It was shocking to hear that former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher turned outfielder Rick Ankiel is considering a comeback attempt at the tender age of 39.
As crazy as it sounds, I’d love to see it.
Ankiel is one of the most talented players I have ever seen. It was heartbreaking to see such a promising career come undone so suddenly when he lost his command and then lost his confidence in his ability to throw strikes. The left-handed thrower and swinger made the incredible transition from starting pitcher to starting center fielder and made some of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen by an outfielder — including a pair of ridiculously good throws to gun out runners trying to reach third base at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies. The best part might have been when the opposing players looked absolutely stunned to find they were retired when they weren’t even expecting a close play. He also made his mark with his bat. I was in the stands at Busch Stadium III when he got the long-awaited call back to the big leagues and deposited a ball beyond the outfield fence in his first at-bat in his new role.
Still, while Ankiel made his mark as an outfielder and successfully salvaged an admirable major-league career, he was a pretty good position player. He should have been a GREAT pitcher. So, I would love to see a second — and total — redemption of his lost opportunity by returning to the mound.
It’s not that he has anything to prove to me — or anyone else, for that matter. It would be a great thing to see because it would be wonderful to witness a guy conquer his fears who was so tortured by his inability to do a simple thing that he was ready to throw his lifelong dream away and retire when he was 24 years old. I don’t think I ever felt so anxious at the ballpark as I did when Ankiel made one of his several ill-fated attempts to harness his control. The funny thing about confidence is it takes a long, long time to slowly rebuild — but it can disappear again in the blink of an eye. He could throw 1,000 pitches right where he wanted them. But if he threw one to the backstop, you could hear the whole crowd murmur “uh oh” at the same time.
I was there for the day game when Ankiel blew up for the final time on the mound. It was horrible. I can’t remember if the Cardinals won or lost the game. All I could think about was that poor kid and how terrible he must feel being humiliated in front of 45,000 people who showed up to root for him. That’s why I couldn’t blame the guy for deciding he was done with pitching, no matter who tried to entice him to give it another try.
That’s why it was so amazing this week to see Ankiel toe the rubber again in a game between MLB retirees and college stars. He seemed completely without fear when he struck out the only hitter he faced. Immediately, Ankiel announced he was “toying with” the idea of a comeback. And why not? When he blew up 20 years ago, Ankiel had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Now he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Ankiel cleansed his soul with a book about his struggles. He proved everything he needed to prove with his first comeback. This time he can play for fun.
It may seem too little, too late to try to come back at 39. But Ankiel’s time in the outfield saved his arm from thousands of pitches a guy his age otherwise would have made. Besides, they say if you’re left-handed and you have a pulse, you can make it as a MLB reliever. Ankiel has those things plus a serviceable fastball and a wicked curve to fall back on.
All I ask is that if he comes back that he gives the Redbirds the first shot at his services. It’s not like St. Louis can’t use bullpen help. And the fans here have had Ankiel’s back for his whole career.