Human brains are such strange things, and over three and a half decades of evidence have me convinced that mine is at least a noticeably bit more offbeat and inexplicable than the majority of any given dozen that a coroner removes and examines in an average week or so. I’m not saying that because I have a history of making comitragic decisions with such consistency you could set a wristwatch by them, or because I can remember all the lyrics to the 2004 non-hit Get Back by Ludacris ft. Sum 41, but not my eldest sibling’s middle name. Sure, those things are true, as is the fact that I spent at least five minutes trying to decide whether to call my extensive archive of errors “comitragic” or “tragicomic”, but none of them have a single thing to do with Ryan Ludwick, who is the reason I’m putting my cerebrum on trial in a lede at 3:51 in the morning.
I personally know of no other Padres fan who thinks of Ryan Ludwick in sympathetic, borderline fond terms, and the fact that I do is probably enough in itself to have many of you wondering if I’m well overdue for another involuntary inpatient evaluation, but that’s only the beginning of my mental peculiarities surrounding the trade flop who still unfairly still wears the brunt of the blame for the 2010 Padres’ collective collapse. While mine is an undoubtedly unpopular opinion to hold, that part doesn’t bother me one bit. The thing that does vex me to no end is that every single time I hear or see his name, I immediately think of a line I won’t speak from a movie I hold in such great disdain that the mere mention of it causes my visceral disgust to manifest itself palpably by way of my fingers involuntarily curling into a pair of fists while my bizarrely youthful, handsomely chiseled, perpetually pleasant face with soft, deep eyes and incredibly unlined skin is contorted into a repugnant avatar of repulsion, a hideous display of hatred that would make Lily Aldrin’s eviscerating death glare look like the gleeful smile of a joyous Ralphie Parker unwrapping his coveted Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot-range model air rifle on Christmas morning.
So, yeah, a player I like, who everyone else hates, reminds me not just of a movie I hate, which everyone else likes, but specifically of the part I hate the most, which everyone else likes the most.
By this point I’ve raised numerous questions and provided no answers, which is fairly on-brand for me. Most of the answers I do have are vague, and the majority of those ones are just me trying to retroactively justify a gut feeling I had, which is extremely on-brand for me.
I think part of my soft spot for Ryan Ludwick can be attributed to sympathy, not to be confused one bit for pity. I’ve always cringed at personal vitriol directed toward decent human beings whose capital crime against all mankind is... uh, not hitting a baseball as well as hoped. If they’re clearly not putting forth effort, that’s another story, and in this case that’s exactly what it is: another story. Whose story? Oh, where do I begin? Ah, that’s right, in another post on another day, since I’ll never get done talking about Ryan Ludwick if I start going off on tangents about Matt Kemp.
If someone is absolutely dead-set on taking out their frustrations on somebody for Ryan Ludwick not living up to expectations in San Diego, the first thing they need to do is seriously reevaluate their priorities. Well over seven years have passed, which is well over seven years past the time it all became inconsequential in every way, not just the universal sense in which everything is inconsequential because we’re all going to die. Aside from the fact that dwelling on the failings of men in sand-colored pajamas is futile at any time, there is truly only one party who can be held responsible for Ryan Ludwick not living up to expectations: those people who put the expectations on Ryan Ludwick.
The first mistake was thinking that Ryan Ludwick was going to be the homer-blasting savior of the season who would pad the Padres’ division lead and surely carry them into the playoffs with his big ‘wick energy. The second mistake... is something I’ll get to in a bit, since I haven’t even begun to explain why the first expectation was a mistake.
Ludwick was acquired from St. Louis, with help from Cleveland, who delivered the Cardinals an armed man who fit the description on their most wanted poster, inning-eating starter Jake Westbrook. Everyone got what they wanted from the trade: San Diego added an outfield bat, St. Louis got a patch for their rotation, and the well-out-of-contention Indians shed some salary. As their end of the deal, the Friars sent out two minor league starting pitchers; the Cards received Nick Greenwood, in Single-A at the time, and Cleveland got Double-A righthander Corey Kluber. Greenwood pitched in 36 innings with the Cardinals in 2013, while Kluber retired from Triple-A ball without reaching the majors, and is now living a comfortable life as the assistant manager of a franchised tire and lube center in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
The expectation (there’s that horrible word again) among some was that Ludwick would be the fabled “big bat” that armchair general managers had been certain was all the Padres needed to put themselves over the top. He was tasked with being just the second truly legitimate offensive threat, alongside first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, in a patchwork lineup which had struggled to provide support for the pitching-heavy Friars. The hope (not quite as bad as expectation, but still dangerous) was that he’d return to his All-Star form of 2008, when he mashed 37 home runs and 40 doubles while slashing .299/ .375/ .591. Rationally it seemed like the more likely scenario was that he’d put up numbers closer to those from his follow-up season, when his OPS+ plunged from 151 to a nearly average 105, although it sat at 123 when he was traded, despite his power numbers continuing their steep fall. Outside of his monster season, Ludwick had shown himself to be good for 1.5 WAR per season at best; at the time of the trade he sported a glossy 2.4, but it was artificially propped up by a fluky and absolutely unsustainable 0.9 dWAR, which stands as his only positive number in that column from 2008 through 2014. In just 59 games in San Diego the rest of the year, Ludwick came close to fully negating that odd combination of luck and statistical noise, posting a much more familiar -0.6 dWAR, and that wasn’t even the aspect of his game that frustrated and infuriated not just the entitled pocket of Padres fans, but also the more reasonable and realistic cross-section who only expected (hey, there’s part of that word again) him to provide a respectable upgrade by relegating Scott Hairston to the bench. With the Shrek lookalike and brother of teammate Jerry, Jr. hitting only .239/ .320/ .397 at the time, and fading farther by the day since taking over as the everyday starting left fielder two months earlier, the bar was set extremely low. Merely league average production from Ludwick really would have made for a notable boost, but you already know how this story goes.
