Ankiel, Steve Blass Disease and What's Next?

Brian Walton revisits Rick Ankiel, Steve Blass, Dr. Richard Crowley and more for what is guaranteed not to be the final time.

Baseball fans who are at least forty years old may recall the basics of the Steve Blass case. Blass was a very, very good pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970's who, because of mental hurdles, lost his ability to throw strikes.

Other cases that have popped up in the game since were much less celebrated. Among the players in that group include Mackey Sasser, Mark Wohlers, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, all of whom were afflicted at various levels of what commonly came to be known as "Steve Blass Disease".

Of course, this all again came to light due to the unfortunate case of one Richard Alexander Ankiel, who at 25 years of age, has already endured five years of physical and mental rehabilitation, only to again relapse this spring. Ankiel's decision last week to cut his losses, ending his career as a pitcher and trying instead to make his way as an outfielder, is admirable. Yet, while not unprecedented, his odds of success are long.

Ankiel, a client of superagent Scott Boras, has been under the care of famous sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman for a number of years. Many others in the mental health field have also contacted Ankiel's employer, the St. Louis Cardinals, over the past years and again recently, expressing desires to get a shot at fixing what ails young Rick. But, each has been turned away.

A top Cardinals executive made it clear to me this week that as far as the team is concerned, Ankiel's career as a pitcher is over and will not be revisited, even if Sigmund Freud rises from the dead and offers his service gratis. (OK, I added that last part myself.)

Still, one can't help but wonder if a second opinion wouldn't have helped Ankiel. Surely, if you or I weren't getting effective medical care from our primary care physician or specialist, we'd seek out that second opinion – and maybe even a third.

One such interested mental health professional, very much alive and active, is Dr. Richard Crowley ( Among Crowley's claims to fame is his "cure" of the aforementioned Mr. Blass, now a broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While I know Crowley personally and can attest that his approach has indeed helped many an amateur and professional athlete, his claim of curing Blass is somewhat debatable. By the time the two hooked up, Blass was too old to return to active major league competition. As Ankiel has demonstrated, rediscovering success in the minor leagues or winter ball is different than performing in front of 50,000 screaming Philadelphia fans (or St. Louis ones, for that matter).

Crowley would relish his shot, both for Ankiel's sake and to provide hope for others similarly afflicted. Says Crowley, "It is a shame and a tragedy that Ankiel not only is not pitching any longer but that he hasn't been pitching for over four years. It sends out a message of fear to other players, many who worry that they may get that "something" Ankiel got. However, the news is only reporting one side of the equation and not that there most definitely is a cure."

A Cardinals insider who demanded anonymity second-guesses the team's (and implicitly Boras'/Dorfman's) handling of Ankiel. This person questions the team's "tough love" approach with Rick, and feels they should have tried harder to empathize and do more to help. Others assert that the Cardinals have bent over backward to be accommodating over the years. Come to think of it, what is there about Ankiel that couldn't be second-guessed by someone?

Moving on to Ankiel's attempt to become an outfielder, as he seemingly has, we must understand that he is still a babe. When I last saw Ankiel on Monday, he was spending a portion of the morning in a one-on-one session with Cardinals' coach Dave McKay trying to learn how to break on fly balls. Ankiel appeared in the afternoon game as a pinch-hitter that day and ground into a fielders' choice.

Just ask Michael Jordan if you have any doubts about the challenges a top athlete faces in trying to become a major league-caliber outfielder. MJ may have been the greatest hoopster in the history of this planet (or the universe, if you believe the movie "Space Jam"), but the best Jordan could accomplish in baseball was playing the role of a below-average Double-A flycatcher. For Ankiel to do better, it will take time and effort, and will not come without the disappointment at times that he knows all too well already.

For Ankiel to get the experience he needs in the minors as an outfielder, he must first clear waivers because he is out of minor league options. Indications are that the Cardinals would like to send Ankiel to Single-A to begin his outfield career. But, before that can occur, every other team in the majors would have to pass on a chance to claim him. Any claiming team must also assume Ankiel's Cardinals contract. Therein may be the rub.

While some number of other teams will likely take a chance on Ankiel if waived, they would only do so under the premise they could again return him to the point where he was in 2000, when he won 11 games for the Cardinals. As noted, any team that claims Ankiel would have to assume his current contractual obligation, which is currently a one-year, $400,000 contract. That represents a pretty low entry price. Worst case, the new team could just waive Ankiel again if he doesn't pan out. What's a couple hundred thou in comparison to a hundred-million dollar payroll? Answer: 2/10 of 1%.

Believe it or not, at least on the surface, Boras has come to the aid of the Cardinals, reaffirming that Ankiel's days as a pitcher are over. But, every single person outside the Cardinals front office to whom I've spoken on the subject, most recently Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson and ESPN broadcaster Gary Thorne, would definitely claim Ankiel if given the chance. I would, too.

The reason why is simple. Ankiel is a 25-year-old lefty with an electric curve who reminded some of a young Sandy Koufax. Who wouldn't be willing to take a chance to get that? In fact, while there has been no public interest stated by other teams, the name Leo Mazzone keeps coming up again and again in conversations among baseball insiders, in the context, "I'd love to see what Leo could do with Ankiel…"

Yet, possible options seem to exist for the Cardinals to hold onto Ankiel. They could try to load Ankiel down with an albatross of a contract, perhaps with an agreement on the side with Boras that the team would not have to pay a majority of the money, likely put out in future years. It would offer more protection for the Cardinals after sticking with Ankiel for so many years, while upping the ante considerably for any team who is considering taking him.

Others have suggested that the Cardinals might ask the commissioner's office for a special deferment for Ankiel or St. Louis could request that all other teams let him pass through waivers. But, the former is precedent-setting and therefore, not likely forthcoming from the regime of "Bud Lite", while the latter is risky for the Cardinals if some "bad" general manager was to break the gentlemen's agreement.

The next chapter of this drama will play out by at the end of the month, when the Cardinals will be required to trim their roster to 25 players. One thing for sure is that we haven't heard the last of Rick Ankiel and his nasty case of Steve Blass Disease.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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