On March 9, 2005, Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel announced that his days on the bump were over. However, his days on the diamond were far from it, as the former Rookie of The Year candidate told the media that he would be switching to the outfield.
The switch was not an easy one. It was coming after a well-documented meltdown that came at the end of his rookie campaign. He had posted an 11-7 record during the regular season, and hopes were high he could pitch well in the playoffs. That hope disappeared fast. The 20-year-old lost his control in what would be considered an epic proportion. It began with a Game 1 start against the Braves in the NLDS. He looked like he was sailing until the third when he threw five wild pitches in a single frame. He was removed from the game with two outs, and before the inning was over there were four runs on the board, It was the first time since 1890 a pitcher had thrown five wild pitches in an inning. Despite those facts the Birds rallied to win the game 7-5, and the hurler looked to bounce back in Game 2 of the NLCS. However, he could not get out of the first inning of that contest, as the ball sailed past Eli Marrero five times before he was sent to the showers. Luckily for him only two of those were considered wild pitches. Otherwise, he would have eclipsed the mark two games in a row. Nobody knew why this happened to him, He appeared to be okay physically. He just lost it. The control that led to 11 wins was gone.
The following season the control issues persisted, which led to the minor leagues. In the years that followed he struggled with control, and injuries as well. With that said, he did work his way back up to the major league level in 2004, and it looked like he had harnessed his control. He then pitched successfully in Puerto Rico during the offseason, which made the announcement that he wanted to play in the outfield a bit surprising. He had to work his way through Single and Double A affiliates, before getting an invite to Spring Training in 2006, and even then he suffered a seasoning ending injury before the calender turned to April. However, there was no giving up. He worked his way back from the injury, then moved up to the Triple A affiliate in Memphis in 2007. Cracking the Cardinals roster after a World Series run in 2006 would be a tough one, but he would get the call. It just took awhile.
That call came in August. Scott Spezio had ran into personal issues, which led to an unexpected opportunity for Ankiel. All of the work and perseverance had paid off. The date was of his triumphant return was August 9th. The Birds were hosting the Padres. When Ankiel arrived at the ballpark he found that he was penciled in at number two, and would be playing right field. It was going to be a special one from beginning to end. The crowd of more than 40,000 gave him a standing ovation before he even swung the stick in the first. When he did swing it the ball landed in the glove of the opposition. He followed that up with a strikeout in the third, and another strikeout in the fifth. The tide shifted in the seventh, and it shifted in a big way, as he came to the plate with two on and two out, and the Cards hanging on to a 2-0 lead. He then worked the count to 2-1 before taking a Doug Brocail pitch deep to right. The three-run shot led to a curtain call for the pitcher turned outfielder, and a 5-0 win on what proved to be a very memorable night in the life of Rick Ankiel and in Cardinal Nation as well.
Rick hit a total of 11 home runs in just 47 game in 2007, then blasted a career high in 2008 with 25, before adding 11 more to his Cardinals totals by putting 11 more in the seats in 2009. All the while he was flashing the leather in the outfield, as he made spectacular plays with his glove and arm. That was the last season he spent with two birds on a bat across his chest. He would go onto play for the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros, and Mets before hanging up the cleats at the end of the 2014 season. After retiring he took a job with the Washington Nationals to help mentor their young prospects as they try to make their way through the world of professional baseball.
The story of Rick Ankiel is one to be admired. He was knocked down time and time again, and he picked himself up time and time again. Sometimes we as fans take players for granted in many ways. They are often looked at as larger than life figures, and we often forget they have trials and tribulations just like you and me, It is safe to say Ankiel faced his fair share of personal struggle along with the physical struggles that may have affected him when he was trying to make his way. Whether you are an athlete, or an everyday Joe like you and me, one of the keys to life is how we face those trials. Do we give up? Or do we pick ourselves up and get back to work? We all know the answer, and so did Rick.
Don't ever give up.
Check Ankiel's stats out here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/ankieri01.shtml
I dedicate this blog to the memory of my friend and brother James Dennis Hanlon II. I have not written much since he passed away, and by doing so I am picking myself up and getting back to work. Life will knock us down. We must get back up. No matter what. We must get back up.