GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Ryan Ludwick comes to the ballpark these days in his tank-like Ford Raptor truck expecting to get two hits and, if it’s a good day, maybe three hits.
That’s because he resurrected his fast-fading career last season with the Cincinnati Reds after going to the ballpark the previous two years hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, he might get one hit that day.
Ludwick’s Raptor will pass anything on the road but a gas station, “About 10 miles to the gallon,” he said, but Ludwick’s personal fuel tank is back to full after running on empty during stops in San Diego and Pittsburgh in 2010 and 2011.
While in the prairie-like expanses of San Diego’s Petco Park, where home runs go to die on the warning track, Ludwick became frustrated and altered his swing, knowing he had to pull everything to have a sniff of a home run. With that, his batting average plummeted like a thermometer in Fargo, N.D.
He hit .211 in 59 games in 2010 after a trade from St. Louis to San Diego and he hit .238 in 101 games in 2011 before the Padres dumped him on the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When he hit only .238 in 38 games with Pittsburgh, the Pirates let him wander off onto the free-agent list and Reds general manager Walt Jocketty took the big risk and signed him.
After some minor tinkering, Ludwick rediscovered the swing he lost in San Diego and found the one he used in St. Louis in 2008 when he hit .299 with 37 home runs and 113 RBI.
He began slowly with the Reds last year and shared left field with Chris Heisey, until center fielder Drew Stubbs was hurt. Heisey was moved to center and Ludwick played left, “And that’s when things took off for me,” he said.
The 34-year-old Texan hit .275 in 125 games with 26 home runs and 80 RBIs and captured the clean-up spot in the Reds’ potent offense.
“The resurrection? It was nice,” said Ludwick. “Any time you have a tough time doing your job, no matter what the job, if you can come back and have a good year like I had, well, for me it makes the game fun again.”
Ludwick displayed an impish grin when asked about finding his old swing that Petco took away and said, “I think it looked pretty good, really, didn’t it? I thought it looked real good, y’know?”
Most players might have crumbled if they had been in Ludwick’s shoes — a guy with a new team and a poor track record in recent years. And he stumbled to his knees coming out of the gate.
But things slipped into the right gears in mid-June and he hit .313 from then on and had 24 hits in his last 57 at-bats (.421).
“I’ve been a notoriously slow starter in my career,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but when Drew Stubbs went down and I got to play it just took off from there. So it was a fun year, from a personal and a team standpoint,” he said.
Ludwick was a free agent after last season and there were teams knocking on his agent’s office door, big offers in hand. But Ludwick appreciated what the Reds did for him.
“The fact I had fun and I had success and the team had success was the reason I wanted to come back here,” he said. “The pieces are still in place for a good run.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that I was coming back to Cincinnati,” he added. “I talked to my agent, Walt Jocketty, my wife and some of my family members and made it known I was willing to take less money to come back here because it felt right.”
Ludwick accepted a two-year backloaded deal for $10.5 million, but only $2 million is for this year and $8.5 million for 2014. Many teams offered more, especially for this season.
“If I’m in a good mental mind frame and happy where I am, I play a lot better,” he said. “If you are making a lot more money, but you are unhappy, well, happiness definitely outweighs the financial part of it for me.
“I signed early,” he added. “I could have waited longer and got even better offers but I wanted to have peace of mind of being where I want to be. I’m thankful to Walt Jocketty for getting it done.”
As for the team, Ludwick believes the Reds are a top-tier team, poised to do something spectacular.
“If you were to ask the (so-called) experts to list the top five teams from both the National League and American League that might get to the World Series this year, most of them would throw us into that group of five.
“That means we’re a pretty good team on paper,” he said “Does that mean we’re going to get there? No. That’s why we play 162 games. But the depth of this roster, the experience, the confidence because most have been to the playoffs twice in the last three years means that when we show up at the yard we expect to win.”
Manager Dusty Baker remembers early last season when left field was up for grabs, mostly between Ludwick and Heisey.
“It was a matter of who was going to grab it,” said Baker. “Ludwick emerged. I’ve seen it many, many times when you get a player at a bargain the way we got Ludwick last year. When you are in a situation where you don’t have a high payroll, you are forced to get guys off the reclamation list. When you help bring them back most of the time you can’t afford to keep them and you get another reclamation project.”
And that’s why Baker is thrilled that after the Reds rescued Ludwick, he was so appreciative that he came back at another bargain price for 2013.
So, like his Raptor, Ludwick hopes he can just keep on truckin’ in Cincinnati and help drive the Reds toward the elusive World Series.