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 fa├žade 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.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Searching for Meaning in the Beautiful Tapestry of Faith

There is nothing more efficacious for restoring humility to the human spirit than confronting people who do not share your “self-evident” truths. Because Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are distinct spiritual paths, they bear witness to the complexity and fullness of the Divine reality. . . . to the radical diversity within human consciousness and the rich mosaic of views and practices inspired by the quest for God in human history. - Rabbi David Hartman.
The father of my best childhood friend died last week. To me, he was always Mike’s dad or “Mr. Dennehy.” A kind and quiet man, he greeted me with a friendly nod whenever I saw him, which in my childhood years was quite frequently. I can still picture him admonishing Mike, usually with increasing levels of exasperation, to take out the garbage, cut the grass, or clean up whatever mess Mike had inevitably made, after which he would glance my way and release a slight chuckle. He was a solid and stable presence in Mike’s life and, indirectly, in mine as well, during those difficult and awkward years of adolescence. In later years, long after Mike’s mom had passed away, Mr. Dennehy remained close to Mike and his family, living in the next town over and regularly joining Mike or his sisters for Sunday dinner, an afternoon of sports on television, and other moments of quiet interaction.

The funeral service, at St. David the King Catholic Church in central New Jersey, was an emotional and uplifting hour of music and memories. Similar to other Catholic funerals I have attended, there was a mixture of sadness and celebration to the affair; the emotional pain naturally involved in losing a father, grandfather, and friend, and a celebratory sense that Mr. Dennehy is now at the right hand of God, eternally at peace. It is the comfort of conviction, a faith in the hereafter and eternal salvation.

For many of my Catholic friends, there is comfort to ritual, order, and the certainty of faith. For my good friend Mike, there is peace in the knowledge that his father is resting in heaven, reunited with Mike’s mother, eternally blessed by God’s presence. It is a belief shared by millions of Christians the world over. Indeed, for many people who share a strong sense of faith, whether expressed in the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic traditions, there is a feeling of internal peace and solace in the traditions, beliefs, and connections associated with one’s religious background. I do not always share in the certainty of such convictions, but I admire those who do. And I understand. 

It is times like these when the finite nature of life causes me to reflect on its meaning and whether I have made the most of my limited time on earth. “What is a meaningful life?” asked the Rev. Timothy Capewell, the parish priest who presided over the service for Mr. Dennehy.  It is a difficult but important question, he acknowledged. To his fellow Catholics, he preaches the virtues of faith, hope, and love. A life of faith provides us with a sense of purpose and connection to our Creator. A life of hope gives us the strength to overcome difficult times. A life of love connects us meaningfully and compassionately to our fellow human beings. Mr. Dennehy had certainly met these criteria, and the love he felt during his lifetime for his family will continue on for time eternity.

What is a meaningful life? It is a question I ask often. Although Father Capewell provided a helpful answer, it served also to remind that there are many ways in which people of different faiths, or of no faith, attempt to find meaning and purpose in their lives. I don’t believe there is one correct answer to this or the many other questions we contemplate in our daily struggles to resolve life’s mysteries. Nor do I believe there is one true way when it comes to God and faith. As a Lutheran, I have witnessed many people inspired by the grace of God’s love to help and serve others. In the Jewish tradition of my daughters, a social justice ethic stems from the rabbinic teaching, “Beloved are all human beings created in the image of God.” While other religions may employ different language, practices, and traditions, each at their core teach us to love our neighbor and to reflect God’s light in the world.

I am often disappointed by religion, and in how religious people so frequently misunderstand their own faith and the faith of others. But if we open our hearts to the many voices that make up the human condition, if we listen carefully to the different voices of sincere and compassionate faith, we will find valuable insight in most of them. The mosaic of religious diversity in the world reflects the many ways in which human beings attempt to understand their place in the universe, their relationship to God, and their connection to each other.

In A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999), the late Rabbi and philosopher David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, articulated a vision of religious pluralism that helps shine a light on the human condition. Much like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hartman believed that God is responsible for all of creation and that human beings represent God’s divine presence on earth. It is a monotheistic view of God that is easily accepted by each of the major faith traditions and which “creates the widest range of empathy for human beings.”

