Ludwick makes up for lost time

ST. LOUIS – He wasn't the first person to oversleep in Las Vegas.

Stupid alarm clock, Ryan Ludwick says, and since it happened nine years ago, he's got no reason to fib. Still, of all the days for Ludwick to wake up late. There was a scouting director named John Mozeliak who really wanted to see Ludwick play for UNLV that day. Rules were rules, though, and anyone who showed up late sat on the bench.

As Mozeliak ascended through ranks of St. Louis Cardinals management, he never forgot about Ludwick, who at the same time was on a descent: from sure-thing outfield prospect with Oakland to capital-M maybe with Texas to injury hazard with Cleveland to flameout with Detroit. Scouts see thousands of players a year, and Ludwick would forever be Mozeliak's alarm-clock kid.

At least they had a conversation starter two years ago, when Ludwick was a six-year minor-league free agent – baseball's version of the scrap-metal heap – and Mozeliak called him. The Cardinals, defending World Series champions, wanted to bring Ludwick to spring training. Mozeliak, finally, could give Ludwick an opportunity.

"He wanted to give me a second chance," Ludwick said. "He's the main reason I'm here."

And Ludwick, conversely, is a big reason Mozeliak is looking so good in his first year as Cardinals general manager. How a 30-year-old with fewer than 700 major-league at-bats matured into one of the National League's most feared power hitters – one with 31 home runs, 93 RBIs and a .609 slugging percentage that places him just behind his teammate, Albert Pujols, for best in the NL – is one of the great tales of this season.

It starts with those phone calls. Normally, a player lets his agent do his bidding. Ludwick wanted to talk with Mozeliak, who was the Cardinals' assistant GM at the time, and convince him that his reputation was misleading.

"We label guys prospects or fourth outfielders or 4-A guys – or injury prone, like with Luddy," Mozeliak said. "He wanted me to know what he was doing, how hard he was working, how committed he was to find a place that would give him a chance."

St. Louis' statistical projections pegged Ludwick as a productive major-league hitter. He could play all three outfield positions. Everything looked all right physically, even if Ludwick's skin was more like a blanket covering up some ugly innards.

In his left hip, a 6-inch titanium rod helped heal a stress fracture. A 4-inch piece of titanium holds together his right wrist. Airport wands do not like Ludwick.

There was more: a pair of knee injuries, a stress fracture in his spine, a bleeding ulcer and some oblique issues. Four organizations gave up on Ludwick, though the worst was in Cleveland. In 2005, 41 at-bats into the season, the Indians designated Ludwick for assignment to activate Juan Gonzalez, who blew out his hamstring in his first at-bat. Ludwick, meanwhile, passed through waivers.

Twenty-nine teams could have claimed him for free. None wanted him.

"You get that label injury prone, and it's tough," Ludwick said. "I'd like to think they were the results of playing the game hard or freak accidents. To be injury free for three years in a row now" – Ludwick rapped his wooden locker – "is unbelievable.

"Just proving to myself I could do this is edifying. Up until last year, I didn't know if I could do it or not. I hadn't been given the time. So last year, finally, when I did get it, I felt like, yeah, I can."

St. Louis summoned Ludwick when Preston Wilson went on the disabled list, and by the end of the season, he hit 14 home runs in 303 at-bats and flashed life with his right-handed swing.

Part of it, Ludwick said, is due to the toe tap he borrowed from Sammy Sosa. Three years ago, with Detroit's Triple-A affiliate, Ludwick started yanking his front foot back, brushing the dirt, then striding forward. It allowed him to keep his weight back for an optimal shift, which, Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae said, is key to Ludwick's power.

And power he has shown, more than even he expected. Ludwick's hot start seemed a typical April anomaly: four home runs and a .647 slugging percentage in 68 at-bats. Manager Tony La Russa started to play Ludwick full-time in May, and the numbers improved: nine home runs, 26 RBIs and a 1.124 on-base-plus-slugging. A poor June yielded to a strong July, and August has been his best month yet: Ludwick hit six home runs in the first five games and has driven in 20 runs in 18 games.

"We got lucky," McRae said. "That's all you can say. We got a guy who was big and strong, who had a lot of potential, and we took a chance. Most of the time, those don't work."

Everything about Ludwick, it seems, comes down to chance. So he tries to minimize them as much as he can. He does not show up late to the ballpark. Ever. He now knows better than to do that, especially because of the secondary consequences.

Ludwick's wife, convinced the Vegas flub would come back to haunt him, slagged him mercilessly. Little did she – or anyone else, for that matter – know.

The alarm-clock kid came at just the right time.