Few baseball players are attuned to the ups and downs of the game as Rick Ankiel. He was cut by the worst team in baseball, picked up by another team, made big plays in the field for less money than he was getting (I think) and that was just in the past week.
Ankiel is 33 in human years, but about 133 in baseball years. Every time it seems he is about to be exiled from the island for good, he swims to safety, regroups and survives. Don’t play musical chairs with this guy-he’ll whip you every time.
Once upon a time Ankiel was a phenom pitcher. His senior year in high school he finished 11-1 with an 0.47 earned run average. That sounds as if someone was swinging with his eyes closed and accidently put good enough wood on the ball to power it out of the park. Which may be true since Ankiel struck out 162 batters in 74 innings.
He reached the majors for the first time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999 after capturing all sorts of honors in the minors. He was barely past 20 for his Major League debut. Only a year later, however, Ankiel’s career began to go haywire. Pitching in the National League Division Series in a game that the Cardinals won, Ankiel threw five wild pitches in the third inning.
No one realized at the time that he wasn’t simply succumbing to nerves for that occasion or that we would never really see the promising Ankiel in tip-top form again. Remarkably, for no apparent reason, Ankiel lost his ability to throw strikes. He was so wild that umpires and bat boys alike had to wear armor for their own safety.
In almost no time Ankiel’s pitching career was ruined. Baseball fans shook their heads wondering what had happened to the young southpaw flame thrower, but they also believed they would never see him in uniform again by the end of the 2004 season.
Except in a feel-good, beat-the-odds story, Ankiel worked his way back to the majors as an outfielder by 2007 and batted .285. Between that year and this, Ankiel suited up for the Cardinals, the Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves, and Washington Nationals. He was a serviceable backup, but no star. Ankiel has never been as good as a position player as he projected to be as a pitcher. But he did maintain a job in the big leagues, an achievement that exceeded the grasp of 99.9 percent of baseball hopefuls.
When the Astros dumped Ankiel recently, after he appeared in 25 games in 2013, he was batting .194. If the Astros don’t want you, then your next stop is usually going to be retirement, a stint in some independent league, or a shot at a minor-league contract.
Instead, Ankiel was fortunate and was offered a deal from the Mets. The Mets had some holes they needed filling that neither concrete nor sand could fill in. So they took a shot with Ankiel. The same day he signed a contract he was starting in the outfield. Four games into his Mets career Ankiel is batting .250 and he helped win a game with a home run.
How long can Ankiel’s living on the edge last? Not much longer, one would guess. But you’ve got to give the guy props. He was doomed and adapted. He was locked out of his sport and he found a creative way back in. Yeah, maybe when he is in his 60s he will still have those might-have-been moments of regret about his pitching career. But Rick Ankiel can always be proud of the way he turned the bad hand dealt him in his favor.