An old baseball adage says one bad game won’t ruin a pitcher’s career. In Rick Ankiel’s case, it did.
Ankiel had one of the strangest careers in baseball history. At Port St. Lucie [FL] High School, he threw a 94 mph fastball. As a senior, Ankiel struck out 162 batters in 74 innings and posted a 0.47 ERA. He was named 1997 USA Today High School Player of the Year and the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the second round of the 1997 amateur draft. A left-hander who complemented his fastball with a heavy sinker and fall-off-the-table curve, Ankiel was a pitching prodigy who drew comparisons to Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. Named 1999 Minor League Player of the Year, he reached the majors within two years.
Ankiel pitched his first full big league season in 2000. Just 20, he was the second-youngest player in the league. Possessing a rocket for an arm and a curveball that Mark McGuire nicknamed Snapdragon, Ankiel won 11 games as a rookie. He pitched 175 innings and finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting. The Cardinals won the NL Central and manager Tony La Russa chose Ankiel to start Game One of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves and their ace, Greg Maddux.
The Cardinals got to Maddux early, building a 6-0 lead through two innings. In the third, Ankiel’s career went sideways. The Monster appeared, and he lost his ability to accurately throw a baseball. After walking Maddux to open the inning, Ankiel uncorked five wild pitches before being lifted with two outs and a 6-4 lead. The last pitcher to throw five wild pitches in one inning was Bert Cunningham — in 1890! The same thing happened a week later against the Mets in the NLCS. Twice. Ankiel would end up with nine wild pitches in four innings that postseason.
The southpaw returned the following year but was again unable to control his pitches. He lived in a vacuum – alone, and with the yips. Coaches offered pointers, teammates made suggestions, and reporters had questions. The 21-year-old Ankiel put on a courageous face but struggled privately. He tried breathing exercises, therapy and number games. Ankiel drank vodka before some starts, including his first outing of the season – against Randy Johnson. After walking 25 and throwing five wild pitches in 24 innings of work, he was sent to Triple-A, where his problems became dramatic.
Ankiel accumulated a 20.77 ERA in Triple-A, then was demoted all the way to the Rookie League. He returned to form and was named to the Appalachia League all-star team as both a pitcher and DH. Ankiel sat out 2002 with a left elbow injury, then underwent Tommy John surgery in 2003. He returned to the Cardinals for the final weeks of the 2004 campaign and made his last appearance on October 1, pitching four innings of relief against Milwaukee.
Rick Ankiel gave up pitching during spring training in March 2005, on a day he was supposed to start a “B” game. The pressure of trying to pitch was too much, The Monster too all-consuming. “You lose your ability to do something you’ve done your whole life,” explained Ankiel. “Without the explanation of why.” The Cardinals gave him an opportunity to reinvent himself as an outfielder. Ankiel returned to the minors, where he slugged .514 in Single-A and .515 in Double-A.
In 2006, the 6’1″, 210 pound lefty was invited to spring training as an outfielder and twisted his knee running a drill. He underwent surgery and missed the whole season. It appeared Ankiel’s baseball career was over.
The son of an abusive, alcoholic father bent on proving his worthiness, Ankiel began 2007 at Triple-A Memphis. He made the All-Star team, led the Pacific Coast League in homers, and was second in RBI. The best power hitter in Triple-A, he was called up to the Cardinals on August 9. In his first game, the left-handed hitting slugger batted second and played right field. Prior to his first at bat, Ankiel received a standing ovation from the Redbirds crowd – the most sophisticated and appreciative fans in baseball. In the seventh inning, he belted a three-run homer off Padres right hander Doug Brocail. La Russa – and the Cardinal faithful – were ecstatic. Two days later, Ankiel had a three-hit, two homer game against the Dodgers and made a spectacular catch in right field.
“His return after seven years – if only three days long – is the stuff of legend,” wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer. “Made even more perfect by the timing. Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.”
A solid major league player, Ankiel finished the 2007 season with a .285 batting average, 11 home runs and 39 runs-batted-in. He was a platoon player for St. Louis in 2008 and 2009, then signed with the Kansas City Royals in 2010. Ankiel was traded to Atlanta and later had stints with the Nationals, Astros and Mets. He retired from baseball after the 2013 season.
Born on this date in 1979, Richard Alexander Ankiel played 11 big league seasons. As a pitcher, he went 13-10 in 242 innings of work and posted a 3.90 ERA. Ankiel played 598 games as an outfielder, batting .228 with 76 home runs as an everyday player with six different teams.
“In baseball, by any standards, he’s somewhat of a freak,” said Jim Riggleman, the Cardinals’ minor league field coordinator in 2007. “To have that kind of curveball and that kind of fastball as a pitcher and then have that much power and run like he does…you just don’t see that.”
Rick Ankiel is the first player since Babe Ruth to have won at least ten games as a pitcher and also hit at least 50 home runs. He is also the only player other than Ruth to start a postseason game as a pitcher and hit a postseason homer as a position player.
In April 2017, Mr. Ankiel released a memoir entitled The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life. Now a sports analyst for FOX Midwest, he is married and has two young children.
Happy 39th birthday to a fine baseball player whose courage and determination serves as an inspiration to us all.