The Houston Astros have designated 33-year-old former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and outfielder Rick Ankiel for assignment, and it may very well be the end of his fairy tale career.
Cardinals fans might find it easy to feel sorry for Ankiel, who had tremendous promise when he was called to the big leagues in 1999 as a left handed pitcher. After starting off with an impressive 11-7 rookie campaign, the 20-year-old famously blew up in front of a national audience during the 2000 playoffs when he issued four walks and five wild pitches while allowing two hits in the third inning of Game One of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves.
Who hasn’t felt the burning embarrassment of botching a play in little league? While we’ll never know what it’s like to be unable to perform in front of 45,000 people, we all have at least a hint inside us of what that must have felt like.
But don’t feel sorry for Ankiel, even though he walked 25 batters in his first 24 innings of 2001 and found himself demoted to the minors. Don’t feel sorry for him because when he arrived at Class AAA Memphis he walked 17 batters in 4 1/3 innings, starting a downhill slide that would bottom out in Rookie League. Don’t feel sorry for him because, when he finally made it back to the majors at the end of 2004, he was unable to keep the momentum going. Or because he hurt his pitching arm and required Tommy John surgery. Why? Because Rick Ankiel wouldn’t let those setbacks be the end of his story.
In spring training of 2005, Ankiel announced that he was through as a pitcher. Instead, he moved to the outfield where he would try his hand at providing the Cardinals with a lefty power bat if he couldn’t give them a lefty power arm.
Ankiel went to work in the minors and in August 2007 he was called up to St. Louis where, in his first major league at-bat as an outfielder, he cranked a home run. The standing ovation St. Louis rooters gave Ankiel before his at-bat was only a warm-up for the cheers that followed after it.
While his career may have been shorter than he would have liked, Ankiel accomplished things that few other can claim. He was the most successful pitcher turned slugger since a guy by the name of Babe Ruth switched positions 95 years ago.
If he never plays another game in the major leagues, he’s played exactly 633 more than most of us who grew up on Cardinals baseball will ever play.
There are people out there who will wonder what Rick Ankiel would have done if he was able to harness his control as a pitcher. But, if this is it for Ankiel's career, I think he answered a lot more questions about his potential than he left. We saw how he could mow down batters on the mound. But by switching to the outfield we learned a lot more about what sort of athlete he could be at the highest level.
He hit 25 homers in 120 games in 2008 with a .264 batting average. He struck out too much and had a low batting average. But, even in this offense-crazy era, the list of people who have hit as many as 25 homers in a season is a lot shorter than the list of those who never did and those who never will.
He got to play baseball for a living. He made more than $11.5 million doing it and he left us with a bunch of great memories.
The plays he made to throw out a pair of Rockies baserunners from deep centerfield are the stuff of legend. His homer in his first at-bat as an outfielder seemed like the climax to a movie too good to be true... But my favorite Ankiel moment came in a spring training game a decade ago when he was trying to re-establish himself as a Major-League pitcher.
Ankiel, in front of a supportive crowd at Roger Dean Stadium, got ahead of an opposing hitter by throwing a couple of wicked curve balls. The first one was a called strike. The second time the batter flailed in vain at the ball.
After the first pitch the crowd, which gave Ankiel a standing ovation when he came into the game, hooted and hollered. After the second, the wild cheers embarrassed Ankiel who tried to hide his broad smile with his glove. As suddenly as it appeared, Ankiel’s smile was wiped from his face and he was suddenly businesslike. He let loose a high fastball at about 95 miles an hour which the hitter had no chance to catch up to for strike three. The audience went nuts.
The homers and big time exploits made Ankiel larger than life. But that last moment reminded me about how important the human element is in baseball. And, for me at least, his dedication to overcoming his struggles is what make Rick Ankiel a success, no matter what the stat sheet says.