Getting to the big leagues was the easy part for Ryan Ludwick, who took the fast track to the majors after starring at Durango High School and UNLV.
The outfielder has incurred a rash of injuries since making his debut with the Texas Rangers in 2002, though, and has undergone five surgeries in the last five years.
But Ludwick hasn’t let the seemingly endless adversity stop him. He has persevered through a broken hip, broken wrist, torn cartilage in his knee and three ulcers to play a crucial role this season for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ludwick, 29, has appeared in almost as many games in the majors this season (87) than his last five seasons combined (104), and he’s batting .250 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs for St. Louis, which is two games out of first place in the National League Central.
Ludwick is tied for eighth in the majors with 10 pinch hits, including three homers, and has four game-winning hits, including a walk-off solo shot in the 14th inning of the Cardinals’ 7-6 interleague win over Kansas City on June 20.
“This game can be taken from you in a heartbeat and an opportunity can arise in a heartbeat,” Ludwick said. “I feel blessed to have another opportunity in the big leagues and this time it’s worked out pretty well.
“It’s been really fun to be able to come up here and contribute. I don’t feel I’m playing as well as I’m capable of, but I’ve contributed to some victories and that’s a good feeling.”
Ludwick was just hoping to get back to the big leagues this year after not playing a game in the majors last season for the first time in five years.
His 28 homers and 80 RBIs for Triple-A Toledo were enough to earn International League All-Star honors, but not enough to get called up to the Detroit Tigers, whose outfielders stayed healthy in their run to the World Series.
“The way I played in Toledo I would’ve been up with 20 other ballclubs in the big leagues,” Ludwick said. “But if it wasn’t for last year I wouldn’t have had the opportunity this year.”
The 6-foot-3-inch Ludwick, who bats right-handed and plays mostly against left-handers, has been healthy enough to patrol every outfield position this season.
“It’s kind of cool all the confidence (manager) Tony (La Russa) has had in me to throw me in center field, where I haven’t played in two years,” said Ludwick, who has made several stellar diving catches. “I really enjoy playing center. My defense has been good and I’m running good again.”
Ludwick tore it up at Triple-A Memphis to start this season, hitting .340 with eight homers and 36 RBIs in 29 games, and was called up to St. Louis on May 6.
“For me and my wife (Joanie), this call-up was the most special, even more than my first time,” he said. “I felt the most prepared and it was the most rewarding one. I’m here in the pennant race and I couldn’t ask for a better story line.
“I’m probably the happiest guy in the locker room and the most grateful.”
Ludwick, a second-round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1999, said injuries have robbed him of four or five full seasons in the big leagues.
“This game’s been really easy for me, but the hardest part has been the injuries,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem with the playing part; it’s always been injuries and the mental side. When I’m healthy, I feel I’m as good as anybody else.”
Only two months after making his major league debut in June 2002, Ludwick fractured his left hip and was told by doctors he might never play again. He bounced back strong in 2003, but tore cartilage in his right knee late in the season and had to undergo a second procedure on the knee in the spring of 2004.
Ludwick made an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career in 2005, but after struggling to a .220 average in 19 games with the Cleveland Indians, he was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo, where a broken wrist ended his season and sapped his spirits.
“I was kind of a mental wreck,” Ludwick said. “I felt the game had been taken away from me.”
Ludwick is one of three Las Vegans with close ties to the Cardinals this season. The others are pitcher Brad Thompson, a Cimarron-Memorial product who recently was optioned to Triple-A Memphis, and bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy, who went to Western High School.
“Whenever we do something well, we come up to each other and say, ‘Do it Vegas style, baby, Vegas style,’ ” Ludwick said. “It’s kind of cool having two guys from Vegas on one team, not to mention our bullpen catcher.”