The Ballot: Rick Ankiel
Hitting: 5 points
Pitching: 5 points
Defense: 10 points (mostly for that bazooka of an arm)
Bonus for coming back as a hitter after breaking down as a pitcher: 15 points
Talking about trying come back as a pitcher now: 5 points
Continuing to talk about trying to come back as a pitcher after blowing out his elbow: -10 points
The way he swung for the fences: 5 points
Hall of Fame Race to 400: 36 points
* * *
(This is a piece I wrote about Ankiel in 2013 that seems to have fallen off the Internet — slightly edited for clarity and updated considerably):
Rick Ankiel has lived an extraordinary baseball life. Think about his path for a moment. Ankiel was a high school phenom -- in his senior year at Port St. Lucie High, he struck out 162 in just 71 innings. He was probably the most sought-after player in the amateur draft, but his agent, Scott Boras, set the price tag so high that no one would take him in the first round. The St. Louis Cardinals waited until they couldn’t wait any longer and drafted him in the second and paid him $2.5 million -- the highest signing bonus for any player in that entire draft.
Next: Ankiel immediately became the best pitching prospect in the game. As an 18-year-old, he struck out 222 in 161 innings in the low minors. The next year, he struck out 194 in 137 innings. In Class AAA, he struck out 161 in 92 innings and allowed one home run. He was left-handed with a high-90s fastball and a nasty curve -- Ankiel was Koufax.
He even had a sort of lyrical name like Koufax.
Rick Ankiel sounds like the secret identity of a superhero.
He came up to St. Louis for nine games in 1999, was pretty dominant, and in 2000 he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal. He was 20 years old and he was a whirlwind — lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, lots of home runs allowed. The league hit .219 against him. Ankiel seemed so impervious to pressure, so bulletproof, so indestructible that Tony La Russa started him in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta, versus Greg Maddux himself.
But it was more than that — La Russa PRETENDED like he was going to start Darryl Kile. He sent Kile out for the day-before press conference, a deception intended to take some of the pressure off Ankiel. This suggested that La Russa KNEW that Ankiel might not be ready for the moment.
La Russa would later say that the whole thing “haunts him perhaps more than any move.”
The game actually started out OK. Ankiel allowed a hit and two walks in the first but somehow got out of it without giving up a run (catching Rafael Furcal stealing helped). He gave up a double in the second but got out of it again when Javy Lopez’s wicked line drive turned into a double play. If you were following along, it looked like a brilliant young talent working through the understandable nerves of a first playoff game. The third inning, surely, would have been the moment when Ankiel settled down.
Instead, the third inning was essentially the end of his pitching career.
Ankiel walked Maddux to lead off the inning. After Furcal popped out, Ankiel threw a wild pitch. Then another. He walked Andruw Jones. Threw his third wild pitch. And he struck out Chipper Jones — two outs, runners on second and third, he had not yet given up a run (it’s HARD to throw three wild pitches and not allow a run but Maddux didn’t score on the third one).
Then it fell apart. He threw his fourth wild pitch, finally scoring Maddux. He walked Andres Galarraga. He allowed a single to Brian Jordan to score a second run. He threw his fifth wild pitch. He walked Reggie Sanders. He allowed a single to Walt Weiss.
In all: Four walks, two singles, five wild pitches.
And La Russa came out to get Rick Ankiel.
Of course, it did not have to be anything more than a one-game blip. The Cardinals breezed past the Braves in the series and went on to face the Mets in the NLCS. La Russa started Ankiel in Game 2. Ankiel struck out Timo Perez to start off the game.
And then: The night terrors or whatever it is that haunted Rick Ankiel came back. He walked Edgardo Alfonzo. He threw a wild pitch. He walked Mike Piazza. After a sac fly, he walked Robin Ventura. He gave up a double to Benny Agbayani. And La Russa raced out to get his shattered phenom.
La Russa tried one more time: It was Oct. 16, 2000, and the Cardinals trailed 6-0 at the time anyway — I guess he figured he would get Ankiel into one more game and hope to get a few good feelings going, heading into the next season. Ankiel walked the leadoff man but then got two quick outs*. He threw a wild pitch, and another wild pitch, and he walked Alfonzo again, and that was the end.
