to do that in Frederick. Known mostly for his work at the plate, Ruiz is practicing at first base and in left field to become more versatile.

Still, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Ruiz, who won the Pioneer League batting title in 2000 with a .381 average and hit 20 home runs for Dayton in the Midwest League the following year, has helped Frederick most with his bat.

In the first two games of the Keys' recent series at Myrtle Beach, Ruiz went 7 for 9 with four RBI to lead Frederick to its first two victories of the season. His two-run home run in the seventh inning of the first game was the difference in the Keys' 6-5 win.

Heading into last night's game with Salem, Ruiz ranked fifth in the Class A Carolina League with a .412 batting average.

"This is a new start," Ruiz said. "It's a new organization, a new front office. Things can only get better."