Sports Outside the Beltway

The Rebirth of Rick Ankiel

No doubt you remember Rick Ankiel, the once highly touted pitching prospect of the St. Louis Cardinals. He rose quickly through minors, succeeding at every single stop. But when he reached the majors, his control left him. In the playoffs no less.

But that isn’t the only misfortune he suffered.

Rick Ankiel did not grow up in a ticky tacky little box out of Agrestic, California. Instead, he scraped by along with his mother, who dealt with an abusive spouse that was serving a prison sentence. His dad was serving time for drug smuggling while Rick was being scouted heavily by every Major League team. His half-brother was also in jail, and was arrested 28 times in a 6-year span. If you think the past few years were rough, you have no idea.

Which is why I am not surprised that Rick Ankiel has persevered and is once again successful on a team that is struggling to be a playoff contender. Ankiel took his agent’s advice (none other than Scott Boras), and put baseball in the back of his mind for a while. He headed out to SoCal to get away from it all. Boras was there for Ankiel when he needed him most (unlike IMG for Jennifer Capriati). He hung out with Ankiel in Southern California, set him up with other players, and also linked him with a sports psychologist.

(For more on Scott Boras’s operation, see here.)

Today Charles Krauthammer cheers Ankiel’s return in the Natural returns to St. Louis. (or here.)

The kid is never the same. He never recovers his control. Five miserable years in the minors trying to come back. Injuries. Operations. In 2005, he gives up pitching forever.

Then, last week, on Aug. 9, he is called up from Triple-A. Same team. Same manager. Rick Ankiel is introduced to a roaring Busch Stadium crowd as the Cardinals’ starting right fielder.

In the seventh inning, with two outs, he hits a three-run home run to seal the game for the Cardinals. Two days later, he hits two home runs and makes one of the great catches of the year — over the shoulder, back to the plate, full speed.

Krauthammer correctly writes that this catch was so spectacular because Ankiel misjudged the ball. Despite the recent heroics, Krauthammer expect normalcy to return.

He made the catch. The crowd, already delirious over the two home runs, came to its feet. If this had been a fable, Ankiel would have picked himself up and walked out of the stadium into the waiting arms of the lady in white — Glenn Close in a halo of light — never to return.

But this is real life. Ankiel is only 28 and will continue to play. The magic cannot continue. If he is lucky, he’ll have the career of an average right fielder. But it doesn’t matter. His return after seven years — if only three days long — is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.

By learning a new position and to hit while already in his twenties Ankiel has accomplished something really rare. Is it the start of a very good second career? It’s too early to tell. But you must want him to succeed.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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