| Peter Gammons' story on Rick Ankiel
||[Aug. 21st, 2007|11:37 am]
It doesn't matter if he ends up closer to Willie Smith than either Babe Ruth or Smokey Joe Wood. He doesn't worry about people he's never heard of or ghosts of baseball past that he can't fathom. "I only look forward," says Rick Ankiel. "I am who I am."
We have no way of predicting what Ankiel will become, not after fewer career plate appearances than 20 year olds in the South Atlantic League, or, through Monday, 31 career major league at-bats. Tony La Russa thinks he will eventually hit .275 to .300 with 35 to 40-something home runs, and Lou Piniella says "anyone with bat speed that serious can be really special."
It does no good to look too far forward, or for him to go back. What is important is that Rick Ankiel, at 27 years old, is doing something most everyone else in the game deems "unimaginable." Derek Lowe said it. So did Albert Pujols. "If someone had told me this story would happen," says Kerry Wood, "I'd laugh at them."
Ankiel hit two home runs and made a saving catch in one game, and he knew that he'd see video of his 2000 postseason implosion. When his remarkable story hit The Show, he wasn't surprised that his father's demons were dragged out for one more lap. "I expect it by now," he says. "I don't get upset by that stuff. It's the past. I only look forward."
What this man has endured and overcome is victory over a nightmare that lies somewhere deep within the brain of everyone who pitches in the big leagues. It isn't a quick fast-forward from the 2000 playoffs to four home runs in his first 31 at-bats as a Cardinal outfielder. It's been seven years of trips to the back fields of the Jupiter complex, elbow and shoulder operations.
We're not talking about just some guy. Ankiel was, arguably, among the handful of best young pitchers of this generation. In the summer in which he turned 21, he went 11-7 in 175 innings, allowed 137 hits and struck out 194 batters. Then came the Camus moments (11 walks, nine wild pitches, four innings) in the playoffs.
I remember that March day in 2005, when I was walking around the Cardinals' complex and spotted Ankiel down on a lower field, a solitary player with three coaches. I knew it had come back, as the smartest of sports psychologists tells you it usually does. I took off across the complex, hoping he didn't see me and think I was watching his misery, because he deserved better.
That afternoon, Ankiel told La Russa and Walt Jocketty that was it. He was done pitching. Jocketty, ever supportive, told him to think about becoming an outfielder. Ankiel went home, plopped down, and now says he "felt as if the weight of the world were off [his] shoulders."
The next day, he reported to the Jupiter complex as an outfielder -- beginning the next step program. He played at Springfield and Quad Cities. Had 321 at-bats and hit 21 homers.
"He could always hit," says John DiPuglia, the scout who signed him. "We took him to Busch Stadium, and he hits one ball after another into the upper deck."
Former All-Star reliever and Cardinals roving pitching coach Bill Campbell remembers throwing to Ankiel on a pitching rehab. "I was amazed at where he hit balls," says Campbell.
Asked if he wish he'd started out in professional baseball as an outfielder, Ankiel says, "That's not really fair. The Cardinals signed me as a pitcher."
Does he ever wish he could roll back his life on videotape and go back on the mound in the 2000 playoffs?
"No," says Ankiel. "I don't go back."
Fast-forward to February, 2006. Ankiel was taking batting practice in Jupiter. He came out of the cage and said, "This is the happiest I've felt in professional baseball."
Two days later, in the Cardinals' first intrasquad game, Ankiel tore up his knee, and ended up being out for the season.
"Sure," he says, "there was a stretch where I thought it wasn't meant to be. But I wanted to do the rehab and see where I was. As it turned out, it was something of a blessing. I needed to get bigger and stronger asnd go from a pitcher's body to a player's body to hold up for the season. So I used that as a motivating factor."
He was asked if he felt any self-pity. "No," Ankiel replied. "I had a lot of good fortune. I know a lot of people who weren't lucky like me."
This is not about luck. It's about genes and character. He went to Triple-A Memphis this spring at 27 and led the Pacific Coast League in homers with 32 when he was recalled. His 389 at-bats were a career high, and while his 25-to-90 walk-to-strikeout ratio indicated how much he has to learn, he was still having a monster home run season.
"Every day, I learn something about seeing pitches and hitting,"Ankiel says. "I understand I have a lot to learn, but I can only learn from at-bats and seeing balls come out of pitchers' hands."
Few of us can comprehend the complex public humiliation that Ankiel experienced. Few, if any, Hall of Fame players could have put it all aside and do what Ankiel has done to get back in such a short time by our clocks that seem like generations to him.
Tip your hat to Rick's mother, to his wife Lory, to those who stood beside him. In all this, his privacy was violated, his natural athleticism turned inward. His life was Camus' "The Stranger," and the brilliant writer summed up Ankiel's story: "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lies an invincible summer."
Rick Ankiel's eventual place among the baseball's immortals doesn't matter now. What he has done matters. It's an accomplishment that only the warped can minimize. Right now, I don't care if he is Babe Ruth or Clint Hartung. What I do care about is the fact that this man overcame demons and dreams and pain few have ever experienced.
Every time I look at Rick Ankiel, I think He is a better man than me.