Sometimes you just suck.
Sometimes when you’re a baseball player, you just suck at baseball.
Sometimes when you’re a baseball player who sucked at playing baseball at every stop until you fell into a team with a loaded lineup, playing half its games in a park suited to your game, and you leave that lone cocoon where you didn’t suck at baseball, you just suck at baseball.
It’s okay to suck at baseball! Sucking at baseball doesn’t make you an asshole; sucking at baseball doesn’t make you a stupid prick, a selfish idiot, or any of the far more vulgar things Ryan Ludwick was called during his year in San Diego. It might go without saying, but just to be clear, when I say “suck at baseball” (eight times) I of course mean sucking at baseball relative to one’s peers. I am certain that if I showed up at Ryan Ludwick’s house today with 40 baseballs, after he got done blowing out the 40 candles on his fortieth birthday cake, he would hit 40 bombs off me once I managed to throw 40 strikes, and he would not look like he sucks at baseball. Setting aside the fact that I suck at baseball, and re-revisiting the days when he sucked at baseball, the point is clear that lack of aptitude in any skill, whether permanently or temporarily, is no reflection on one’s character.
The fact that he was expected by so many to perform at a level he had only achieved in a perfect storm is what attached that brief and awful soundbite from an awful movie which was excruciatingly far from brief. I’m sure it’s true of every decade in ways, but one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the 1990s is the ever-present substitution of style over substance that was everywhere. From the beginning of the decade with Andre Agassi’s “Image Is Everything” campaign for Nike, through the 1999 “return” of The Misfits (featuring a completely foreign sound and only one original member, who churned through an ever-changing bevy of second-rate musicians, making cringe-inducing and legacy [of brutality] tainting songs for the sole purpose of selling t-shirts and action figures), it seemed like the vast majority of everything with a price tag was nothing more than eyewash. Few fields were as overrun with this commitment to gimmickry as the mainstream film industry. Never a stranger to pumping out artless dreck with a strategy of making two minutes of sensory-bombarding schtick for the trailer and phoning the other 90 minutes in, Hollywood dug to new lows in Decade X. Many of film’s most respected directors gave in to the realization that simply attaching their name to mindless flash and lazy fanservice was the path of least resistance to an easy payday that took up a lot more room in the bank vault than what they had netted from their iconic works. One such auteur was Oliver Stone, who made a strong entrance into the ‘90s with historical dramas The Doors and JFK, followed that by wrapping up his Vietnam War trilogy with Heaven & Earth, then unleashed the most audience-insulting, era-capitalizing, substance-free mishmash of crowd-pleasing, proto-edgelord trash; an outright affront to the intelligence of any self-respecting moviegoer with the slightest shred of independent thought to see that this emperor had no clothes.
Every single excruciating minute of the two-hour waterboarding equivalent induces a full-body cringe and renders the viewer embarrassed for Stone, much like watching the jeans of an overserved bar patron get dark with his own urine while his high school crush looks on from three stools over. While the whole reel of mock-shock is worthy of scorn, just one snippet of Natural Born Killers will unfortunately remain forever attached to Ryan Ludwick in this malware-filled hard drive behind my eyes.
The next time you find yourself wondering why the guy who was an above-average asset even at his worst in St. Louis could manage to fall so far and so immediately after leaving the land of El Caminos, look past the trees in the Ozarks and see the forests in Texas and Cleveland. Prior to his three and a half years playing his home games in front of the most self-absorbed fans in baseball, Ludwick spent four years in the American League, struggling to stick on a big league roster. He made his Triple-A debut in 2001, then got his first call up to Texas the following year. He bounced between Triple-A and the majors every season from 2002 through 2005, not once playing more games in big league stadiums than down on the farm. In those four partial campaigns with the Rangers and Indians, Ludwick went to the plate just 365 times, spread across 104 games, and hit .237 with 16 doubles and 14 homers.
After spending the entirety of 2006 in Toledo with the Tigers’ top affiliate, it was on to the Cardinals, where he flipped some sort of switch and immediately transformed into a productive big leaguer at age 29. The moment he left, not only was the switch flipped back off, but the breaker blew and the smell of burning plastic began wafting from the wall. He wasn’t just the old Quadruple-A Ryan Ludwick down the stretch in 2010; he carried the stink into the next season, with both San Diego yet again and Pittsburgh, where he was sent one year to the day after the trade that brought him to Petco Park. He had a brief resurgence with the Reds in 2012, but that was negated by his following two years on the banks of the Ohio River, which proved that it wasn’t red uniforms that made him hit well.
Once the ink dried on his dozen major league seasons, the numbers in the books added up to suggest the existence of two Ryans. There was the fabled Studwick who hit .280 with 102 doubles and 84 homers in 1,608 at-bats with birds on his shirt, and every other city he played in got the familiar Dudwick who hit .244 with three fewer doubles and 14 fewer home runs in 333 more at-bats.
As Ludwick did his part to contribute to the Padres’ September collapse in 2010, which was a complete team effort, the people wondering “What happened?” simply weren’t looking at the evidence which would have saved them the trouble of asking. The answer was there all along, both on his Baseball Reference page and in a horrendous excuse for a movie that seems to have been made solely for proudly ignorant 15-year-old boys to tide them over until Fight Club would come out five years later for their macho college selves to misinterpret.
“Once upon a time, a woman was picking up firewood. She came upon a poisonous snake frozen in the snow. She took the snake home and nursed it back to health. One day the snake bit her on the cheek. As she lay dying, she asked the snake, ‘Why have you done this to me?’ And the snake answered, ‘Look, *****, you knew I was a snake’.”