15 years later to the day, I think back about that fall.
When I think about Rick Ankiel’s story, I think of three parts. The rise in the Cardinals farm system as a premier pitching prospect, the fall due to the wildness in the 2000 playoffs, and the rise as a hitter in the Major Leagues. No matter how you cut it, his tale is bittersweet. Ankiel turned 36 years old on Sunday and is out of baseball. He has a book coming out later this year about his experiences as a professional baseball player, but when I think about Rick, one moment comes to mind.
1999. His arrival against the Montreal Expos on August 23rd on the road. In a season dictated by Mark McGwire’s encore show, Ankiel struck out 6 batters, walked 2, threw 82 pitches and went five innings. The debut showed a unique talent. It wasn’t a flash in the pan. In 2000, Ankiel came into his own as a legit talent. He won 11 games, struck out 190 batters in 175 innings and seemed to be a future #2 or ace. He was 21 years old and full of untapped potential. He possessed the greatest curveball I’ve ever seen thrown by a baseball player. It was nasty and had a 12-6 descent that aggravated hitters.
Then, the playoffs came and Tony La Russa gambled by starting Ankiel in Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves, the team Rick made his Busch Stadium debut against a year before. Everything came apart for Ankiel that day. He threw a ton of wild pitches and they didn’t just roll to the backstop. They were launched out of Ankiel’s hand and landed up against the protective screen behind home plate. It wouldn’t stop. A week later, it happened against the Mets at Busch. The curve was gone. The fastball was gone. Everything was gone.
Ankiel made a couple attempts at comebacks in 2001 and 2004 but couldn’t stay healthy enough or ever find the control he possessed in the regular season of 2000. He always had a tendency to walk hitters, but when you walk 25 in 24 innings, something is wrong. He quit pitching and wanted to try hitting, which he always did well. The former 2nd round pick in the 1997 draft wasn’t ready to call it a career yet.
The Cardinals, as they did throughout Ankiel’s tumultuous career, stuck by him and let him transition to a hitter. The idea was unheard of but didn’t turn out that bad. After a tasty preview in 2007, Ankiel hit 25 home runs in 2008 while slugging .506 and striking out 100 times in 463 at bats. He only hit 11 home runs the next season and ended up striking out 555 times in 1921 at bats but he also cranked 76 more home runs than most people thought he would. He played for another 4 years in the majors with various teams before retiring on June 8th of 2013.
Ankiel will also be known for throwing two runners out from the track in center field in Colorado. He was a fine defensive centerfielder and made some highlight reel plays. While he hit well for a former pitcher and was good in the field, nothing will ever compare to his pitching. While his 2007-2008 seasons were respectable and borderline amazing, Ankiel’s potential as a starter tromped everything else.
It was only one year, but Ankiel’s mark will be that 1999 season. The strikeouts. The curve. The southpaw dominance at a young age. So bittersweet.
In his last regular season start in the 2000 season, Ankiel went 6 innings, struck out 8, walked 2, and allowed zero runs in a win over the San Diego Padres. Six days later, Ankiel lost control for good. That’s baseball for you. It will never have all the answers but will dangle bittersweet misfortune frequently to keep us honest.
Rick Ankiel had a unique if not remarkable career as a professional baseball player, but it will always have a bittersweet finish due to what he could have done over the last decade on a pitching mound. He may still be pitching today. That’s what I think about. The potential that was lost on that October afternoon nearly 15 years ago.