Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rick Ankiel's amazing comeback

In a year of great rags to riches baseball stories, Rick Ankiel's may be both the most impressive and the least recognized. Once a highly touted pitcher with a rocket arm, one night his young major league career imploded on the mound. Six years later he is back in the majors, as an outfielder, helping his team by belting home runs and stealing hits in the outfield. Sound familiar?

In 1997 Ankiel signed with the St. Louis Cardinals straight out of high school after being named Player of the Year by USA Today. By 2000 was starting in the major leagues as the second youngest player in baseball. He ended the season 11-7, helping the Cardinals win the NL Central.

Ankiel, chosen to start game one of the National League Division Series, made it through two innings before his career began to slip away. In the third inning he took the mound and suddenly could not find the strike zone. He walked three, threw five wild pitches, and gave up five runs before being pulled.

Ankiel appeared two more times in the post-season, both outings were similarly wild. He started game 2 of the NLCS and was removed after 20 pitches, including five uncatchable balls sailing ten feet over the catcher and careening off the backstop screen. In game five Ankiel appeared in relief and faced four hitters, walking two, and throwing two more wild pitches.

Though Ankiel tried to downplay his sudden control problems as mechanical, they were in-fact mental. People recalled Steve Blass or Mark Wohlers, dominating pitchers who mysteriously lost the ability to throw strikes. By the end of 2001 Ankiel was out of the majors. The next year he was sidelined in the minors with season ending surgery. He made a brief appearance back with the Cardinals in 2003 and then vanished.

Three years later Ankiel arrived at Cardinals spring training on a long-shot attempt to make the club as an outfielder. But he blew out his knee and underwent another season ending surgery.

Last year Ankiel came to spring training again and ultimately wound up at the Cardinals' AAA club in Memphis. On August 9th the Cardinals promoted him to the major league club. He was penciled in to bat second and play right field. The Busch Stadium crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation. During the seventh inning, in his final at bat of the day, Ankiel hit a three run home run into the right field stands. Two days later he went 3-4 with two home runs, knocked in three, and made a beautiful catch in right field.

Charles Krauthammer, notable Washington Post columnist, wrote, "His return after seven years--if only three days long--is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis."

The remainder of 2007 was filled with spectacular games: a grand slam on August 31; another two home run game, including seven RBI and an over-the-shoulder catch on September 6; a walk-off triple on September 23. And just to make sure it wasn’t all a fluke, this season Ankiel has belted 20 homers, 50 RBI, and owns an .880 OPS. He is already regarded as one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball with wide range and a rocket arm.

Baseball is the most individual of all the team sports. Its isolation is instantly recognizable from the vantage point of the spectator. The position players are arrayed, far apart, asked to defend against a little white ball, batted at them by a hitter who stands alone at the plate. The pitcher stands alone on the mound to face him. Ankiel's career unraveled right before everyone's eyes in the middle of the diamond. And, incredibly, it has come back together on the other end, at the plate and in the field.

Ankiel has re-invented himself as a slugging outfielder. He has gone from losing his pitching control to now doing the hardest thing in all sports, and doing it amazingly well. What abilities are needed to be able to do this? Is it immense talent? Is it unstoppable drive? Millions of kids want to play baseball, how many ever make it? How many make it as a top pitcher, fall, and then make it all the way back as a top hitter?

On such things, tragedy and second chances, life is built. And in such things is the greatest nature of sports. The Roy Hobbs of the world, emerging from obscurity, overcoming their downfalls, and harnessing their immense talent represent facets of all of us. In their failure their success is magnified all the more. The flawed champions of Greek or Arthurian legend are both the most real, and the greatest of all.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

Sports betting system earn +$3,624 PROFIT last week!

Z-Code System winning bets and predictions for NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL!!!