September 23, 2021

Rick Ankiel, The Phenomenon, A Review

May 15, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

Rick Ankiel was a rocket streaking through the St. Louis Cardinals minor league affiliates as an 18- and 19-year old. His first season, 1998, he climbed to High-A Prince William after launching from Low-A Peoria. He compiled a 2.63 ERA over 161 innings and notched 222 strikeouts against 50 walks that season. His ascent was just as meteoric in his second minor league season and he made it to St. Louis briefly having traversed their entire system in less than two full seasons.

As a die-hard Cardinal fan with forty years of listening to KMOX under my belt, I remember it all. I worked for the Feds in DC and was liaison officer for our St. Louis affiliate and spent many hours talking to my colleagues there about the new, left-handed Bob Gibson who would bring all that old Cardinal magic back again. Like Gibson, he never disappointed. All of the promises came true and with authority.

The greatest wonder of it was the rookie season in 2000 when he started 30 games and had a 3.50 ERA during a season when the league average was 4.63. Along side Daryl Kile, he helped the Cards to win 95 games and head into the playoffs with as much momentum as anyone. But the rather formidable St. Louis rotation that had included Andy Benes, Pat Hentgen and Garrett Stephenson, was banged up and Tony LaRussa had few options except to start Ankiel in Game One against the Braves. And that was that. The rocket exploded and the fragments scattered sadly over the ensuing four seasons.

Were the expectations unfair? Was it too much too early? Did his father’s adverse influence on his early years finally catch up to the young man? Ankiel, in his new memoir of his playing days, says it was just one of those things. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It is a remarkable book and he is a remarkable man for having fought his way back and never giving anyone except himself the weight to bear.

No one needs my review to add to the plaudits the book has justly earned. It has been reviewed on NPR, in the Atlantic Magazine–where I first saw it, and all over the internet. But I am going to do it anyway, just like Ankiel kept coming back to baseball after so much hurt. I need to do it.

Biographies, memoirs and autobiographies seldom capture reality. Our memories bring back only the outlines of the pictures we once saw and we fill in the rest with what we want to remember. This book is different and it deserves all of the attention it has gotten. Ankiel and Tim Brown have captured about as much of the real world of Rick Ankiel as we could probably stand.  The narrative about the years after, “the pitch” color in all that is needed about his descent into alcohol and drugs, depression and anxiety. It is served in tablespoons rather than teaspoons and you walk away from the book thinking you have had as much as you could possibly have wanted or needed.

Then there is the redemption phase and it is just as good. Only Babe Ruth had serious success as both a pitcher and a hitter. Ankiel’s talents do not rise to that level, but it is such a rare ability that makes it as both a hitter and pitcher in Major League Baseball. Ankiel hit 32 home runs at Triple-A Memphis for the Cardinals and then the next year was a well above average right-fielder with 25 home runs and a .264/.337/.506 slash line in right field. And lord could he throw to third base.

Ankiel would never again come close to the numbers he put up in 2008 with St. Louis. In the five additional years he spent as an MLB outfielder his batting average fell off precipitously and he became a fourth outfielder who could hit with occasional power. But I spent two seasons, 2011-2012 hoping he might find it again. I remember the Nationals hiring Rick Eckstein, the hitting coach who had helped Ankiel find his batting touch in Memphis. He was brought in ostensibly to help Rick Ankiel find himself again, though he was 31 when he joined the Washington Nationals in 2011. There was no magic in Eckstein’s wand, but Ankiel was a nice fit with the team anyway. In the Washington clubhouse, he became an important sounding board for young players like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Because of his influence on young players, the Washington Nationals hired Ankiel in 2015 as a “Life Skills Coordinator.” He learned that job from the shrink that Scott Boras–Ankiel’s agent–hired for him after “the pitch” undid “the arm.” Harvey Dorfman counseled Ankiel through the worst of it and late night phone calls that ended with, “It’s not your fault and “You’re going to be okay, became more than a lifeline tossed to a drowning man. Dorfman became the most essential human connection Ankiel had during a public trial few would want to or probably could endure. “Ank” admits that Dorfman became the father he wished he had. It may be the most compelling story in the book. There is no shortage of emotional connection in the Ankiel book.

The book has gotten almost as much air time as the old rocket did. It is a great read and it is good to see that the magic is back in Ankiel’s life. He deserves it as surely as the fans deserve a great baseball season after a plethora of fine baseball books have opened it.


One Response to “Rick Ankiel, The Phenomenon, A Review”
  1. Jason Love says:

    I am not a Cardinals fan but I picked up this book after reading the reviews. It is a great read. His life is both fascinating and heartbreaking. I give him credit for coming forward and telling his story. Ankiel seems to have finally found some comfort in his life.

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