Ankiel's woes began in the 2000 playoffs. It was his official Rookie season. The lefty with a nasty hook was racking up Ks like he was pitching to a bunch of twelve year olds. But everything fell apart as he blew up in front of his home crowd. Like scenes out of the movie Major League, Ankiel launched nine wild pitches to the backstop, walking eleven batters, and building a 15.75 ERA in three appearances in the post season. He started two games, one in the NLDS and one in the NLCS at Busch Stadium, and then he came out of the bullpen at Shea Stadium in the final game of the NLCS with hopes to salvage some dignity, only to have the same outcome. And it's not like these pitches just missed, folks. It looked like he was trying to play catch with a fan in the second row.
Thinking the 2000 playoffs might just have been a fluke, Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa put Ankiel back on the mound in 2001. Alas, the young fireballer went 1-2 in six starts with a 7.12 ERA and 25 BBs in 24 innings of work. The wildness did not disappear in the off-season, and an utterly confused Ankiel was demoted to the minors.
Critics and scouts thought the kid was finished. Following the demotion, the legendary and often matter-of-fact talent prophet, C. J. Mohans said, "If the Cardinals wanted to trade him, they would be lucky to get a bullpen car and a bag of balls at this point."
In a matter of a few pitchers, Cardinals ownership watched the value of their investment plummet like they were Enron shareholders. The Cardinals were faced with a huge dilemma. They had this priceless lefty who appeared to be destined for greatness, and now they didn't know what to do with him. Instead of Cy Young awards and World Championships, or even prime trade bait, the Cardinals were stuck with an investment worth no more than… a bullpen car and a bag of balls?
Cards GM Walt Jocketty wasn't convinced it was over. Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan concurred with Jocketty that the upside to working through this setback was far greater than the downside of it all falling apart. Besides, Ankiel was a young pup. He was still in his early twenties, an age when most pitchers still haven't even seen the bigs. And even if it didn't work out, what would the Cards have to lose, right?
So a team was assembled of medical doctors, scientists, psychologists, and even an oracle. Though the oracle was arrested for tax evasion early during the project, she left us with one nugget of insight as the feds dragged her away screaming, "He's not the One. He's not the One." Cardinals management quickly dismissed the oracle's statement and pressed on with their research team. But the team came up empty. They found nothing physically or mentally wrong with Ankiel.
As the years passed, the Ankiel Watch became popular with real-time reports from the minors. Every ball and strike the kid threw in bullpen sessions and games were scrutinized. But after working through the kinks in the minors and getting past an injury setback, Ankiel got the September call-up in 2004.
The Ankiel Watch moved back to St. Louis. The Cards were comfortably in first place in the NL Central and were on pace for the best record in Major League Baseball. With the backing of a lineup that was scoring more runs than most St. Louis softball leagues, Duncan and La Russa felt the situation would be the perfect low-stress setting for Ankiel to make his comeback.
And comeback he did. Determined to prove the oracle wrong and faced to pitch every game in front of the heckling, traveling Rick Ankiel Hard Hat Club who somehow managed to score front row tickets behind home plate to every Cards game in September, the now veteran pitcher remained unfazed. He made five appearances out of the bullpen and finished with a 1-0 record. Aside from a shaky outing in the thin air of Coors Field, Ankiel looked like he was back to his old self. In ten innings of work, he struck out nine and walked only one batter. His performance even spurred talks that he could land on the post-season roster, though management decided to end the season for Ankiel on a high note.
After Ankiel's final outing, where he earned his first victory in over three years, a coy La Russa commented, "It's a good thing we didn't have a use for a bullpen car anymore at Busch. Otherwise, I guess we might have lost Rick in some stupid trade."
Mohans, having heard of La Russa's comment, sarcastically rebutted the next day, "But it's never too late for a team to pick up a bag of balls."
And so the Ankiel Watch moved last month to Jupiter, Florida, home of the Cardinals Spring Training complex. As pitchers and catchers reported to camp, all eyes were once again on Ankiel. Expectations were high as he had intentions to compete for the fifth starter spot. And to no surprise, the fanatical Rick Ankiel Hard Hat Fan Club traveled down to Florida and was back in the stands to catch the action and heckle away.
Much to the enjoyment of the four women and men wearing the annoying white hard hats with red trim, Ankiel fell apart early. He threw a live session where he faced six batters including Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols. He walked five of the six hitters he faced, only throwing three strikes out of 23 pitches. It was a huge setback and left La Russa and Duncan taking the blame for putting Ankiel in a position where he had to battle against the big boys too soon. So Ankiel went back to working on fundamentals, trying to figure out his control problems.
In the meantime, the relentless Walt Jocketty stumbled across an article about a quirky geneticist, Dr. Igor Townhome, who had a reputation for diagnosing unexplained mental phenomena. He immediately flew the good doctor in to do a workup on Ankiel. Within a week, he had an improbable diagnosis: stricabellosis. It's a rare genetic disease that impacts memory, depth perception, and motor skills. There's no telling when it will have an impact in a person's life or how severe that impact might be.
Dr. Townhome had this to say: "Rick's definitely got an extreme case of stricabellosis. It's a rare disease. Only one in about 30 million are born with it, but it is relatively harmless."
Yeah right. Unless you're a pitcher with a million dollar arm and a team with a huge investment in that pitcher.
But Dr. Townhome also had some more information to offer up: "Though there's no treatment for the condition, Rick will live a healthy life. He could go on pitching, but the symptoms can pop up at any time."
When asked about Ankiel's proposed move to the outfield, the doctor said, "He should have little problem playing the outfield. Stricabellosis only affects his ability to perceive stationary objects within about a one hundred-foot range at the same time he's attempting certain motor skills like throwing a baseball to a catcher. So he will have no problems shagging fly balls or hitting the cut-off man with his throws, even if his symptoms come back. At the plate, he should have no problem seeing a pitch and hitting it within his normal capability."
And so Rick Ankiel will attempt a once-unthinkable move to the outfield. But with Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds, and Reggie Sanders in the lineup, Ankiel only has a bench roll, at best, to set his targets on.
When the legendary C. J. Mohans heard the breaking news, he commented: "That's a shame. The kid had good stuff, but I knew something just wasn't right there. They could have gotten some decent talent for him this off-season after his apparent comeback last September. I wish the youngster good luck, but for the Cardinals, after so many years and money invested in the kid, I guess a bullpen car and a bag of balls doesn't look too shabby now."
No, it doesn't.
Pete Khazen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org