Few names in St. Louis Cardinals history elicit a wider range of emotions and opinions than that of Rick Ankiel. To be fair, few players in Major League Baseball history have had the kind of career Ankiel has had.
It seems impossible that Ankiel will only turn 32 this July. He made his Major League debut back in 1999…less than a week after the Cards inked a new draft pick named Albert Pujols to his first professional deal. Ankiel the pitcher was young, left-handed, and threw hard. On a pitching staff decimated by injuries, Ankiel saw action in nine games (five starts), throwing 33 innings with an eye-popping 10.6 K/9. His potential was intoxicating.
Ankiel’s 2000 regular season proved to be the coming out party Cardinals fans were hoping for. He made 30 starts, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA (tops in the Cards’ rotation) and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings. Ankiel even batted .250 with 2 home runs to boot. He finished second to Rafael Furcal for NL Rookie of the Year and helped his team win the division title. It really was a storybook year.
Unfortunately, the final chapter was a disaster. Again decimated by injuries, the Cards’ rotation was thin going into the 2000 Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Tony LaRussa decided to pitch rookie Ankiel in Game 1 and ace Daryl Kile in Game 2. It was a move LaRussa would ultimately regret. After two easy innings, Ankiel spiraled into one of the most epic meltdowns in baseball history in the third inning of Game 1. He allowed four runs on two hits, four walks, and five wild pitches…and we’re not talking overthrown offspeed pitches that hit the dirt and skip by the catcher; these were back-to-the-screen, out-of-this-world wild pitches. Lost the ability to pitch wild pitches. The Cardinals eventually on the game and Ankiel laughed his performance off afterward, but the event was but a precursor of what was to come for the 20 year old. The Cards swept the Braves in that series, and faced the New York Mets in the NLCS. Ankiel started Game 2, but this time couldn’t even make it through the first inning. Again, pitches were thrown to the backstop. Ankiel’s control was gone. He would appear in relief later in the series, throwing wild pitches and walking batters again. The Cards would lose the series to the Mets, but they also lost their phenom pitcher who, just a couple of weeks earlier, looked like the best young hurler in the game.
Ankiel’s control problems followed him into the 2001 season, eventually earning him a demotion to AAA. It was the first step of what would become a long descent to rookie-league ball. After somewhat of a bounceback by the end of 2001, Ankiel would miss all of 2002 due to injury and eventually would have Tommy John surgery in 2003. In 2004 he would return to the Cardinals, pitching in five games in relief but showing none of the control issues that derailed him earlier in the decade.
It wouldn’t be long before his demons returned, though, and Ankiel announced in 2005 that he was giving up pitching to become an outfielder. After all the promise, disappointment, speculation, hope, and confusion, Ankiel’s career as a pitcher was apparently over.
Ankiel had to again visit the lowest levels of the minor leagues, but he would not be deterred. He battled injury and learned familiarity with a new role and made it back to the St. Louis Cardinals, this time as an outfielder, in 2007. Cardinal fans delivered standing ovations for Ankiel in his first game back; he thanked them by hitting a home run. A couple days later, Ankiel hit two home runs in a game (aside: I happened to be in the right field bleachers, in the first row overlooking the bullpen, that day…the homers were close enough that I could pick myself out in the TV replays I saw later that night). He hit .285 in 2007 and mashied 25 home runs in 2008. As an outfielder, the arm that was responsible for ridiculous curveballs and mid-90s heat as a pitcher proved to be an asset at gunning down runners trying to take an extra base. Ankiel had good speed and good instincts. He made catches the team hadn’t seen since Jim Edmonds’ heyday, even crashing head-first into the wall on one play and having to be carted off on a stretcher.
Perhaps it was his late start, or perhaps it was beginner’s luck run out…but Ankiel would regress to become an average hitter who struck out too much. The Cardinals had good players like Colby Rasmus pushing toward the big leagues, and 2009 was Ankiel’s last year with the Cards. His career with the Redbirds ended as a cruel irony in the ’09 Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers: in Game 2, Ankiel—mainly known for his defense by that point—sat on the bench and watched while Matt Holliday muffed the line drive that ultimately cost the Cards the game, and Ankiel’s only two at bats in the series both resulted in strikeouts—what he was most known for as a pitcher.
Since leaving the Cardinals, Ankiel signed a one year deal with the Kansas City Royals in 2010, eventually got traded to the Braves mid-season, and signed a one year deal for 2011 with the Washington Nationals. He still has some pop, but he still strikes out too much. His defense is above average, however, and he is a threat to throw runners out at any base from anywhere in the outfield. Ankiel will never be an elite position player, and he may not have much of a career as a starter if he cannot learn better plate discipline. But he is one of those natural athletes who can meet any challenge put before him. Every once in a while, the idea of Ankiel taking the mound again one day is floated by fans or writers, and though the answers given by his managers vary, Ankiel has never publicly said he’d like to try pitching again.
Ankiel is the ultimate enigma. How he lost his pitching control remains a mystery to this day. How he could come back years later and have a successful run as an outfielder is almost as impressive as his rookie campaign. It’s doubtless Cardinal fans would love seeing Ankiel succeed. As a visiting player, he will probably always get just a little more applause at Busch Stadium than his teammates. But no matter what he does, Ankiel will always be most remembered as the flame-throwing southpaw pitcher with the ankle-breaking curve…and what might have been.