Yesterday, one of the most fascinating, most inspiring, most inscrutable baseball players in recent memory finally decided it was time to hang up his cleats.
A quick backstory: Rick Ankiel was a “can’t-miss fireballer.” In 1999, he was named the Minor League Player of the Year by both Baseball America and USA Today. That same year, he debuted against Montreal. At 19. By the age of 20, he’d gone 11-7 in the Majors, and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. His stock could not have been higher.
And then, he melted horrifically down on one of the sport’s biggest stages:
I remember watching that game live. It was awful. Even if I hadn’t been rooting for the Cardinals, it would have been brutal to watch. And I’m in good company: Manager Tony LaRussa maintains to this day that bringing Ankiel into that NLDS game was “a decision that perhaps haunts him more than any he has ever made.” Sadly, it was not a one-time occurrence. Ankiel continued to struggle with his control, dropped back down to the Minors (where he still struggled), had Tommy John surgery (and yes, struggled), and then dropped off the baseball planet altogether…
…before stunningly, impossibly, miraculously reinvented himself as a power-hitting, smooth-fielding, BB-throwing outfielder. He’s the first player since Babe Ruth to have won at least 10 games as a pitcher and also hit at least 50 home runs. (Also, the only player other than Ruth to both start a postseason game as a pitcher and hit a home run in the postseason as a position player. And I don’t see those facts changing any time soon. Or maybe ever.)
Quick. Name me all the players who have gone through that bizarre career arc. None, right? At least not in real life. No wonder it’s described as “one of the strangest careers in baseball history.” (And no, Ruth doesn’t count. He could always hit, even as a pitcher. He didn’t reinvent himself; he just hit so well that they decided he should do it all the time. Although yes, Ruth’s 1918 and 1919 are two of the most impossible seasons in baseball history.)
OK, so Ankiel never quite reached the summit of stardom so falsely promised by his days as a pitching phenom, but the fact that he managed to “stick in the Bigs” as a Major League baseball player despite having his control ripped away astonishes me even now. It’s not just that he had the physical ability necessary to make it as both a hitter and a pitcher, though that is a rare, rare thing. It’s that he recovered so completely from the devastating inability to throw strikes — recovered so gracefully from the mental devastation of losing a handle on the one thing he’d been doing really, really well for years — and somehow managed to have a legitimate (if workmanlike) career. That just blows me away.
Talk about the drive to succeed.
And while it must have stung the young Ankiel to lose the ability to predict where his electric arm was taking him, the elder Ankiel must have been glad that the electricity was still there, just channeled into a different riverbed. I think he will be most remembered for his ability to reinvent himself, but I will always remember him for his arm. …just not quite the way everyone thought he’d be remembered during those early days. (Also, saying this career is over might be a tiny bit risky, given that the entire baseball world already thought it was so “over” in the early 2000’s. Don’t bet against the guy.)
Man, what a cannon!
Attribution(s): Photos courtesy of Getty Images, which allows the use of certain images “as long as the photo is not used for commercial purposes (meaning in an advertisement or in any way intended to sell a product, raise money, or promote or endorse something).”