Rick Ankiel, Ex-Pitcher

By the time he took his first legal drink, Rick Ankiel was already an accomplished major league pitcher. As a teenager he was both the High School Pitcher of the Year and the Minor League Player of the Year. At age 20, his first full year in the bigs, he won 11 games for the Cardinals, struck out over a man per inning, and logged an ERA a run below the league average. He possessed a mid-90s fastball and a devastating curve – the best I’ve ever seen – and his future seemed unimaginably vast.

Then one afternoon everything fell apart. You all know the story: he started Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS against the Braves, was sailing along with a big lead in the third inning, then walked four of the next eight hitters and uncorked five wild pitches. His throws hit off the catcher’s glove, hit the backstop, hit everything but the Durham Bull. It was a disaster, an agonizing meltdown on national TV.

The years since have been both strange and oddly familiar for Rick Ankiel, a ceaseless round of hopes and disappointments, one on top of the other. Last fall, after an odyssey that included maddening control problems and Tommy John surgery, Ankiel made a triumphant return to the major leagues. He pitched only 10 innings, but he struck out nine, walked only one, and flashed the same brilliant stuff he had as a rookie years back. With a solid stint in the Puerto Rican winter league, the Cards’ brain trust silently penciled him in as a starter in place of the recovering Matt Morris.

But just over a week ago Ankiel fell off the wagon once again. In a series of simulated at-bats against the heart of the Cards’ lineup, Ankiel began “feathering” his pitches – several thudded into the dirt in front of home plate, and some sailed to the back of the batting cage. Of the 23 pitches he threw that day, only three were strikes.

Yesterday Ankiel announced that he was quitting the pitching business altogether. It was unsettling news, but certainly not shocking. If you’ve followed the saga of Rick Ankiel, you’re far from shockable at this point. But that doesn’t make the breakdown of his career any less mysterious.

Everyone in St. Louis has a pet theory about what went wrong with Rick Ankiel, the same way every Oxford scholar has his own explanation for the outbreak of World War I. One theory holds that Ankiel suffered from a kind of nerve disorder, that his sense of kinesthetic awareness had gotten out of whack.

Another theory blames Tony La Russa. After all, it was La Russa who threw poor Ankiel into the pressure cooker as his Game 1 starter in the playoffs. Delay his turn in the rotation and everything would be fine today – or so the thinking goes. A related theory says Ankiel went wild because his regular catcher, Mike Matheny, wasn’t behind the plate on that fateful day in 2000. (Call it the Curse of Carlos Hernandez.)

Still others chalk up Ankiel’s problems to sheer performance anxiety. If you look at the athletes who suffered symptoms similar to Ankiel’s, you’ll notice a common thread: nearly all of them ran into mental roadblocks when they had time to become conscious (even hyper-conscious) of what they were doing. Think of Steve Blass on the mound, alone with his thoughts as he goes into his windup. Same goes for Nick Anderson at the free throw line, Ian Baker-Finch lining up a short putt, Mackey Sasser lobbing a throw to the pitcher, or Chuck Knoblauch making a routine toss to first. Notably, it’s not hitters – whose actions are more reflexive – who suffer from this kind of anxiety. It’s the guys who have time to think.

So what was Rick Ankiel thinking when he was out there on the mound? This tender article by Pat Jordan, which ran in the New York Times a few years ago, paints Ankiel as a kid who suffered from excess sensitivity, who fed into all the pressures that bore down on him. In one heartbreaking passage, Ankiel describes his childhood: “Well, I was goofy. I walked like a klutz. I spilled milk at the dinner table every night.” Apparently he never lost his self-consciousness, even on the baseball diamond. “I was terribly shy,” he said. “Maybe it was because my dad yelled at me so much. I was afraid to mess up.”

Ankiel’s father, of course, was one of those pushy Little League dads who later did prison time for dealing narcotics. By all accounts his son is the nicest guy in the world – a gleeful imp beloved by his teammates – but Jordan suggests that this same lack of guile may have made Ankiel defenseless when it came to the cauldron of big-league competition. It’s a sad but unfortunate truth that good people don’t always make good athletes. In fact, one sometimes suspects that churlishness – the ability to walk over rivals, a taste for blood – is a positive asset in the world of sports. Nice guys finish last and all.

So what happens next for Rick Ankiel? He says he’s going to try his hand as a full-time hitter, and there are some wishful thinkers who’d have you believe that Ankiel is a legitimate “blue chip prospect” with the bat. These people will tell you that Ankiel has a lifetime minor-league slugging percentage of .575, that he yanked 10 homers as a part-time DH in the Appalachian League, and that he just may be the second coming of another Cards pitcher-turned-outfielder named Stan Musial.

But it’s silly for anyone – and this includes the St. Louis Cardinals – to indulge this fantasy. By the time he was Ankiel’s age, Musial had already won two MVP awards. Ankiel, on the other hand, has struck out in exactly one-third of his at-bats in the major leagues. His on-base percentage above A ball is a miniscule .252. He is not a real hitter by any conceivable stretch of the imagination. It’s unfortunate, then, that Ankiel is flirting with the outfield, because it won’t allow him or the Cardinals to truly turn the page. He’ll be just another spring training curiosity, grist for sportswriters on a slow day in March – like Garth Brooks in a Padres uniform, only more depressing.

Some people have speculated that the whole pitcher-turned-outfielder scenario is a ruse. The Cardinals are out of options with Ankiel, see, so they can’t send him to the minors without exposing him to waivers. But if other teams think Ankiel is nothing more than a hitting project, they won’t claim him, especially if it means keeping him on their major-league roster all year long. Perhaps Jocketty was simply scaring off potential suitors yesterday when he said of Ankiel, “He said he’s not going to pitch. If someone claims him to be a pitcher, it’ll be a costly error.” But this conspiracy theory presumes a lot of work for very little in return. For all intents and purposes it’s best to consider Rick Ankiel retired from baseball.

Ankiel now joins a notorious list of “might’ve beens” from baseball history – Tony Conigliaro, Herb Score, Pete Reiser, Mark Fidrych, Steve Busby, and, of course, countless people you’ve never heard of. But we shouldn’t exactly feel sorry for the guy. By my count he made at least $4 million by the age of 25 ($1.5 million in salary over five years, plus a $2.5 million signing bonus) and, you know, he did get to play in the major leagues (which is more than you can say for flameouts like Brien Taylor or Josh Hamilton).

And let’s face it, after Ankiel hangs up his cleats for good, he’ll follow a career path not unlike countless Americans before him. I mean, very few of us get paid to follow our dreams. By the time we reach age 25, most of us have already set aside our ball gloves or our guitars or our paintbrushes and we’ve started looking for more practical ways to settle down, pay the rent, make do. In a very real sense, then, when we mourn for Rick Ankiel we may as well be mourning ourselves.

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