*Including another strikeout of Timo Perez — the one guy Ankiel seemed to feel like himself against.
There are stories like this in baseball. In fact, this seemingly inexplicable lack of control already had a player attached to it: The baffling thing is sometimes called Steve Blass Disease. In 1973, Blass -- this is one year after he finished second in the Cy Young voting — suddenly and shockingly couldn’t throw the ball over the plate. He walked 84 batters and hit 12 more in 88 2/3 miserable innings. His career, just like that, was over.
Something like it happened to Mark Wohlers, who had been a dominant relief pitcher. Something like it happened to Dontrelle Willis just a couple of years after he nearly won a Cy Young Award. Reliever Daniel Bard’s fall involved some physical issues too, but in his last minor league season he walked 24 batters and threw seven wild pitches in nine innings, and when he retired earlier this year he admitted, sadly, “I stopped trusting myself.”
The hard part is how puzzling it is. Ankiel felt fine physically. He threw as hard as ever. Something, though, had been irrevocably lost. You know how sometimes the simplest word eludes us -- what is that word, you know, for what you do when music plays, you know, that word -- and the harder you try to remember that word, the more elusive it becomes.
The harder Ankiel tried to pitch, the more elusive it became. What was it? Confidence? Stability? A sense of self? No one knew then and, I suspect, no one knows now. Ankiel walked 25 in 24 innings for the Cardinals in 2001, posted a 7.13 ERA, and was sent back to Memphis, where only two years earlier he had shown promise as the next Koufax.
“Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.”
— Cyril Connolly
His second time in Memphis, Ankiel pitched a total of 4 1/3 innings. He walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches. And then, he blew out his elbow.
Ankiel would try again. And again. He would seem to have the thing beat, and it would come back. In 2004, after a three-year slog, Ankiel made it back to the Cardinals. And the control problems seemed gone. He pitched 10 innings and walked just one coming out of the bullpen. He only threw one wild pitch. He had one terrible outing but had three very good ones. Everyone seemed hopeful. Ankiel went to Puerto Rico for winter ball and pitched well.
Then came 2005 spring training, and Ankiel went out to pitch, and all of the agony came back again. In a February outing, he managed just three strikes in 23 pitches. “It’s early in spring,” Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan insisted. “You’ve got to give him a chance and see what happens.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a poll asking Cardinals fans about Ankiel’s future. Half said they weren’t sure, a quarter said that this would be his breakout season, another quarter said that Ankiel would never make it back.
On May 9, Ankiel was supposed to make his first official start of spring.
Instead, he announced that he was giving up pitching and going to try to make it as an outfielder. The story appeared on the front page of the Post-Dispatch — not the sports front but the actual front. “I feel relieved now,” Ankiel insisted. “It’s time to move on.”
[caption id="attachment_23842" align="aligncenter" width="441"] Ankiel's rise as a pitcher was as rapid as his descent.[/caption]
He wasn’t the first pitcher to try to make a comeback as a hitter. Heck, Stan Musial started out as a pitcher. Smoky Joe Wood was one of the best pitchers in the world when he busted his thumb trying to field a bunt; he came back as an every-day player and hit .366 in limited at-bats for the Cleveland Indians in 1921. Lefty O’Doul and George Sisler converted from pitchers to hitters.
And, as you know, there’s a guy who was a great pitcher and then became the greatest home run hitter of them all.
I’m talking, of course, about Roy Hobbs.
But there's no story in baseball history quite like Ankiel’s -- a spectacular young pitcher who one day loses his equilibrium and, when he can’t get it back, becomes a hitter. Ankiel had been a terrific high school hitter, but now he was almost 25 and the odds were astronomical. He went to the minors, hit .259 with some power, and struck out one out of every six times.
Then he injured his knee and missed all of 2006.
Over, right? He was 27 years old, busted knee, giant hole in his swing, all sorts of bad memories haunting him … what were the odds now?
