Sweating out the trade deadline
For a player, perhaps no date on the MLB calendar causes more angst than July 31
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick has an All-Star Game appearance and a Silver Slugger Award on his résumé. He's in a small fraternity of players (with Rickey Henderson, Cleon Jones and Cody Ross, to name a few) who swing from the right side and throw from the left. And he's one of only three University of Nevada-Las Vegas baseball alumni -- along with Matt Williams and coach Fred Dallimore -- to have his uniform number retired by the Rebels.
In baseball circles, Ludwick has another novel distinction: He's developing a reputation as the Jeff Conine of the July trade deadline. (More on Mr. Marlin a little later in this story).
Each of the past two seasons, on July 31, Ludwick has had to scramble to catch a flight after learning that he's been traded. It's always an adrenaline rush for a player to go from an afterthought team to a contender. But Ludwick is already playing for a contender in 2012, so this is one streak he would just as soon break.
The Reds lead the NL Central with a 59-40 record and are working on an eight-game win streak, and Ludwick has played a major role in the team's recent surge with a .956 OPS in July. But his personal history has conditioned him to being ever so slightly on edge until the calendar flips to August.
"Trust me, I think about it," Ludwick said in an interview in late June. "Of course I do. I hope it doesn't happen because I like it here. I really do. But you never know what's going to happen in this game."
The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, always a hectic time of year, has assumed a more chaotic tone than ever with the rise of social media and blow-by-blow accounts of trade machinations. Sleep-deprived executives and frazzled media members will count down the hours until Tuesday at 4 p.m., while fans obsessively monitor websites in a hyperadrenalized pursuit of any snippet of news.
Joe Fan, understandably, has a hard time mustering much sympathy for athletes who have to uproot their lives on the fly when they're making seven figures a year and playing a kid's game for a living. (See: Dempster, Ryan). Ballplayers, conversely, know what they're getting into when they choose their profession; stability is one of the biggest casualties in the quest for riches, fame, All-Star appearances and World Series rings.
Still, nothing slaps an athlete back to reality like the cold, hard news that he's been traded. Players who are moved in November or December at least have time to deal with the logistical hassles and come to grips mentally with the change. It's different in July, when cliques have been formed and the rhythms and routines of the clubhouse have already been established. Ever experienced what it feels like to be the new kid in school?
"It can be awkward," said Milwaukee pitcher Randy Wolf. "Depending on how long you've been with an organization, you've developed a bond with the teammates you have. Now you have to deal with going to a new team, and they want you there as soon as possible, so you have to set up a day to pack up your apartment and move your stuff. It's a pretty hectic process.
"I don't think players ask for any sympathy. But you can make all the money in the world and it still makes it extremely difficult. At the same time, it can be an exciting experience, as well."
Wolf has been traded once at the deadline, when the San Diego Padres sent him to the Astros in 2008. He was coming off surgery and pitching on an incentive-laden contract, and the Padres had no desire to pay him extra bonus money when they were on their way to a 99-loss season. So they shipped him to Houston, where general manager Ed Wade planned to re-sign him to a long-term deal in the offseason.
The plan never came to fruition. Hurricane Ike cut a swath through Texas; the Astros' schedule was thrown into a state of chaos; and the team failed to make the playoffs despite going 36-18 in August and September. The Astros pulled a contract offer to Wolf that winter when the economy went south, and he signed with the Dodgers as a free agent.
Wolf's 2008 trade experience taught him that there's a right way and a wrong way to try to blend in with a new team.
"The one thing you don't want to do is try to fit in too fast," he said. "If you're an idiot, guys are going to think, 'Oh man, who's this guy?' The best approach is to just be yourself and let things evolve. Eventually, you'll be part of the team and you'll be fine."
Big game Hunter
Phillies outfielder Hunter Pence lived a similar trade odyssey last year with Houston. He made the All-Star team in 2011, and, in the player media availability sessions, reporters from the cities in the trade mix for him kept dropping by his table and asking, "How would you feel about playing for [insert team here]?"
