Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Natural: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Rick Ankiel

We have two lives... the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness. ― Bernard Malamud, The Natural
The day Rick Ankiel was born, the baseball gods propelled a lightning bolt into his left arm and turned it into gold. By the age of 17, he was the best pitching prospect in all of baseball. In his senior year at a south Florida high school, he struck out 174 of the 222 batters he faced and finished the season with a 0.47 ERA. It wasn’t fair. Baseball came almost too easy to him. To major league scouts, he was a sure thing, the second coming of Sandy Koufax. They called him the Golden Boy. The Natural. The Best There Ever Was.

But this is America, where we glorify success and magnify failure; where disappointment and tragedy hover close to the surface. “One of baseball’s greatest attributes is its normality,” writes Will Leitch in Sports on Earth. “Regular people can play it, yet even the best of the best constantly fail.” 

By all outward appearances, Ankiel grew up in a classic all-American family with parents resembling June and Ward Cleaver. They were his biggest fans and came to all of Rick’s high school games. But below the Ozzie-and-Harriet façade were dark secrets, of crime and drugs and addiction. By the time Rick turned 19, his father was in federal prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine from the Bahamas. Rick’s half-brother was a drug addict who also landed a lengthy prison sentence. His half-sister had all but disappeared and his mother could offer little support. Ankiel was eventually left to fend for himself in the high-stakes, pressure-filled world of professional baseball.

Still, for the Golden Boy, the future looked bright. Ankiel threw three different types of pitches very well – a high-powered fastball that topped out at 98 miles per hour; a fall-off-the-table, 12-to-6 curve that only the very best can master; and a sinker that made the ball seem like it weighed 50 pounds. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals one month shy of his 18th birthday, he received a $2.5 million signing bonus.

Success came instantly. He was quickly promoted through the minor league ranks, advancing from Class A to AAA in a little over a year. Pitching in the high minors (AA Arkansas and AAA Memphis) in only his second professional season, the 19 year-old Ankiel finished 13-3 with a 2.35 ERA. He struck out 194 batters in 137 innings and allowed only 98 hits. In St. Louis, he was the talk of the town.  “Have you heard of this kid, Ankiel?” they said at every water cooler and bar stool. “Some kind of pitcher.” “A left-handed Bob Gibson.” “The next Steve Carlton.” “What are they waiting for? Bring him up.”

The Cardinals listened. On August 29, 1999, only twenty years old, Ankiel was the youngest pitcher in a major league uniform. In the final five weeks of the season, he struck out 39 major leaguers in 33 innings. He was here to stay.

The next year, Ankiel made the Cardinals’ starting rotation and finished the 2000 season with 194 strike outs in 175 innings. Still only a 20 year-old rookie, he went 11-7 and helped the Cardinals make the playoffs. Ankiel’s performance had been so impressive that manager Tony LaRussa picked him to start the first game of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. It was a special moment, a rare honor for such a young pitcher to be given a chance to shine before a national audience.

In Game One, everything looked great for the rookie star. He held the Braves scoreless through the first two innings. But then, in the third inning, everything came crashing down.

It was as if something delicate in his psyche imploded from within. Perhaps it was the pressures of stardom combined with unresolved family demons and the guilt of his father lingering in federal prison. Maybe he was not equipped to handle so much adulation so soon. Whatever happened, he suddenly and inexplicably lost his feel for the strike zone. You could see him struggling internally on the pitcher’s mound, trying to figure it out, like a baby cub abandoned in the wilderness.  As if the magic potion wore off and his arm suddenly belonged to that of a mortal human being. In one inning, he walked four batters and threw five wild pitches – not ordinary wild pitches, but knock-out-the-mascot, unreachable, uncatchable pitches that sailed ten feet over the catcher’s outstretched glove or landed twenty feet in front of home plate.  Everyone watching felt a strange discomfort. The crowd became restless, players fidgeted in the dugout. It was like seeing a train wreck in slow motion. 

Finally, after what seemed like hours of indignity, LaRussa mercifully approached the mound and rescued the ball from Ankiel’s left hand. The young pitcher walked slowly from the field, dejected and confused, as every eye in the place focussed in his direction. By the time he reached the dugout, he was the loneliest man in the world.

