Never say never.
We thought we would never see Rick Ankiel on a Major League Baseball mound again. Now, that’s no longer a sure thing.
Once the top pitching prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Ankiel was heralded as the next Sandy Koufax. Koufax dominated the 1950s and 1960s for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and is remembered as one of, if not the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.
However, many fans will remember Ankiel mostly from his time as an outfielder for the Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, New York Mets and Washington Nationals.
Before he was wowing Cardinals fans with a cannon of an arm out of right field and center field, he had a promising pitching career that went completely off the rails due to what’s known as the yips.
Just one day, he couldn’t throw his fastball with any kind of control any more. That day was Oct. 3, 2000, and the Cardinals were playing the National League Division Series against the Braves.
Ankiel threw five wild pitches in one inning.
After that, Ankiel struggled to get things back on track early in the 2001 season and details in his 2017 book, “The Phenomenon,” how he would have to go out to the mound intoxicated in order to battle the anxiety of trying to throw his fastball in the vicinity of the plate rather than to the backstop for a wild pitch.
He tried various means to combat the yips before retiring as a pitcher during spring training in 2005. He then played his way back to the major league team as a position player, something rarely done with any kind of success, before ultimately retiring from the game altogether in 2013.
But perhaps his legend isn’t finished quite yet.
Ankiel got back on the mound to pitch at the Bluegrass World Series, an event featuring several former MLB players, a couple of weeks ago and struck out the only batter he faced.
Last Monday, he announced during the Cardinals broadcast on Fox Sports Midwest that he was considering coming out of retirement at age 39 and attempting to return to the major leagues as a pitcher in 2019.
As the saying goes, pretty much any lefty with a curveball and a pulse can get a job in a major league bullpen, and Ankiel had one of the best hooks in the game.
It’s unclear what team Ankiel would play with, but after making the announcement, broadcasters Al Hrabosky and Dan McLaughlin were talking about how Ankiel had already garnered interest from teams hopeful to sign him for the remainder of the 2018 season.
Thus, it’s no sure thing that he would come back as a member of the Cardinals, but it sure would be poetic.
I wasn’t ready to put any trust in the left-handed portion of the bullpen coming into the start of this season, which consisted of Tyler Lyons, Ryan Sherriff and Brett Cecil. Fast forward to August and Lyons has been released, Sherriff went to the disabled list early in the season and then was lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery, and Cecil was pushed out of the bullpen onto the DL in the final week before the trade deadline as part of an extensive bullpen cleanse.
You have to figure that a lefty reliever is going to be on the Cardinals shopping list this offseason and assuming he’s over the yips after all these years, Ankiel would be a great fit and an amazing story to follow.
Back in the Day
I recall in detail a lot about that day in October of 2000.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and my parents got my brother and me out of school early so we could make the three-hour drive to St. Louis from our hometown in Northeast Missouri to be there in time for the first pitch around 3 p.m.
The Cardinals had publicly announced Darryl Kile as the Game One starter in a ruse to keep pressure off the rookie Ankiel, whom manager Tony La Russa actually planned to start in that game the whole time.
I remember signs in the stands remarking “Will the Thrill,” for first baseman Will Clark, whom the Cardinals acquired midway through the season to take over for an injured Mark McGwire. Other signs said “Polanco Plunks Another One,” in support of middle infielder Placido Polanco, who was more of a pesky hitter at the bottom of the lineup than an offensive star.
Polanco put together three hits in the game and drove in two runs from the No. 8 spot in the lineup.
The Braves were going with perennial Cy Young contender and future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (he was inducted in the Class of 2014). In an unlikely occurrence, the Cardinals managed to put together six runs in the first inning.
That provided a much-needed cushion for what would come next, though we didn’t know it at the time.
Everything was going great for Ankiel through the first two innings, despite working with backup catcher Carlos Hernandez due to an unlikely injury to normal backstop Mike Matheny.
Matheny, who of course later went on to become the Cardinals manager, was at the time the starting catcher for the Cardinals from 2000 until the emergence of Yadier Molina in 2004.
The reason he wasn’t doing the catching for the Cardinals in the playoffs was he had received a hunting knife as a birthday gift from his brother the previous week and accidentally sliced the tendon of the ring finger on his throwing hand when it cut through the sheath as he was replacing the gift after admiring it.
Perhaps if that didn’t happen to Matheny, Ankiel could have gone on to have a lengthy pitching career and contended for Cy Young awards, maybe even earned himself a place in Cooperstown. Matheny had a reputation for being great at getting the most out of a pitching staff during his time behind the plate. Maybe he could have helped Ankiel push the anxiety aside if he were behind the plate instead of watching helplessly from the dugout. We’ll never know.
In the top of the third inning, Ankiel caught the yips. In his book, he refers to it often as “The Thing” or “The Monster.” He allowed four runs in that inning, walked three batters and made poor Carlos Hernandez chase five wild pitches to the backstop.
He did get two outs in that third inning before he was pulled from the game.
The Cardinals bullpen was masterful the rest of the way, not allowing another run until the top of the ninth.
Along the way, the Braves brought in lefty reliever John Rocker, a controversial figure after making some less than savory comments the previous offseason, and I remember the crowd riding him hard in that appearance.
Derisive chats of “Rock-er, Rock-er,” rained down from the sea of red and the chants turned to wild applause as Rocker walked J.D. Drew to leadoff the inning and then committed an error trying to pick him off at first base.
Rocker settled down in time to get the next two batters out and the Cardinals weren’t able to get an extra insurance run on their 7-4 lead, but still held on to win, 7-5.
Kile beat another future Hall of Famer in Tom Glavine (also inducted in 2014) in Game Two as the Cardinals won 10-4 and went on to sweep the Braves out of the playoffs.
The Cardinals didn’t fare as well in the National League Championship series, losing to the New York Mets in five games.
However, that 2000 season started what became a lengthy run for the Cardinals as the best team in the National League Central with nine division titles from 2000-2015 along with four National League pennants and two World Series championships.
In one way or another, Ankiel was there for a lot of it. It’d be great to see him back on the mound at Busch Stadium, pitching in a meaningful game at least one more time.