There are always a lot of things to root for at the beginning of a new St. Louis Cardinals baseball season.
But this year, Redbirds fans have something extra special to hope. And it’s something that would be unprecedented if it works out.
Rick Ankiel last appeared as a pitcher in a Major League Baseball game 15 years ago in 2004. His demons had gotten the best of him and he couldn’t bear the thought of trying to overcome his anxiety on the mound. So he retired, only to be talked out of giving up the game by the Cardinals front office, members of which urged him to refocus his immense natural abilities into becoming a slugging outfielder. A decade and a half later, Ankiel is almost 40 years old and hasn’t appeared in an MLB game for six years. But he has decided he’s finally got the itch to make good on the incredible pitching stuff he flashed so briefly.
It sounded ridiculous when Ankiel announced his comeback over the winter. It’s all so improbable.
If it was any other 40-year-old player, I’d say “so what?” But, even after a setback that saw the hurler have to undergo elbow surgery over the winter that could keep him out until mid-season, I have a strange feeling he’s not only going to do it, but that’s he’s going to be great.
The pitcher spoke about his comeback during the broadcast Sunday from spring training and he sounded like he is in a great frame of mind and as if he is serious about what he’s doing.
Throw in the fact that Ankiel had killer stuff before he gave up working from the mound, and there’s reason to believe there might be some substance to all of this. One of my fondest memories was watching him pitch on the comeback trail at Roger Dean Stadium in spring training. He blasted a high fastball past a hitter, then tied him up like a pretzel with a curveball. With an 0-2 count, Ankiel smoked a heater past the batter for a swinging strike three, and he couldn’t hide the grin on his face as he walked back to the dugout, no matter how hard he tried to conceal it with his glove.
The southpaw was going to be incredible if he was able to harness his control issues. He threw hard and with movement. No lefty in the big leagues at the time had a better breaking ball. And Ankiel knew it. He just couldn’t take the incredible pressure that was placed on his shoulders. It was heartbreaking to watch him struggle. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get rid of the issues in his sub conscience. He could throw 10 perfect pitches in a row, but one bad one was all it was going to take to see everything come unraveled again.
I don’t know what opportunities are going to be available for Ankiel in the big leagues with the Cardinals this year. While Brett Cecil has been a disappointment and Chasen Shreve is no lock to win a roster spot, St. Louis spent a lot of money on Andrew Miller to be a left-handed force out of the bullpen. A lot of things would have to go wrong for Ankiel to have a shot at a meaningful job. But, whether or not he ends up pitching in games with the playoffs on the line, I would be thrilled as a fan to watch him stand in front of 50,000 people and throw strike after strike.
It would be great to see him set himself free from the what ifs that I know I would always feel if I were in his shoes. He already did that in many ways by making it back to the big leagues as a starting outfield. I was at the game where he cranked his first Busch Stadium home run as an outfielders and it was a magical moment for all the people who were rooting for the guy. But this is the scene of the crime. To pitch again would be to look the ultimate fear in the eye without blinking. To see him win wouldn’t just be making good on a dream, it would be a personal triumph of epic proportions.
Only a handful of players in the history of the game have ever been able to recast themselves as a starting position player after hanging it up as a hurler. And a few more have had a multi-year gap in their career caused by circumstances or injury before returning for some sort of cameo at a much later date. But I don’t know of anyone who ever did BOTH of those things.
I’m not willing to write Ankiel off as a novelty act, despite his age. There have been more than a few left-handed relievers who have pitched into their 40s over the years, and most of them had a lot more mileage on their pitching arm than the comeback kid does right now. The biggest obstacle in Ankiel’s way is the ridiculous new rule that a relief pitcher has to face at least three batters. It’s going to kill the One Out Lefty Reliever as we know him. That was a job that was tailor-made for Ankiel’s situation.
One way or another, I sure hope we get to see Ankiel pitch again at Busch Stadium. He’s a guy who is worth rooting for and it’s a story that deserves a happy ending. It would be one of my all-time favorite Cardinals moments if we were able to watch Ankiel get a shot to leave the game on his terms, whether it’s after one appearance or if he ends up spending two or three years in the St. Louis bullpen.