He was never the same pitcher again. The Cardinals sent him to the mound twice against the New York Mets in the championship series. Both times, his uncontrollable wildness returned. In four postseason innings, he threw nine wild pitches. At season’s end, Ankiel said all the right things. He laughed it off and said he would get it together in the offseason. But at the start of the 2001 season, it happened again. In just six starts, he walked 25 batters and compiled a 7.13 ERA. He was demoted to Johnson City of the Appalachian League, low-Class-A rookie ball, to fix the problem. It seemed to work. In 87 innings he walked only 18 batters and struck out 158. They promoted him to AAA Memphis. And then, just when it looked like he had straightened things out, injuries took their toll. He strained his left elbow and missed the remainder of the 2001 season. Tommy John surgery wiped out all of the 2002 and most of the 2003 seasons.

Despite all of these setbacks, Ankiel would not give up. In 2004, he slowly crawled his way back. He pitched for three different Cardinals minor league teams and started to regain his form. On September 19, 2004, he pitched at Busch Stadium for the first time in nearly four years. Entering the game in a relief role, he struck out four in two innings and received a standing ovation from a wildly joyous St. Louis crowd. He was back.

Ankiel was invited to spring camp in 2005 with great anticipation and fanfare. It was expected he would once again be in the Cardinals’ starting rotation. Cardinal Nation was exuberant. After all, he could still throw like Koufax and Carlton. If his head was on straight, everything would be fine. But at the beginning of spring training, his pitches suddenly started floating again, sailing wildly and unpredictably to the backstop. He couldn’t figure it out. No one could. Ankiel had finally had enough.

Three days later, he announced that he was giving up pitching, if not baseball. He would try to come back as an outfielder. Few in baseball took him seriously. It was almost unheard of. Not since Babe Ruth had a pitcher successfully converted to a major league hitter. But Ankiel was no ordinary soul. Always a good hitting pitcher, he hit a home run in his first professional at bat, for the Cardinals’ AA affiliate in Arkansas back in 2000, when he batted .323. He hit 10 home runs as a pitcher for Johnson City in 2001. But it was one thing to get a few hits as a pitcher, quite another to consistently hit well when fully exposed as an everyday player. Maybe the Cardinals felt sorry for him; guilty, even, for pushing him too fast too soon. So, they gave him a chance and assigned him to Class-A Quad Cities in the Midwest League. He acquitted himself well and was eventually promoted to AA Springfield, finishing the 2005 season with 21 home runs and a .259 average.

But then, during spring training in 2006, Ankiel twisted his knee and missed the entire season once again. He soon became a forgotten remnant of days past; a true-to-life Roy Hobbs, a near-great ballplayer who had missed his best years. In Ankiel’s case, the cause was not a gunshot wound inflicted by a mysterious lady in black, but a fragile psyche and annoying injuries.

Still, he refused to quit. He returned to the minors in 2007 and, finally, things started to click. He displayed exceptional power and began hitting home runs and doubles – a lot of them – with consistency. Playing for Triple-A Memphis, he hit 32 home runs and compiled 89 RBIs in only 389 at bats. He developed into a sure-handed outfielder, with good range and the best arm you ever saw. He once more became the talk of the town.

On August 9, 2007, I flew with my daughters to St. Louis, where months earlier we had planned to spend a weekend on the banks of the Mississippi, exploring the city and attending a series of Cardinals games. We were joined by my parents, who drove all the way from North Carolina to meet us in St. Louis. At the start of Thursday night’s game, as we walked to our seats high above home plate on the third-base side of the field, Ankiel trotted from the dugout into right field. An almost electric buzz quickly spread through the stadium. “Is that Ankiel?” “Hey, look, Ankiel is in the outfield!” Earlier that day, it turned out, the Cardinals, who were struggling through a lackluster season, had decided to give Ankiel a chance.

“The whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology,” said Bernard Malamud. Not until that night did I truly understand. Ankiel struck out twice and popped out to the shortstop in his first three at bats. He looked overmatched, perhaps not quite ready for big league pitching. 

