Episode 4: June 25, 2010
Rick Ankiel is on a very short list of players (which includes Babe Ruth) who have been legitimate pitchers and position players at the major league level. Because of his talent, his persistence, and the hardships he’s faced, I consider him one of the most important players in the game today.
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
You know when a player retires and you hear all these great stories about them and you look at their career stats and realize you never noticed how great they were? Then you wish you had seen them play in person, or at least you kind of feel like you just missed something? I hate that.
I'm Alex Reisner and you're listening to Game of Chance, a show about baseball statistics, history, culture, and the role of luck in baseball.
That's what happened when Jose Lima died last month. It's not that he was the greatest pitcher ever, but I would have watched him more and rooted for him just because of his personality. Of course I never knew what an amazing weirdo he was until he died and people wrote some really nice things about him.
I've always wanted to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in person. Those are the guys...if I could go back in time, that's who I'd see. Probably Arky Vaughan too because I have this weird fascination with Arky Vaughan. But I, and I don't want to miss out on anyone great who's playing right now. I wonder how many people knew they were witnessing one of the all-time greats when they saw players like Sandy Koufax, Rogers Hornsby, Willie Mays, or Hank Aaron. Remember that we know those guys career totals now, but when a player starts, they're just a rookie. They accumulate stats a year at a time, they get injured, they have slumps and bad years...at different moments we recognize that they're good, but it's not like there's an announcement that they've suddenly become great. Usually that doens't happen until they retire, their stats stop changing, and journalists start paying tribute.
Something about that pattern has always bothered me. I've always wanted to understand the significance of what's happening right now, and see the great players in person; it adds to my enjoyment of the game, and I think puting current events into a historical context is important for baseball and (for) life. That's why I make sure to see Albert Pujols every year when the Cardinals come to New York. Pujols *is* one of the all-time greats, definitely one of the 10 best hitters ever and possibly the best we'll see for a while. Pujols is great based on his statistics alone, but players also become legends through their personalities or by a few great performances in dramatic situations. Besides Pujols, here are some other active players who I think will be regarded as icons of this era:
* Ichiro Suzuki
* Manny Ramirez
* Derek Jeter
* Joe Mauer
* Vladimir Guerrero
* Jim Thome
* Todd Helton
* Lance Berkman
* Chipper Jones
* Jamie Moyer
* Johan Santana
* Roy Oswalt
* Mariano Rivera
* Trevor Hoffman
Those are the guys I think everyone should see in person. Of course I'd also mention Ken Griffey, Jr and Greg Maddux if they hadn't just retired. I should also mention John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez since they seem to be just semi-retired.
But today I want to talk about another player, a guy who should be recognized for his unusual career. He's not great in the statistical sense, but he is a legend of our time, or at least I think he is. This player is currently active, although he's on the disabled list. He's only 30 years old, and he's an outfielder with fewer than 300 major league hits. Of course that doesn't sound very good, but I think you'll find his story worthwhile. His name is Rick Ankiel and you might remember him as the Rookie of the Year runner-up back in 2000 when he was a pitcher.
Actually he probably should have won Rookie of the Year (over Rafael Furcal) since he averaged more than a strikeout per inning and allowed fewer hits per inning than any other National League pitcher besides Chan Ho Park, and that's back when Chan Ho Park was good...if you remember: that was around the time he started a brawl by karate-kicking Tim Belcher with his spikes.
Anyway, Ankiel came up as a starting pitcher throwing 97-mph fastballs, a good heavy sinker, and a crazy 12-to-6 curveball. He helped the Cardinals reach the playoffs in his rookie season and everything seemed to be going well. He seemed destined for Major League success, probably a future Cy Young Award winner. He was amazing to watch. But in the third inning of that first Cardinals playoff game he began to lose his control. He became the first modern pitcher to throw 5 wild pitches in the same inning. Over the next two weeks he appeared in two more playoff games and his control declined even further as the Cardinals were knocked out of the playoffs by the Mets.