But then he went to Class AAA, swung for the fences, and hit 32 home in 102 games. You couldn’t ignore that kind of power. The Cardinals figured what the heck? They called him up, he hit a homer in his first game, he hit two homers in his third game, after three weeks or so he was hitting .358 (and he had ANOTHER two-homer game). And the Cardinals figured: What the heck?
By year-end, Ankiel hit .285/.428/.535 with 11 home runs in 47 games.
It was awe-inspiring.
Ankiel quickly realized that there was one way for him to stay in the big leagues: He had to hit home runs. He was a versatile outfielder with a rocket arm, but he wasn’t going to stay in the big leagues purely for his defense. He lacked the hitting brilliance necessary to differentiate between balls and strikes, get on base a lot, hit for a high average.
But he could swing, and so he swung hard, and he swung often. He hit 25 homers for the Cardinals in 2008, his best season. He then bounced to Kansas City, Atlanta, Washington, Houston and the Mets, always with the same plan — swing hard and hope. In his last two seasons, he struck out 119 times in 286 at-bats. But when he made contact, he hit .359 and he slugged .700.
Ankiel, more than just about any baseball player in memory, did the most you can ask from an athlete. He went down swinging.
When I think of Ankiel, I can’t help but think of the story of Von McDaniel. Do you know this one? Von McDaniel grew up in Oklahoma, not Florida like Ankiel. He was the younger brother of Lindy McDaniel, who would go on to an excellent career, winning 141 games with 174 saves over 21 years.
But Von was the special one. He was a basketball star; he was offered a scholarship by Kansas State. As a baseball player, it was ridiculous: He gave up 25 hits in his entire high school career, 243 innings of work. He also hit .545. There was no doubt of his future, and all 16 big league clubs made him an offer. He signed with the Cardinals for $50,000, which meant that — by the rules of the day — he had to go right to the big leagues.
And he was sensational right away. Ridiculous even. He didn’t have a blazing fastball, but he had remarkable command. In his first appearance, a relief appearance, he pitched four scoreless innings, allowing one hit and not walking anybody. This was barely three weeks after his high school graduation. “Amazing, that’s all,” Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson told reporters. “A kid stepping right out of high school, throwing strike after strike, getting breaking stuff over when he was behind in the count and pitching just like an old man. Amazing.”
Three days later, he did it again — four more innings, one hit, no walks, five strikeouts. This was when they started calling him “Mr. Vonderful.”
“Confidence is all you need in the majors,” he said. “That’s what you need, and I’ve got it.”
Five days after that, he made his first big-league start — a surprise start because Hutchinson didn’t want him worrying about it — and he threw a complete game shutout, allowing just two hits.
“The folks will know the next time I start him,” Hutch said beaming. “I shouldn’t have worried about him.”
It was a mostly magical year. On July 28, Mr. Vonderful threw a one-hit shutout against the Pirates. It was nearly a perfect game — the only hit came when Gene Baker’s double was inches fair down the left-field line.
Things were hit and miss after that, but in all, McDaniel went 7-5 with a 3.45 ERA; he was the only pitcher in the league to throw a one- and a two-hitter. There was a lot of hope.
Then McDaniel went to Cardinals spring training … and he couldn’t find the plate. His control, his command, all of it just disappeared. He still made the team, and on his 19th birthday, he got to pitch against the Cubs. In quick order, he gave up a double, a single, another single, another single and yet ANOTHER single, the last to Lee Walls, and he was taken out of the game. And he was sent to the minor leagues.
He would make one more big-league appearance, two scoreless innings against the Cubs. But he walked five in those innings and was done. He tried and tried to get it back on the mound, but he never did. So you know what he did next: He tried to make it as a hitter. He was still young (just 20) when he hit .313 in Class D Daytona Beach. He moved up and moved up and made it all the way to Class AAA Oklahoma City.
But he never made it back to the big leagues.
Well, of course he didn’t. The odds, as mentioned, are astronomical. There's a pretty good chance you've never heard of Von McDaniel. But you've heard of Rick Ankiel. No, he’s not a Hall of Famer, not close to a Hall of Famer. But he is something of a miracle.