After being drafted in 1999, things were going well for Rick Ankiel. He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2nd round and was one of the best young pitchers in the league, winning the Minor League Player of the Year Award in 1999.
That same year Ankiel made his first appearance as a pitcher for the Cardinals, but didn’t pitch his first full season until 2000. Ankiel was great in his rookie year, putting up an 11-7 record with a 3.50 ERA which was good enough to almost win the Rookie of the Year award that was given to Rafael Furcal. Regardless of not winning the award, Ankiel looked like he had a very bright future in front of him.
He had a good fastball, a great sinker and an incredible curveball that helped him strike out 194 batters in the 2000 season. Although it appeared as though Ankiel had a bright future ahead of him, he collapsed as fast as he had built himself up.
The Cardinals won the NL Central that year, setting them up with a first round matchup against the Atlanta Braves. Due to injuries to other members of the starting rotation, Tony La Russa decided to go with Ankiel against Braves ace Greg Maddux in Game 1. It looked like a good idea at first, with Ankiel getting through the first two innings without allowing a run. In the third though, things started to fall apart for the young pitcher. In the 3rd he walked Maddux and after two wild pitches moved him to third. It was apparent that there was something wrong with Ankiel and it became more obvious as the inning went on. Over the course of that inning, Ankiel would allow 4 runs on 2 hits, 4 walks and 5 wild pitches.
Ankiel shrugged off that performance though and was given the nod in Game 2 of the NLCS against the New York Mets. Game 2 wasn’t much better, as Ankiel was removed in the first inning after throwing 20 pitches and 5 more that went past catcher Eli Marrero. It was obvious that Ankiel had lost all control in his pitching but it was capped off in Game 5 of the series when he was used in relief and faced four batters. He walked two of them and threw two more wild pitches.
Nobody knows for sure why Ankiel lost his control, whether it was a loss of confidence or something wrong with his arm. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said in his 2006 book “Three Nights in August” that the decision to start Ankiel in Game 1 was one that “haunted him more than any that he has ever made”.
For many athletes, this would be the end of the story. Ankiel struggled again in 2002 and was sent to the minor league’s where he would spend the next couple of years still struggling. He sat out the whole 2002 season after having Tommy John Surgery but was still having control problems in the 2003 season. Despite his struggles, the Cardinals called Ankiel up once again and used him as a relief pitcher this time. The relief pitching didn’t go any better for him though as he posted a 5.20 ERA in 5 relief appearances. When some pitchers struggle with arm strength or control, they will quit or take up the knuckleball like we’ve seen with Mets pitcher R.A Dickey. In the case of Ankiel though, he decided he would try to become an outfielder.
Ankiel was invited to Spring Training by the Cardinals in 2006 and was impressive enough to get consideration for a major league spot. Once again, Ankiel’s season was ended before it started though as knee surgery sidelined him for the whole 2006 season. All of the struggles that he went through made Rick Ankiel’s 2007 that much more special though.
Ankiel was once again invited to Spring Training in 2007 but once again wasn’t ready to play outfield at the major league level. Even though he didn’t play the whole season, Ankiel was called up on August 9th and hit a three run home run. La Russa said afterwards that it was his happiest moment aside from winning the 2006 World Series.
Ankiel continued to amaze people and gain praise as he made his comeback tour in the Major League’s, 7 years after his dismal performance in the playoffs and at a brand new position. Ankiel played in 47 games in 2007 and finished with a .285 BA, 11 HR’s and 39 RBI’s.
Ankiel’s comeback had been an inspiration for many, although he was immediately thrown back into the same class as many players in the 2000′s when he admitted to using HGH after the 2007 season.
While the end of his 2007 season was special, the rest of his career was nothing out of the ordinary. Ankiel batted .264 with 25 HR’s and 71 RBI’s in 2008 as an everyday starter and hit only 11 HR’s and 38 RBI’s in 2009.
In 2010, Ankiel signed with the Kansas City Royals and would continue to bounce around to teams for the rest of his career. He was traded to the Braves during the 2010 season and signed a one year deal with the Nationals for the 2011 season.
He returned to the Nationals minor league system again in 2012, but only had 36 hits in 68 games. There were rumours circulating that Ankiel was willing to try pitching again after struggling as an outfielder for the last couple of years. For now though, no team wants to take a chance on Ankiel and he is a free agent for the 2013 season.
Rick Ankiel’s story is a unique one and something we were lucky to see. Many athletes will quit or rot away in the minor league’s when they are struggling, but Rick Ankiel fought his way back to the major league’s. Ankiel never lived up to the expectations set for him as a pitcher or hitter but he is a name that will be remembered by baseball fans for years.
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