Hartman was a modern orthodox rabbi who both loved and challenged traditional Judaism. Raised in a Hasidic family in Bronxville, New York, he attended orthodox schools and received a Jewish education deeply embedded in tradition. “I was a nice religious boy, until I began to read,” he said during an interview with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being in 2011. “And then it all changed.” After reading the philosophical works of William James and John Dewey, his mind opened and his world expanded beyond the narrow confines of Hasidism. A student of history, Hartman could not look at Auschwitz and conclude that God is always present. “I met a finite God,” he said, “a God that is not omnipotent.” He was no longer satisfied with the answers offered by conventional orthodoxy and could not accept a theology that “ignored the lived reality.”

Hartman spoke of the dilemma most people of faith confront at some point in their lives: “God is there, but he is not there. Our wanting him to be there does not make him there. So, we have to come up with new ways of thinking and connecting.” He was haunted by the fragility of life. It is a state of mind with which I continue to struggle, and which easily surfaces when confronted with the reality of death, as occurred last weekend with the funeral of Mr. Dennehy, to whom I have been indirectly connected through my friendship with Mike for nearly four-fifths of my life. Only days ago he was alive. Now he is but a memory and a photograph to those whose lives he touched. As Hartman explained to Tippett, “The fragile quality of life drives me crazy; today you’re here, today you smile, today you make love, and tomorrow you don’t know what’s gonna be.”

For the many of us struggling to make sense of it all, or who face the death of a loved one, a sick child, or tragic loss, there is often the cry, “Where are you God? Where are you hiding?” In his interview with Krista Tippett, Hartman told a Hasidic story of two children playing hide-and-seek. As they were hiding, one child started crying. A rabbi walked by and heard the crying, so he approached the child and asked, “What is the matter?” The child replied, “No one is looking for me.” The rabbi glanced compassionately at the child and said, “Now you know how God feels.”

There is a passage in Psalms, which says, “Joyful are those who seek God, not those who found God.” The search for God is not always clear. Some of us find God in nature, others in acts of kindness or the compassion of strangers. Some find God in the symbols of the world’s great faiths, or in the majesty of music, art, and great literature. The reality of death forces us to consider how we use our limited time on this planet. What have we made of the gifts we have received? “Where is the spirit that awakens you?” asked Hartman. “Where is the spirit that wants you to search, to find out?” The whole truth is not given to one person or confined to one theological premise. 

How does one contend with religion and faith in today’s secular, irreverent, and fast-paced world? How can we make sense of the many contemporary trends in religious life today, from fundamentalism and biblical literalism to new age spirituality and secular humanism, conservative to progressive Christianity, ultra-Orthodox to secular Judaism, liberal to radical Islam, and everything in between? There is much confusion, contradiction and ambiguity when it comes to religion. Certainly all expressions of faith and claims to ultimate truth cannot be right. But does that make all believers wrong? Is it possible to find certain truths in many of the varied expressions of faith throughout the course of human history? Is there more than one way to validly maintain a belief in God or a higher power without resorting to exclusion and intolerance, or rejecting science and human knowledge?

Hartman most often addressed these issues in the context of an internal dispute within Judaism, in conflicts between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) movements, and between congregational and secular Jews. Much of religion, of biblical and historical scholarship, is a question of interpretation. In Judaism, interpretation is not just for the sake of defining or clarifying Jewish law; it is to define the reality of the religious world. It is not enough to say that Judaism is a religion of the law, “because if the law doesn’t point to a God, what does it all mean?” But there is great vitality in disagreements if one is open to other possibilities; “one point of view is not the truth, only of possibilities.”

The search for meaning requires joy, depth, and critical reflection; the ability to change one’s mind and not be afraid of thinking new thoughts. As long as there is mutual respect among people of different faiths, acknowledging the dignity and existence of other faith traditions need not violate our own beliefs, but can instead enhance and expand our awareness of God’s presence in others. “God affirms our humanity in its otherness, in its diversity, in its finitude,” said Hartman.

Coming from the Lutheran tradition, I appreciated the liturgical consistency and personal warmth of the funeral service for Mike’s dad and the words of comfort that helped those present mourn and celebrate his 90 years of life. Over the years, I have attended Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic funerals and have found that each, in their own dignified way, enable family and friends of loved ones to process death in a meaningful and compassionate manner.

We learn from one another when we are open to different expressions of faith and styles of worship, to sharing our varied understandings of humanity’s relationship to God. All of us – people of different faiths, those with no faith, and everyone in between – inhabit a common world crying for mutual respect and understanding. “The Jew, the Christian, the Muslim are all one, insofar as they are creatures of God,” wrote Hartman. “One thus acknowledges the sacredness of life common to all human beings irrespective of their ways of life and modes of worship.” This gives me hope.