March 19, 2005 - Florida Today

Indians' Ludwick connects with Brevard

Rockledge-born Cleveland outfielder has big-league thrill playing at 'home'

BY HILLARD GROSSMAN
FLORIDA TODAY


Back to his roots. Cleveland outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who was born in Rockledge, hopes to land a starting job with the Indians. Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY
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Today's game
The Washington Nationals and pitcher Tomo Ohka host the Cleveland Indians and Jason Bere at 1:05 p.m. in Viera.

VIERA - His rookie card sells for less than $3, but Ryan Ludwick's visit to Space Coast Stadium earlier this week was priceless.

The Cleveland Indians outfielder got to play for the first time in his "hometown," just 15 minutes from where he entered the world at Wuesthoff Hospital in Rockledge.

"It's kind of cool to finally play where I was born," said Ludwick, 26, the son of a military officer who spent only a couple of years living on Patrick Air Force Base housing north of Satellite Beach.

"Just getting back to this area is special."

Actually, just getting back to the major-league level has been special for the chiseled 6-foot-3, 203-pound slugger, who still has a few relatives in the area -- although he can't recall meeting all of them.

Two years ago with the Texas Rangers, Ludwick sustained a broken hip, perhaps from repetitive motion, but no one knows for sure.

"At first they thought it might be a tumor, that if it was cancer they were already talking about amputation," Ludwick said. "That was scary."

But he graciously accepted a better diagnosis -- a stress fracture, which still required surgery to insert a 6-inch metal rod in his hip. After tearing up minor league pitching, the Rangers decided to trade him to Cleveland for pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez and outfielder Shane Spencer.

And after undergoing two knee surgeries last season, Ludwick is back stronger than ever.

Tuesday, after striking out twice against Washington Nationals ace Livan Hernandez, Ludwick ripped a pair of "frozen ropes," the first a single off Joey Eischen and then a double down the left-field line off T.J. Tucker in a 4-3 loss.

"He's a very good outfielder with power in that swing, and for the first time he's healthy in the spring," said Manager Eric Wedge, whose Indians visit the Nationals again at 1:05 p.m. today. "He's been through a lot. He's had some roadblocks, but he's never given into it. He stayed with the rehab programs, and works hard. He does all the things you need to do to stay up here. I'm just happy to get him here."

Brother paved way

Ludwick's father, Dale, was a captain stationed at Patrick AFB in 1978, when Ryan was born. But military commitments forced the family to spend tours of duty at Langley AFB (Va.), Seymour-Johnson AFB (N.C.) and Nellis AFB (Nev.), where Dale retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Ryan credits his older brother, Eric, a pitcher who spent a few seasons with the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays before completing his career in Japan, with giving him his inspiration. Eric was drafted by the New York Mets with the 48th overall pick in 1993, while Ryan was chosen 60th overall by the Oakland A's in 1999.

"I'm one of the few dads who can boast about his two sons being second-round draft picks," said Dale, who now lives in Galesburg, Ill. "They're both awesome kids, and they've never given us any trouble. I'm really proud of them."

"It is kind of special when you think of it," Ryan said. "You really have to credit my parents -- they brought us up well."

Both attended the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where Ryan compiled a career .363 batting average.

"You know, I couldn't have done it without my brother," Ryan said. "He was the better athlete, the superstar. Sure, I'd make the All-Star teams, but I was never the best player on the team. Eric would always be the best player on any team. Just growing up and watching him and seeing how competitive he was and how he was so driven . . .

"When he got drafted by the Mets, it was a big day in our family. He even bought me a Mitsubishi Mighty Max."

A major entrance

In his second and third seasons playing for Oakland's Modesto (Single-A) farm club and then Texas' Midland (Double-A) ball club in 2000 and 2001, Ryan began feasting on big-league pitching. Those two seasons, he combined for 54 home runs and 198 RBI.

It didn't take long to reach the majors.

"It was just crazy," said Ryan, recalling his first major league game. "There's so much stuff going through your head. The first time you get called up, you just try to soak it all in."

Against Anaheim's Kevin Appier, he ripped two singles in his first two at-bats.

"I was still nervous as heck, but those hits relaxed me a little," he said.

In three partial seasons, he has posted a .239 cumulative average with 10 homers and 16 doubles in 293 at-bats.

Now, he's in line for a starting role, although he has competition with Juan Gonzalez, Coco Crisp, Casey Blake, Jody Gerut and Grady Sizemore.

"It's a little too early to tell," Wedge said. "But he's certainly capable of being an everyday outfielder for us."

Life is good

Things are indeed looking up these days for Ludwick.

Two years ago, he married Joanie, or "Joanie Loves Chachi," as he calls her, a girl whom he had first met in fourth grade but never dated until after college. They've built a home in Austin, Texas, although Cleveland has now become Ryan's baseball home.

His aunt and uncle, who he occasionally visits, still live in West Melbourne. When he was 7, on one of those visits, he recalled playing catch with one of the neighborhood kids who lived two doors down. That kid? Jason Arnold, now a pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization.

"Who would have believed that?" Ludwick said.

Earlier this year, he strolled through the pits at the Daytona 500 to see one of his special classmates, Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch, who was part of his Class of '96 at Durango High in Las Vegas.

"It's always good to see one of your classmates do well," said Ludwick, "but I don't know what he thinks of me."

Ludwick has found a home in the Indians' clubhouse which, of course, has a resemblance to scenes in the movie, "Major League," based on the same team.

"Well, I don't know if it's like the movie," he said, "but it is very loose and very fun. We play a lot of pranks and everyone is relaxed."

One of his teammates, Crisp, even gave Ludwick a nickname for his home run trot.

"I remember the first time he hit a home run, he circled the bases with his arms tucked close into his sides, so we started calling it 'The Chicken,' " said Crisp, who like Ludwick is starting his fourth season. "It was kind of funny to watch, but he's a good guy and a good teammate, and he's 100 percent confident."

"No doubt I feel fortunate to be playing at this level -- I think every guy in this clubhouse feels that way," Ludwick said. "To battle back, on my part, is just gratifying. I know a lot of players' careers have ended with injuries less than that, so for me to come back and have this opportunity to make this team, and to think we have a team that's favored to win our division . . .

"I know the atmosphere of a playoff race would be an amazing thing to be a part of."

Don't laugh. Ludwick could be one of the guys soon turning "Major League" into a reality series.