Ankiel started pitching the following season but his control problems continued and he was quickly sent down to the Cardinals' Triple-A team. It was kind of bizarre. Experts said his motion looked the same, that he wasn't having a mechanical problem... People started comparing him to Steve Blass and Chuck Knoblauch, other players who suddenly lost the ability to control their throws.
In Triple-A Ankiel's problems became even worse. He walked 17 batters in less than 5 innings, with 12 wild pitches. He was sent all the way down to Rookie League. Things got a little better in Rookie League as he was voted 2001 Player of the Year as a pitcher and a part-time designated hitter, but the former Cardinal was still playing in Rookie League.
Even his mild success didn't last very long: in 2002 he sprained his left elbow and was out the whole year. He worked out in the off-season and started 2003 in Double-A ball, pitching in pain for several months until it became clear he required the dreaded Tommy John surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm. So his 2003 season was done after 54 mediocre innings.
As you might guess, Ankiel was pretty frustrated at this point. It's hard to imagine the great Tony LaRussa giving you credit for getting the Cardinals to the playoffs in your rookie season, and then, at just 25 years old, injured for most of two years and barely able to pitch in the minors even when healthy. Nevertheless, he came back in 2004 and started in Single-A. He worked his way up to Double-A, then Triple-A, and then, somehow in September, back to the Major League St. Louis Cardinals. They used him as a reliever for 10 innings in which he struck out 9 and walked only 1. This seemed, finally, like a good sign. It seemed like Rick Ankiel was back in business. He followed it up with a good season that winter in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League, and reported to Cardinals spring training in February 2005. Then, remarkably, amazingly, tragically, in a practice game he began to lose his control again. At that point Rick Ankiel couldn't take it anymore. He said in interviews that the extreme frustration was starting to affect his personality. So, in a move not even his teammates expected, he announced he would become an outfielder.
His teammates were dumbfounded, Cardinals owner Walt Jocketty was "disappointed," and Tony LaRussa pointed out that he didn't even have minor league-caliber outfield talent, but Ankiel was relieved. And he seemed excited to work on his hitting and fielding skills. So he spent the season learning to be an outfielder in Single- and then Double-A ball, and because of his hard work was invited to Cardinals spring training in 2006 as an outfielder. He looked good. The Cardinals were impressed until he injured his left knee and again required season-ending surgery for the 3rd time in 5 years.
But Ankiel was as persistent as ever. He recovered and was invited to the Cardinals camp again in 2007 and again he showed up. He didn't make the big league club but became the starting centerfielder for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. There he avoided injury, and played well enough to make the all-star team. Finally, on August 9, 2007, another big moment came for Ankiel. He was promoted to the Cardinals and started his first game in right field, batting second. The game was in St. Louis and on his first at-bat he received an enormous standing ovation from the home town crowd. In his fourth at-bat, Ankiel came to the plate with two men on, and hit a three-run home run to help the Cardinals beat the Padres. It was this moment that Tony LaRussa listed among his happiest and proudest in a Cardinals uniform. Two days later Ankiel went 3-for-4 with two home runs and a spectacular catch in right field. By the end of the month Ankiel would hit his first grand slam, and by the end of the season he had another multiple home-run game and a walk-off two-run triple against the Pirates. Journalist Charles Krauthammer explained Ankiel's comeback like this: "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."
Since then Ankiel has remained in the Major Leagues as an outfielder. Remember that he came up at 19, so he's still just 30 years old. He was carried off the field on a stretcher early last year after a collision with an outfield wall, but he was back within a month. At the beginning of the 2010 season he signed with Kansas City so you'll have to check out some Royals games if you want to see him play. Oh, you'll also have to wait until his quadriceps injury heals, but that should just be a few weeks, hopefully right around the all-star break.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story of Rick Ankiel. There's not many players I enjoy rooting for more than him. I hope he's able to have a somewhat full major league career, and I hope he's appreciated in his time, not just when he retires and people start writing about his remarkable story. His talent level is not like Ichiro's or Joe Mauer's, but as a personality I think he's as important to this era as anyone.
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