It Is The 5 Year Anniversary Of His Re-Debut As A Hitter: What Is Next For Rick Ankiel?
Thursday August.09, 2012
Chuck Booth (Lead Baseball Writer and @chuckbooth3024 on twitter)- Playing the game of baseball is predicated on failure. Most of us that have played the game, realize how hard it is to hit a flying object with a piece of wood or metal. The majority of players, that are in the Major Leagues, have honed their skills from the time they were just starting grade school. Generally it takes a hell of a lot of repetition to become good at something. As an aspiring baseball player in my teens, I can remember swinging the baseball over 200 times a day in trying to perfect my swing. I had practice drills that would emphasize on weight transference, foot work and eye-hand coordination. So I imagine a lot of today’s current players did the same when they were a kid. Today marks the 5 year anniversary from one of the greatest stories ever produced on the field by a Major League Player.
The Cardinals Drafted Rick Ankiel in the 2nd round of the 1997 Amateur Draft. Ankiel had great pitching mechanics and made his dream come true on Aug.23 1999 (at the Age of 19), by making his pitching debut with the St. Louis Cardinals against the Montreal Expos He sported a 0-1 record in 5 starts to end the year with an impressive 39 Strikeouts in 33 innings, while posting a respectable 3.27 ERA. Ankiel was a budding prospect with a chance to become a perennial ALL-Star. In his Rookie year during the 2000 season, he finished with a record of 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA-and was 7th in the league with 194 Strikeouts.
This season was good enough to finish 2nd in Rookie of the Year Balloting. The Cardinals needed him to pitch in Game #1 of the NLDS because he and Daryl Kile were the only ones left on the roster as 3 starters from the regular season had become injured. To further put pressure on this young kid, his mentor for the game of baseball, his father, had been incarcerated in jail at the time as he was making it to the Major Leagues and it ate at him not having him there live to see him play. Still, Tony La Russa had complete faith in the kid to start in pivotal games at such a young age because of his electric arm.
It proved to be a costly mistake as Ankiel started to mentally fracture by the 3rd inning of that very game and ended up walking 4 batters and throwing a record 5 wild pitches in one inning-while giving up 4 runs. Ankiel never recovered from leaving the mound on that day. Against everyone’s better judgement, La Russa sent out Ankiel again to start in Game #2 of the NLCS versus the Braves. His first pitch of the game sailed over Timo Perez of the New York Mets. 5 wild pitches later and La Russa mercifully pulled him from the game. If you can believe it, La Russa brought out Ankiel to face four more hitters in Game #5 of the Series. This time he walked 2 more hitters and threw 2 more wild pitches. The Mets wiped out the depleted Cardinals pitching staff in that 5th game. If you ask La Russa, these decisions all haunt him more than any other thing that he has ever done as a manager.
Here is a great highlight reel showing off Ankiel’s best moments as a National in 2011.
In the following season’s right after, the mental game started wreaking havoc on the guy more. There were times that Ankiel would develop a case of the pitching ‘YIPS.’ He simply had a mind-blockage and could not even throw a baseball to the catcher. He was routinely hitting the backstop. It has got to be the most terrifying thing as a pitcher to have the whole stadium focusing on you with the baseball when you are fighting this mental block. There were several times when Ankiel almost gave up baseball because of this. Then he would show flashes of turning back into the 2000 version of himself and the organization and fans would hold out hope of him returning to form. It was and up and down roller-coaster. After the horrible 2001 season start (where he started with The MLB club, before being sent to the AAA Team and completely unravel,) the team sent him all the way to A Ball. At least they were smart enough to give him a chance to hit as a part-time DH. The mental block as a pitcher was still prominent.
By the end of 2001, (and before the start of the 2002 season,) arm and elbow problems had persisted and Rick Ankiel struggled with the notion of staring down Tommy John Surgery. He spent all of 2002 (and most of 2003) recovering his arm strentgth. The Florida Native did make it back for one more journey as a Relief Pitcher in the MLB during the 2004 season-where he only walked one batter in 10 innings. In March of 2005, Ankiel had just come off of a great winter of pitching in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. In a spring training game for the Cardinals, he finally quit pitching forever after only throwing 3 strikes out of 20 pitches thrown. He was not prepared to battle his demons on the mound anymore. Ankiel again was assigned to A Ball. At age 25, the franchise thought enough of his athleticism to allow him an opportunity to try his luck as a permanent outfielder in their Minor League System.
