SAN DIEGO — It was a couple of hours before the San Diego Padres were to play the Pittsburgh Pirates on getaway day, and the humongous, in-the-round Padres clubhouse at Petco Park was eerily quiet. Nary a boom box was blaring. First place, it turns out, can be downright peaceful, especially when the last-place Bucs are in town.
In the right half of the circular room, Mat Latos, the out-of-nowhere ace of the San Diego pitching staff, had rolled a wad of athletic tape into a ball and was pitching it to a teammate’s son. In the middle of the room, teen idol-sized stacks of fan letters, bulging around their rubber bands, were jammed into the mail slot with Padres third baseman Chase Headley’s name on it. In the left half of the circle, an old, bald guy was reading a magazine. Matt Stairs, now with his 12th major league team, has lost weight but still looks more like an equipment manager than a ballplayer.
At the top of the circle, one of the Padres’ recent acquisitions was sporting an almost imperceptible frown. I couldn’t tell if Ryan Ludwick, the former Durango High and UNLV star, was put off by the prospect of putting on the garish yellow and brown baseball jersey hanging in his spacious cubicle — this was "Throwback Thursday" at Petco — or because I had asked about his baseball future.
"Think about today. That’s my motto, man," Ludwick said behind bright blue eyes. "I don’t look past today. I’m worried about (Pirates starting pitcher) Zach Duke. I’m worried about getting a win today. Then we’ll focus on tomorrow."
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At that time, Ryan Ludwick had been focusing more on the past 10 yesterdays. He was traded from the Cardinals to the Padres on July 31, just before the deadline, in a three-team transaction that sent starting pitcher Jake Westbrook and minor leaguer Nick Greenwood to St. Louis and pitching prospect Corey Kluber to Cleveland.
"Packing things up, trying to move the family out here, living in a hotel for a while, meeting new people, trying to fit in … yeah, it’s been (crazy)," said Ludwick, who went from being an All-Star in St. Louis two years ago to being 32-year-old trade bait this season.
"I had heard a lot of rumblings about the offseason, maybe getting moved because of salary — Albert (Pujols) has a big contract coming up, they just signed Matty (Holiday), they’ve got Colby (Rasmus) in the outfield, there’s some (outfield) depth in the organization," said the oft-injured Ludwick, who batted .299 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs in 152 games in 2008, showing what he can do when healthy.
"I’m glad it was here. Sometimes you think ballpark-wise, it’s big, a hard park to hit home runs in. But I’ve never heard anything but good things about the guys over here, about Bud (Black) as a manager."
Ludwick didn’t start his first game in San Diego because the Padres wanted to evaluate his calf injury that resulted in yet another spell on the disabled list in July. With the Padres trailing 3-2, he lined an 0-and-2 pitch off Florida starter Josh Johnson for a pinch-hit single and scored a big run in a come-from-behind 5-4 win. "I slid across home plate, and I had guys right there pumping their fists … I don’t think the day could have went better," he said.
The days after that weren’t nearly as productive. Ludwick had just five hits in his first 28 at-bats with the Padres and admittedly was scuffling, swinging at pitches when he should have been taking and taking pitches when he should have been swinging.
Then the Pirates came to town.
Nothing like a three-game series against the last-place Bucs to get a former All-Star back in the groove.
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I was standing on the rail of the Western Metal Supply Co. warehouse abutting the left-field foul pole when Ludwick came to bat against Duke with the Padres leading 1-0 in the sixth. His line drive sounded good; it looked even better, leaping off his bat like one of those whales leaping out of the Pacific Ocean off the San Diego coast. But it barely cleared the fence before dropping into the Padres’ bullpen in left-center field — the deepest part of a ballpark that is not depth-shy. It was Ludwick’s 14th homer of the season, his third in the past three days.
When he returned to his position in right field, the fans there began to chant his name: "Ry-an Lud-wick, Ry-an Lud-wick … clap, clap, clap. Ry-an Lud-wick, Ry-an Lud-wick … clap, clap, clap."
But even while basking in the soft light of a setting San Diego sun and the afterglow of a big two-run homer, Ryan Ludwick’s bright yellow and brown uniform still looked somewhat garish.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352.