Everybody remotely connected to St. Louis Cardinals baseball -- or Memphis Redbirds baseball for that matter -- seems to have a solution to the Rick Ankiel crisis except the one person whose solution matters: Ankiel himself. That's the trouble when an athlete's ailment appears to be more between the ears than in an ankle, knee, elbow, or shoulder. Were Ankiel recovering from, say, elbow surgery, there would be a team of pitching and medical specialists devoted to mapping his road back to peak health and performance. A mental problem? You can find a shrink around every corner, in every seat at AutoZone Park.
The Cardinals have decided to send Ankiel down to Jupiter, Florida, for something called extended spring training. They feel the next step in the kid's recovery is his removal from the arena, big-league or otherwise. The fewer eyes seeing him struggle, the theory goes, the better he'll be able to regain his pitching faculties.
I don't want so much to offer my own solution to getting this "phenom" back to the level where he broke Dizzy Dean's Cardinal record for strikeouts by a rookie (194 last season). The only idea I have more than likely flies in the face of reason for an organization that's invested millions already in this 21-year-old's left arm. What I can do is remind every Cardinal and Redbird coach, every fan and media type, and yes, every shrink why none of us -- least of all the Cardinals -- should give up on Ankiel.
Simply put, you cannot teach what Rick Ankiel can do with a baseball. A curveball that falls off a table. A fastball, regardless of its direction, that hums into the mid-90s. A changeup that has big-league sluggers falling out of their spikes. I once heard it said of Larry Bird that his jumpshot could not have been learned or developed, no matter the hours of practice the legendary Celtic invested. No, that shot was God-given. Such is the case with Ankiel's pitching ability. What can be taught -- especially to a person as young as Ankiel -- is an acumen for demon-wrestling. The ability to control the mental monsters that torture so many to the point they forget how to do what they do best, whether it be manage a stock portfolio or deliver a pitch 60' 6" into a catcher's mitt.
Make no mistake, Ankiel has demons, whether or not he will discuss them publicly. (Would you?) To begin with, his father spends his days and nights behind bars in Florida, serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking. The fact that Ankiel's father played the largest role in the pitcher's development through high school only compounds his absence now. Ankiel has also had to wrestle with being the "next Koufax" since the Cardinals selected him in the second round of the 1997 amateur draft. He shot through St. Louis' minor-league system in two years. Shortly after his promotion to Memphis during the '99 season, Sports Illustrated ran a feature story asking why he wasn't already in the big leagues. He was not yet 20 years old. At a time when most of his peers are trying to figure out how to get three meals out of their minor-league per diem, Ankiel was answering questions about when he'd replace Bob Gibson atop the Cardinals' pitching pantheon.
What may be most remarkable about the kid's story is that, until last October, he answered every last one of those questions with a smile and, as often as not, a strikeout. Which brings us to his current walk on the wild side. In his three outings for the Redbirds since his demotion from St. Louis, Ankiel managed to pitch 4 1/3 innings, walking 17 and throwing 12 wild pitches. Those balls he slung to the backstop with no one on base weren't even included in the wild-pitch count. If anything, he's deteriorating. (Keep in mind that Ankiel beat none other than Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks in his first start of the season for St. Louis.) So what to do? I'd go a step further than the Cards' latest prescription.
If I were St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty, I'd call this young man and deliver him a paid holiday, a season's worth if necessary. Go home to Florida, Rick. Stay away from Jupiter, and find a way to remind yourself why you first climbed a pitching mound. Rediscover the elements of pitching that made you smile. If I'm Jocketty, I insist that he report to the Cardinals on a regular basis, that he stays out of trouble, and that he picks up a baseball now and then, if only to have a catch with friends. Visit your dad, Rick. Find the people who mean the most to you and listen to them, instead of the countless coaches and "experts."
Don't give up on Rick Ankiel. He's no Steve Blass. (Blass, the former Pittsburgh Pirate, was 32 when his sudden puzzling loss of control forced him to retire.) The Brooklyn Dodgers wrestled with how to handle their own left-handed prodigy in the mid-Fifties. The kid had all kinds of stuff, seemed to have a sharp mind, but simply could not find the plate. Over his first two seasons, he struck out 60 and walked 57. The Dodgers resisted the urge to trade him, refused to cut him from their roster, and waited patiently for the magical "control cure." You've heard of the kid? Sandy Koufax.
You can e-mail Frank Murtaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org.