I can only imagine how hard this was for Ankiel. Sure you have hacks as a pitcher in the National League and at certain parts of your collegiate or Minor League teams, however you are practicing the majority of the time as a hurler. Ankiel had a knack for hitting and what an amazing arm the man has an outfielder! His defense alone would allow him every chance to make a go of it as a hitter in the Minors. In 2005 and 2006, Ankiel showed gradual improvement as a hitter. He definitely showed promising power, so much so, that the St. Louis Cardinals invited Ankiel to spring training as a position player in both the 2006 and 2007 seasons with a chance to land a roster spot. He would be ultimately be sent down both years. It was in 2007 that Ankiel really took off in the Minors. On August.8/2007, Rick Ankiel was leading the Pacific Coast League with 32 HRs and 89 RBI while playing for the Memphis Red Birds. He finally got the call he was waiting for!
Rick Ankiel made his re-debut on Aug.09.2007-and took his position at CF to a standing ovation at New Busch Stadium. In his first plate appearance, the St. Louis faithful hit him with another standing ovation. Later in the game, Ankiel drilled a pitch for a 3 run homer and the fans went ballistic. A new legend was born. La Russa often refers to this day as his happiest all time as a manager, (with the exception of the day the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series.) A few games later, Rick Ankiel smacked 2 HRs in a game versus the Dodgers and the MLB baseball community had a new inspirational hero. In only 178 AB during the 2007 year, Ankiel had 11 HRs and 39 RBI in the Major Leagues. He added 8 doubles, 1 triple and batted .285. Ankiel also featured a SLG % of .535 and an OPS of .863. Baseball writers everywhere marveled at his ability to develop as a hitter in only a few years, calling him the real “Natural.”
The next year of 2008, was Rick Ankiel’s best year as a pro hitter. He hit .264 with 25 HRs and 71 RBI in just 120 Games Played. His Slugging Percentage was .506 and his OPS was .843. His HRs hit were good for 25th best in the NL despite missing 42 games (approximately 25% of the season.) Another thing that was so great about his arm was that teams would not even try to run on him. If you combined his 1st 2 years of ABs as a positional player, he had 585 AB and had cracked 36 HRs and driven in 110 RBI, scored 96 runs and clubbed 37 doubles. Things looked to be on the upswing for the new slugger. In May of 2009, a collision with the outfield wall landed him on the disabled list and he suffered the rest of the year with a .231 AVG with just 11 HRs and 38 RBI in 404 AB. The Cardinals had deemed him expendable after they had traded for Matt Holliday near the Trade Deadline.
His time as a Cardinal officially came to an end when he signed a one year deal with the Kansas City Royals prior to the 2010 season. The Royals has promised Ankiel playing time to get him to sign on the dotted line. Injuries bit him again and he ended up with the Atlanta Braves by the end of 2010 for their playoff push. In San Francisco during game 2 of the 2010 NLDS, Ankiel crushed a home run into McCovey’s cove for his first ever postseason HR. Only Barry Bonds and he hold that distinction of a ‘COVE HIT’ ever in AT&T Park Post Season History! He posted similar regular season numbers in 2010 as he had in 2009, with 6 HRs and 24 RBI in 211 AB.
For the last few years, he has played with the Washington Nationals before being released at the end of July. He is an above average fielder with the best outfield arm in the baseball world. He has quality at bats and can still step into a pitch and change the outcome of a game with one stroke. Teams are always needing a player to come from the bench and steal a game for them in the playoffs. I am hoping that Rick Ankiel will have that chance. For his heart, courage and dedication towards his goal in life, I will always cheer and root for this guy. Heck, amongst 28 Yankees t-shirts that I bought in 2008, I also bought a #24 Cardinals Shirt, that I haven’t ever worn but still own.
For a player that entered into the Major leagues predominantly as a pitcher to then revitalize his career as a position player is an incredible achievement. If he never plays again in the MLB, this will not detract what this man accomplished. How rare exactly? There are only 2 players that have gone from a pitcher to a position player and hit 50 home runs in their career and also started a game in the postseason as a pitcher and a position player. One of them is Rick Ankiel. The other was some guy called Babe Ruth.
***Thank you to our Lead Baseball Writer- Chuck Booth for preparing today’s feature on MLB reports. To learn more about “The Fastest 30 Ballgames” and Chuck Booth, you can follow Chuck on Twitter (@ChuckBooth3024) and you can also follow Chuck’s website for his Guinness Book of World Record Bid to see all 30 MLB Park in 23 days click here or on the 30 MLB Parks in 23 days GWR tracker at the Reports click here. To Purchase or read about “The Fastest 30 Ballgames Book, ” please click here ***
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Posted on August 9, 2012, in The Rest: Everything Baseball and tagged at and t park, Atlanta Braves, babe ruth, barry bonds, busch stadium, Chuck Booth, fastest 30 ballgames, kansas city royals, Major League Baseball, McCoveys Cove, Memphis Red Birds, new york mets, Rick Ankiel, rookie of the year, san francisco giants, st louis cardinals, timo perez, tony la russa, twitter, washington nationals. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.