“This is my 46th year in baseball. I haven’t seen a lefthander like that in 15, maybe 20 years. His curveball is unbelievable. His fastball explodes at the end. He has a good feel for his changeup. Actually, I don’t know who I could compare him to. Come to think of it, I’d have to say he’s one of the best lefthanders I’ve ever seen. I can’t recall seeing a 19-year-old do what he does. He has a good delivery, he’s a good athlete and he has great poise.”
Who is this remarkable talent? Rick Ankiel. Rick Ankiel was a can’t miss future star and everyone was certain of it, his agent Scott Boras, baseball scouts and managers including former Arizona Diamondback senior assistant Mel Didier who gave such a gushing quote back in the summer of 1999.
Rick Ankiel joined the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school in 1997. He moved through the Cardinal minor league system and made his debut with the pro club in Montreal on August 23, 1999. I remember his first appearance, setting the Expos down in order in the first inning, and retiring the first eight batters he faced, including striking out the first batter he faced; Rondell White. Ankiel went five innings, striking out six while allowing five hits and three runs and left with a lead. It looked like a strong start to a promising career.
Ankiel would go on to join the Cardinals rotation the next year and finished 11-7 with a 3.50 earned-run average and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings. His 9.98 strikeouts per nine innings that season was second only to Randy Johnson. At just 20 years of age Ankiel’s career path was set to become one of the dominant pitchers in baseball; the next Sandy Koufax. Then the 2000 postseason happened. Ankiel started game one of the National League Divisional Series against the Atlanta Braves. And just like I will never forget watching his major league debut I will never forget watching the implosion that October afternoon. Many people feel that some of the blame for his wild pitches fall upon the pressure of starting game one. Little do they realize that Ankiel’s troubles did not begin until the third inning, when he already had a 6-0 lead in the game. He had already walked two batters in the game, both in the first inning, and escaped. Ankiel was used to getting around jams as he walked 90 batters and threw 12 wild pitches during the regular season. But for whatever reason it was; the pressure, his mental strength, breakdown of mechanics, or just a cruel joke, in the third inning Ankiel allowed four runs on two hits while walking four and throwing five wild pitches.
The same problems arose the next week as the Cardinals faced the New York Mets in the Championship Series. The troubles followed him into the 2001 season and he was sent down to the minors. A career that was once on the path to stardom was now being questioned. Ankiel struggled through the minors to regain form, even suffering an injury, but eventually he made the return to Cardinals this time in the bullpen. Despite a 5.40 ERA in five games that fall he walked just one while striking out nine in 10 innings. It looked like the phenom may be back. That is when another twist in his story happens. The next spring Ankiel announced he wanted to quit pitching and become an outfielder.
Just as dominant as he was on the mound Ankiel was that impressive at the plate, serving as DH for the U.S. Olympic team when he wasn’t pitching. Ankiel was a dangerous hitter, always known as a good hitting pitcher but could he make the move to full-time hitter. Ankiel showed immediately that he had the talent. Ankiel hit 21 home runs in his first full season in the minors as an outfielder, the following year in 2006 he hit 32 home runs. Ankiel looked like he could be doing the impossible.
Then for the third time in his career he made another life lasting impression on this sport fanatic; another moment which I will never forget and one I rank as one of my favorite moments to witness. I was there at Busch Stadium on August 9, 2007 when he made his return to the Cardinals, this time as an outfielder. The phenom then began writing a phenomenal story. In the 7th inning of that game Ankiel stepped to the plate, to a roaring round of applause, and did the unthinkable. He hit a three run home run. I still remember the chills that arose as he sent the ball over the wall. Rick Ankiel’s tormented path back to the majors was complete.
Rick Ankiel Comeback Home Run – VIDEO
Ankiel tore up the league over the next three weeks and finished the season showing great promise once again, hitting .285 with 11 home runs and 39 runs batted in just 47 games. The next year, 2008, Ankiel joined the Cardinal outfield, playing in 120 games hitting .264 with 25 home runs and 71 runs batted in. Another moment which is forever etched into my memory regarding Ankiel was a May 6 game in Colorado when Ankiel unleashed that cannon left arm, throwing out a pair of base runners that will forever go down in baseball history as two of the best throws ever by an outfielder. He added a home run in that game and this looked like what may be how Ankiel left his name in baseball; not as a power lefty pitcher but a strong armed, power hitting outfielder.
Rick Ankiel Laser Throws – VIDEO
I wish that is where his story and career stopped with the twists and turns. However it does not. As Ankiel’s time as an outfielder continued, his struggles with contact became more and more prominent. Ankiel was always going to strikeout, he struck out 41 times in 172 at bats as a rookie and another 100 times in 2008 his first full season, but his average continued to drop. Ankiel was tearing the cover off the ball in spring training of 2009 but on May 4th yet another twist for his promising career. He ran head first into the wall and missed almost a month; never looking the same as his batting average sunk to .231 for the year.
That was the end of his time with the Cardinals. He would bounce to the Royals, then over to the Atlanta where he helped the Braves to the playoffs. Ankiel would hit his first postseason home run that fall, sending a ball into San Francisco’s McCovey Cove; the only other player at that time than Barry Bonds to accomplish that feat. But Ankiel’s travels continued over to Washington the next year and sat out for awhile in 2012 before joining the Astros in 2013. Ankiel hit five home runs early this season with the Astros but his average was below .200 and he struck out in half of his at bats leading to his release from the Astros. Who knows what is in store for Ankiel. As a 33-year old outfielder that provides pop but struggles making contact his career may be over. Yet someone could take a flyer on the power hitter.
Rick Ankiel is a story of talent glimpsed…..He flashed his talent as a pitcher, flashed his talent as a hitter, flashed the talent that will go down in baseball lore. Rick Ankiel, the last player since Babe Ruth to record 10 wins and hit 50 or more home runs. I will surely remember him and his career, not for what never became but for what I did see. I will remember the slider that was unhittable, the home runs that secured his triumphant comeback as an outfielder and the laser throws from the outfield to erase surprised base runners. Thank you Rick Ankiel for showing me what seemed impossible.