In the seventh inning, with two outs and two men on base and the Cards leading 2-0, Ankiel stepped to the plate again. He fouled off the first pitch and then waited patiently as the next two pitches drifted off the plate to run the count to 2-1. Then, on the next pitch, Ankiel swung and connected. The ball jumped off his bat and formed a perfect arc towards the right field stands. Everyone in the stadium rose to their feet watching the ball’s projection, hoping, willing it into the distance. When the ball landed in the right field seats for a three-run home run, the entire stadium erupted and the place went nuts! It was as if six years of disappointment, of lost potential and guilt were washed away with one swing of the bat. Ankiel quickly and modestly circled the bases, touched home plate, and jogged slowly to the dugout where his teammates greeted him like the prodigal son at long last returning home. Meanwhile, the crowd continued to cheer. We stood and clapped and yelled and stomped our feet until Ankiel jumped back onto the field to don his cap. And then we went wild all over again.

One of the things that make baseball unique, according to the late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, is that it “frequently escapes from the pattern of sport and assumes the form of a virile ballet. It is purer than any dance because the actions of the players are not governed by music or crowded into a formula by a director.” This was especially apparent two days later, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, when the girls and I watched Ankiel double and blast two more home runs (the first of which is pictured above in a photograph taken by Jennifer, a master with a zoom lens).  Late in the game, Ankiel made a spectacular, diving, over-the-shoulder catch in right field; his body fully extended as he landed on his chest, he lifted his glove hand to show he had caught the ball. It was one of the most astounding outfield plays I have ever seen. The crowd was delirious. It was bedlam all afternoon. Some of the most exciting baseball I have ever experienced.

Over the next month, Ankiel was the talk of baseball. Not since Babe Ruth had anyone ever done what he was now doing. He hit nine home runs in four weeks and led the Cardinals to within two games of first place in what had seemed like a lost season. On September 6th, he hit two home runs and drove in seven against the Pirates. His average had soared to .338.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” wrote Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. “Beware the Ides of March.” On the morning of September 7th, an article in the New York Daily News reported that, three seasons earlier, when he was recovering from surgery and still trying to make a comeback as a pitcher, Ankiel had received a supply of HGH. That he had been prescribed the supplement by a doctor to help him recover from surgery, or that it was not yet a banned substance, was not relevant. The media relentlessly hounded him for days. He went into a severe slump, the Cardinals began to lose, and the season was finished.

Ankiel took his lumps with grace and dignity, returning in 2008 to experience something he may have never experienced before – a regular season as a regular ballplayer. He had holes in his swing and struck out a lot, but he hit 25 home runs and finished the season with a respectable .264 average. His defensive play was at times superb and, in one game against the Rockies, he made two of the most eye popping throws I have ever seen by an outfielder – each one a 300-foot bullet that gunned down speedy runners trying to stretch doubles into triples. He was a special player with dynamic, if unrefined skills.

The next year, though, he collided into the outfield wall and hurt his shoulder. After that, he never really regained his form. He bounced around from one team to another, moving from St. Louis to Kansas City, Atlanta to Washington, Houston to the Mets. He would show occasional flashes of brilliance, but mostly he was a disappointment, a mediocre, underachieving outfielder. He was no longer The Natural; just a struggling veteran ballplayer trying to extend his playing days and make a living.

This spring, Ankiel decided to hang up his spikes for good, quietly retiring from the game with little fanfare. It is the end of one of the most fascinating and dramatic stories in modern baseball history, an epic tale of human triumph and tragedy, euphoria and sadness. It is, at heart, a story of the human condition in all its frailty and vulnerability. Ankiel’s story reminds us that baseball remains mythical and sad all at once; a boy’s game that a very special few play exceptionally well. It is “a game that excites us throughout adulthood,” said former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. It brings “back our own memories that have been washed away with the sweat and tears of summers long gone . . . even as the setting sun pushes the shadows past home plate.”

Perhaps what makes Ankiel special is the simple fact that he is, like the rest of us, human after all; a special talent with extraordinary skills who, in the end, retains only memories of what once was, dreams of what might have been, and the peace of knowing he tried his best and gave his all. His story reminds us why, as David Hinckley said, “little boys always bring gloves to baseball games and old boys never do: Because through baseball, they have learned what they can reasonably expect from life.”

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