One day I’ll enjoy telling my grandchildren about Rick Ankiel. Provided that society hasn’t crumbled, the sun hasn’t exploded, and human beings are still the dominant creatures on earth. (Today, while thinking about “financial planning” I realized that most of my thoughts kept coming back to ‘what are the chances that we’re not in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in twenty years? I then went and ate an ice cream sandwich.)
But Ankiel is a special case. The story has been told a few times. A pitcher comes up, has some success, loses his nerve and ability to find the strike zone and fizzles out. Only Ankiel wasn’t some scrub hanging around the back of the bullpen. He was a 20 year-old who went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and who struck out 10 batters per nine innings. And this was back in the day when strikeout numbers like that were truly meaningful—Ankiel finished fourth that year in strikeouts per nine behind pitchers like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Bartolo Colon. One of those guys is even still pitching. And while Ankiel didn’t have great command, walking 4.6 batters per nine, there were no apparent signs that everything was about to fall apart for him.
But they did. Things went crazy in a hurry, with Ankiel walking six batters in 2.2 postseason innings. While other pitchers had flamed out before (see Blass, Steve; Wohlers, Mark), no one had done so on such a big stage and have it happen so completely. It was almost as if Ankiel’s broken arm was popped back into place and he had to rely on lobs to get outs like the end of Rookie of the Year.
For four more years, when Ankiel should have been in the prime of his career, he tried to pitch, walking 26 batters in 34 Major League innings, while also posting an absurd 8.1 BB/9 while with AA Tennessee in 2003. For anyone who thinks that throwing strikes is easy, that just getting the ball somewhere over the plate isn’t all that difficult, Rick Ankiel is proof of its difficulty.
But the thing about baseball, the thing that makes it such an easy and apt metaphor for life, is that it’s entirely predicated on how you respond to failure. Every day there is a new game, whether you’re ready for it or not. If you let it beat you down and crush you, it will. But if you have the mental fortitude, if you can smooth out those peaks and valleys, you can make something of yourself, just the way we tell kindergartners that they can one day become President. And so Ankiel, after being the number-rated prospect in baseball and having never had more than 113 at-bats in a season as a professional, headed to the outfield. He hit 21 home runs in the minors in 2005. But, just when people thought maybe he could make a resurgence, he lost the next year to a knee injury. Surely that would finish him off. Surely this would be the last we heard of Ankiel.
But he came back and hit 32 home runs for Memphis in 2007 before getting his call-up and hitting 11 more for the Cardinals as a 27-year-old. Let’s review: a pitcher for his entire career, in only his second full year as a position player, hit 43 home runs in a season and reached the Major Leagues. If Disney wants to make a movie, it can fade out there.
Ankiel then hit 25 the next season. And though his success has been limited since then, pitchers adapting to Ankiel’s limited plate discipline, forcing him into an utility outfielder role with a little bit of pop, his story is still one of unmitigated success. No longer just another pitcher to come down with the dreaded Steve Blass disease, Ankiel was proof that while there may be no second acts in American life, there are occasional ones in baseball
While some team may decide to pick up Ankiel and stash him in AAA, it’s likely his Major League days are over. If the Astros, with the Majors worst record in the game, can’t find a use for Ankiel on their roster, it’s unlikely anyone else can. And while his 5 home runs this season are nice, there aren’t many teams that can carry a player who strikes out in more than half of his at-bats (35 K in 62 AB). Who knows, maybe if he was developed as a hitter from day one, he would have learned to lay off more pitches, draw more walks, make more contact. Then again, maybe not. Hell, we’ve seen his throws from the outfield over the years, maybe he’ll head back down, hop back on the mound, and pick up where he left off as that 20-year-old with a mid-3’s ERA, extending his career by saving his arm from the thousands of pitches he would have already put on it. Probably not, though.
Life is hard and will only end up destroying you. But Ankiel’s already proven that he can gain the upper hand, at least for a little while. And that in itself is remarkable.