Cardinals fans know the story and know it well. It’s the Cinderella story of one-time pitching phenom turned center fielder and hitting phenom Rick Ankiel. Eleven years ago the 21 year old rookie left hander came to the Major Leagues and won 11 games as a starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, helping the team into the playoffs. But the pressure of October baseball, or perhaps being the Game 1 starter, proved to be too much to handle as he sailed wild pitch after wild pitch to the backstop. He was sent back to the minor leagues to try and work out his problems in hopes that he could one day return to the stellar form of an ace in the making.
Now when a young pitcher is trying to get signed, he typically throws a few sessions for management to show them what he’s got. But after Ankiel showcased his talents from the mound – he refused to let the decision makers leave until they also watched him hit. Wait – that’s right. He made them watch him – a pitching prospect – hit. This kid knew he could hit and wanted to make sure they knew it, too.
After spending several years in the minors, unsuccessfully able to recover from his pitching meltdown, he decided to give up. He made a decision to walk away from what he thought was his best God-given talent – the ability to pitch a breaking ball that drops off a shelf and win games for his team by dominating from the mound. Though he was done with pitching, he wasn’t done with baseball. He spent 2-1/2 more years in the minors – this time working on his hitting and fielding skills – so he could try to make it back to the show as an outfielder. Throughout all of this – he remained in the Cardinals organization, a club that refused to give up on him. Eventually he did make it back, and he even hit a home run in his Major League Re-debut in front of a packed Busch Stadium. I was there, and it truly was a touching moment. (Even Tony LaRussa, who is rarely seen smiling, was grinning ear to ear as Ankiel made his trot around the bases.)
Rick is now a member of the Washington Nationals, who are currently in town to play the Cardinals. To show his deep appreciation for the fans of St. Louis and how much their willingness to stand by him meant as he worked his way back, he took out a half page add in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
The quote reads:
“Many Thanks to Cardinals’ fans and the City of St. Louis for your support and cheers over the years. It was a privilege and an honor.”
Ankiel may not wear a Cardinal uniform anymore and he may sit in the 3rd base dugout now when he plays at Busch Stadium, but I have a feeling that in reference to his baseball career – he considers St. Louis to be his home. We raised him, broke him down and built him back up, all the while refusing to give up on him, just as he refused to give up on baseball.
Rick – I think I speak for Cardinal fans everywhere when I say congratulations and good luck to you – even when your playing against us.