When the St. Louis Cardinals announced March 9th that Rick Ankiel was giving up his phenomenal-turned-schizophrenic pitching career to try life as an outfielder, I almost -- almost -- began mourning. Alas, since Darryl Kile (a partner of Ankiels in the Cardinals 2000 starting rotation) died on June 22, 2002, Cardinal Nation has had a grasp on the nature of mortality foreign to most sports fans. So perspective must be retained. That said, the day Ankiel stepped off a Florida practice mound for the last time did indeed mark the death of a pitcher, if not a man.
Even with his success five years ago with St. Louis (his 194 strikeouts broke Dizzy Deans franchise record for rookies), Ankiels pitching peak came right here in Memphis, at Tim McCarver Stadium and other Pacific Coast League yards during the summer of 1999. He struck out 13 Tucson Sidewinders in but six innings on May 26, 1999, in what has to be the most dominant Memphis pitching performance in at least a decade. On the nights Ankiel pitched, fans filled Tim McCarver, even as the vast majority was looking around the bend, anticipating the arrival of grand AutoZone Park. Ankiel was that good, that brilliant with a curveball that made professional veterans weak in the knees. He went 7-3 for the Redbirds that year and averaged more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. Sports Illustrated published a feature on the just-turned-20-year-old flamethrower. USA Today named Ankiel the 1999 Minor League Player of the Year. The comparisons began with none other than Sandy Koufax.
I saw Ankiel earn his first major-league win, on April 9, 2000, at Busch Stadium. It happened to be Willie McGee Day, and the Cardinals happened to hit six home runs to crush the Milwaukee Brewers. But from my perch in the terrace, I couldnt help but feel the next Gibson had finally arrived in St. Louis. Or maybe the infamous trade of Steve Carlton three decades earlier would finally be buried in lost memory. Ankiel was born to pitch.
We all know, of course, what happened six months later, the meltdown on that very same mound, five wild pitches in a single inning against Atlanta in the Cardinals opening playoff game. Steve Blass Disease, wrote columnists from coast to coast, alluding to the former Pirate who woke up one day simply unable to throw a baseball over home plate. When the 2001 season opened, Ankiel managed a win over Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he was dancing on glass. His control entirely lost, Ankiel put on a sorry display one Sunday afternoon at AutoZone Park . . . Cezanne in black-and-white. He found himself spending almost the next four years in the low minors, in surgery, playing winter-league ball south of the border.
But then hope returned. Pitching for Memphis at Oklahoma late last August, Ankiel threw six innings of one-hit ball at the Redhawks, with nary a walk. He was called up to join the Cardinals for their jaunt to the National League pennant. He came out of the bullpen and had some solid outings, punching out hitters, eating a few innings and, best of all, avoiding the walks and wild pitches. He even picked up a late-season win (again, over the Brewers). When St. Louis beat Houston in the NLCS, Ankiel -- while not on the active roster for the playoffs -- shared in the champagne shower. So by a narrow definition, Rick Ankiel did finish his comeback.
The hope for 2005 was that Ankiel would fill a middle-relief slot behind a formidable Cardinal rotation, picking up a spot start here and there as injury or fatigue bit the St. Louis staff. But the wild demon eating Ankiels insides hadnt been exorcised after all. A few ugly sessions in front of pitching coach Dave Duncan was all that was needed for Ankiel -- and the organization that had patiently nurtured him for five years -- to throw in the towel. The day the pitching (if not the pitcher) died.
Baseball history is indeed marked by pitchers-turned-hitters. Worked out well for a pair of guys named Ruth and Musial. Perhaps Rick Ankiel will find swinging a bat less burdening to his thoughts and psyche than throwing a baseball. (After extended spring training, Ankiel will hone his new skills with the Cardinals Double-A affiliate in Springfield, Missouri, a single promotion away from Memphis.) Hitting, after all, is far more reaction than it is a process of thought and mechanics. You teach your body, through muscle memory, to do the same thing, one swing after the next, and to do so with less than a second of instruction from the brain.
Nothing is good or bad, its said, but thinking makes it so. Heres hoping 25-year-old Rick Ankiel can find peace and the good life, bat in hand or otherwise. If providing memories are central to an athletes legacy, Ankiels short and sad pitching career is already complete.