Swinging McGwire's praises

There are still a lot of questions Mark McGwire won't answer, but none of them involves how to hit a baseball.

Despite reports that the admitted former steroid user has been a distraction in his first spring training as the St. Louis Cardinals' hitting coach, McGwire already has helped outfielder Ryan Ludwick at the plate.

After breaking down video of the former Durango High School and UNLV star's previous two seasons with St. Louis, McGwire fixed a loop in Ludwick's swing.

"He kind of attacked my back side (of the swing). It got a little loopy last year," said the 31-year-old Ludwick, who batted .265 with 22 home runs and 97 RBIs in 139 games last season. "We worked on staying on top of the baseball and driving down through the ball.

"It allows you to be shorter to the ball, and from there it's just about staying in the strike zone as long as possible with the barrel of the bat head. 'Short to it, long through it,' that's kind of what he's been preaching to me."

Growing up in Las Vegas, the 6-foot-3-inch Ludwick said he loved the Oakland Athletics teams that featured the "Bash Brothers," McGwire and Jose Canseco.

He said it was a humbling experience meeting one of his boyhood heroes when McGwire traveled to Texas in January to work with him and Matt Holliday, a fellow Austin resident and Cards outfielder.

"I was really overwhelmed with how good a person he is outside of the baseball world," Ludwick said. "He's an extremely nice guy and easy to talk to."

McGwire's recent admission that he took steroids did little to diminish the admiration Ludwick has for him.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's none of my business," he said. "It's in the past. As a Cardinal, I'm ready to move on in a positive direction and focus on the baseball ahead of us, not what's gone on in the past.

"That's my standpoint. I don't have anything negative to say."

Ludwick said most players on the team are pumped to have McGwire on board and the feeling is mutual. He said McGwire is one of the first people to arrive at the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Fla., and will stay as late as someone is willing to work with him.

"He's really anxious to work," Ludwick said. "He was a really good student of the game (as a player), and early in his coaching career he's becoming a really good teacher. He wants to make people better."

After struggling with injuries and bouncing around different organizations early in his career, Ludwick enjoyed a breakout year in 2008, batting .299 with 37 homers, 40 doubles, 113 RBIs and 104 runs scored in 152 games. He was named a National League All-Star and earned a Silver Slugger award.

Ludwick's numbers dipped last year, when he missed a few weeks in May with a strained right hamstring and was slow to regain his form upon returning, hitting only .200 in June.

But he bounced back in July, batting .340 with six homers and 28 RBIs en route to NL Player of the Month honors.

"Missing a month of the season and driving in (nearly) 100 runs, I don't feel it was that bad of a year," he said. "The injury and missed time kind of made it look worse than it was."

Ludwick, who signed a $5.45 million, one-year contract in January, said he's completely healthy entering this season, his fourth with the Cards.

"Honestly, I feel better this year than I have the last four years coming into camp," he said. "My body's not sore, my knees feel great, and my hips feel good. It's the best I've felt in a while."

Over the last two years, Ludwick ranks in the top five among major league outfielders in homers (59) and RBIs (220).

He should have plenty of chances to drive in runs this season, when he's slated to bat fifth, behind sluggers Albert Pujols and Holliday.

"It should be a lot of fun," Ludwick said. "They're on base a lot, and I'll have a lot of RBI opportunities, which is something I pride myself on. The more chances I'll get, the better I'll be."

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.