Back where he broke in, Ludwick's passion for game remains
Veteran outfielder, who's endured six surgeries, given chance to make Rangers -- again
ARLINGTON -- Ryan Ludwick may be the ultimate baseball survivor. When you consider he broke into the Major Leagues on the most bizarre team in Rangers history and endured six major surgeries through his career, it is remarkable that Ludwick is still around.
But here he is, a 36-year-old outfielder with 12 years in the big leagues, having agreed to a Minor League contract with the Rangers and willing to come to Spring Training to compete for a job.
"If you had told me I had played this long after all those surgeries, I would have said you are crazy," Ludwick said Thursday. "But life is good. I still love playing baseball."
Ludwick is a candidate to play left field, but could also win a job as a part-time designated hitter or backup outfielder. He doesn't seem to mind.
"The last couple of years haven't gone real well, a tough couple of years," Ludwick said. "But when I go through adversity, a lot of times I look in the mirror and just get determined to get better. I've worked hard in the offseason and I feel much better than last year. Until they knock me out of this game, I am going to continue to play and I thought Texas was the best for me."
Ludwick's last big season was with the Reds in 2012. He hit .275 with 26 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .531 slugging percentage as their left fielder. After the season, he signed a two-year, $15 million extension.
Then he suffered torn labrum in his right shoulder on Opening Day 2013 and missed four months. The injury lingered into 2014 and he went from playing regularly to a platoon role.
"Mentally I wasn't prepared for that," Ludwick said. "But I learned a lot. I learned I am getting older, but I still feel I can help a team win. Mentally I'm stronger to do whatever it takes and whatever the job is."
The goal this offseason was to get back to full strength. The Rangers' scouts saw him work near his home in Georgetown, Texas, and sent back favorable reports.
"I'm not a guy who says I've worked harder than I ever have before or am in the best shape of my career," Ludwick said. "We'll see how it plays out. Hopefully what I have done is enough."
Ludwick was originally drafted by the Athletics in the second round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, a 6-foot-2 outfielder with power and enough speed to play center field. The Rangers acquired Ludwick on Jan. 14, 2002. They sent first baseman Carlos Pena and reliever Mike Venafro to the Athletics for four prospects: Ludwick, first baseman Jason Hart, catcher Gerald Laird and pitcher Mario Ramos.
It was the right trade for a team that had finished last place two straight seasons and were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode. The Rangers weren't. Having signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract, Texas was trying desperately to throw together a competitive team around him.
The pitching staff included Chan Ho Park, John Rocker and Hideki Irabu, and their center fielders included Carl Everett, Calvin Murray, Ruben Rivera and Todd Hollandsworth. The Rangers finished last again.
"I was so young," Ludwick said. "Anytime you get traded from the organization that drafted you to a new organization, I felt like I had to rebuild my standing. Offensively they had an incredible amount of talent -- I don't know how we didn't win. I was in awe walking into that clubhouse; it was intimidating."
Ludwick started that 2002 season in Triple-A, was called up for the month of June and then sent back at the beginning of July after hitting .235 in 23 games. One month later, he suffered a fractured left hip and the parade of injuries had begun.
The Rangers traded him to Cleveland in 2003, but he suffered two knee injuries and a broken left forearm getting hit by a pitch. By 2006, Ludwick was no longer a prospect.
Cut loose by the Indians, Ludwick spent the entire 2006 season with the Tigers' Triple-A team in Toledo, hitting .266 with 28 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .506 slugging percentage. In 2007, he was with the Cardinals and reached the big leagues after a fast start in Triple-A.
Toledo proved to be the turning point, Ludwick said, because that's when he learned to hit the ball to the opposite field.
"I was a pull hitter early in my career," Ludwick said. "Once I learned to hit the other way, I sort of took off."
Ludwick had his best season in 2008 when he hit .299 with 37 home runs and 113 RBIs. He was also selected to the National League All-Star team.
He still hasn't avoided the injuries. He was on the disabled list once each season in 2009-11 as he went from the Cardinals to the Padres to the Pirates and then the Reds. But he has persevered through the journey -- always productive when healthy -- and isn't ready to retire. He still harbors hopes of being a front-line player again.
"I'd be lying if I said no," Ludwick said. "Everybody wants to play. But like I said, whatever the role is, I'm ready for it. I'm older. I've had my day in the sun. If I have a good spring and they say I'm an everyday player, that's great. If I have a good spring and they say I'm the fifth outfielder, I'll say, great, whatever.
"I'm 36 and I don't have a ring. That's why I'm coming to Texas. I still want to win and I still want that ring."