As July dragged on, Pence grilled the Astros beat writers daily for the latest rumors and speculation. He was in a state of limbo until July 29, when he was standing in left field at Minute Maid Park and teammate Jason Michaels trotted out to his position to take his place. Just like that, Pence's eight-year affiliation with the Houston franchise was severed.
"You feel bad," Pence said in hindsight. "You love a lot of those guys because you've spent so much time battling with them. You spend more time with your teammates than you do with your family, so, when you're leaving them, it's emotional."
The Phillies and Astros have made several trades in recent years, so Pence had a head start on his Philadelphia reconnaissance. Before leaving Houston, he received a primer from teammates Michael Bourn and Brett Myers, who raved about the atmosphere in the Phillies' clubhouse and the passion of the fans. The next day, Pence arrived at Citizens Bank Park to find former Houston teammates Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt to help ease his transition. He also caught a major break when his sister, through a friend, was able to hook him up with a nice apartment in the city.
Pence's first few days in Philadelphia were a whirlwind. His equipment failed to arrive in time, so he wore a borrowed set of spikes that were a half-size too small. He also changed his uniform number from 9 to 3 in deference to Phillies prospect Domonic Brown. But when Pence went out to right field and the crowd serenaded him with cheers and waved signs riffing on the "Pence/Penns" wordplay, he felt right at home. "I got chills," he said after his first game.
A day later, Pence scored the winning run against the Pirates. In the postgame interview with broadcaster Gary Matthews, he blurted out the observation, "Good game. Let's go eat!" He had barely arrived in Philly when his accidental catchphrase was emblazoned on a T-shirt.
A year later, Pence is almost back to square one. The Phillies are in last place in the NL East; he is scheduled to make at least $13 million next year; and his name is again making the rounds in trade speculation. He is doing his best to ignore it.
"I want to play here, period," Pence said this week. "I want to win this year. I still believe in us, and that's what I'm focused on. What if I die tomorrow? I'm not guaranteed another breath. So I'm going to go out and play as hard as I can today with what I've got."
Getting the news
Players on the trade block never know precisely when the news will come, or from which source. In July 2003, Ludwick received word from Texas manager Buck Showalter that he had been traded to Cleveland for Shane Spencer and Ricardo Rodriguez. Two years ago, a reporter called him and told him St. Louis had just dealt him to San Diego as part of a three-team trade.
Last year, Ludwick achieved a career July trade hat trick with a deal to Pittsburgh. But he hit only .232 with two homers for the Pirates, and the team faded from contention down the stretch. When Ludwick signed with Cincinnati as a free agent in February, the Reds became his eighth organization in 12 seasons.
Unlike Pence and Wolf, who are single, Ludwick is married with a young son. He considers himself fortunate that his wife, Joanie, is flexible enough to help him navigate the challenges of apartment hunting and the other logistical hurdles that comes with trades.
"She's a soldier," Ludwick said. "I don't think the wives get enough credit in this sport."
For the Ryan Ludwicks of the world, each successive move drums home the realization that baseball is, first and foremost, a business. Players have a tendency to take the first trade personally. The more it happens, the easier they roll with it.
"I've been around enough teams now that I'm going to know at least five or six guys wherever I go," Ludwick said. "The first time it happens, it can be an uncomfortable feeling. You walk into a team halfway through the season, and, if you get traded to a contender, they've been playing pretty good. Now you're messing with that chemistry. You're the new kid on the block, trying to make friends and get to know guys.
"Sometimes you can put on a little extra pressure on yourself to perform, too."
Barring some strange, unforeseen turns of events, Ludwick will be staying put this year. But the end of July doesn't necessarily bring peace of mind and security. Jeff Conine, the aforementioned Mr. Marlin, was traded in August of 2003, 2006 and 2007 to contending teams in need. In baseball circles, he became known as the patron saint of post-non-waiver-trade-deadline dislocation.
Unless a major league player is a superstar or has a complete no-trade clause, no skill is more important than the ability to adjust. And there's never a time to exhale.