Matt Holliday, one of the best, most consistent hitters in baseball and a sleeper Hall of Fame candidate, once talked about how mortal he was, and how depressing it could be. Specifically, he was describing his signature left leg kick, the little lift he makes with every swing. Asked why he did that, he pointed out Albert Pujols, the man hitting ahead of him in the Cardinals lineup. "I do it because I'm a normal human being, and I need to do that to generate power in my swing," Holliday said. "I'm not Albert. I'm not immortal. I'm just a person."
When you really break it down, what we are most impressed by in our baseball players is immortality. We want to see the impossible. We want to see someone do something no one else can do. One of baseball's greatest attributes is its normality: Regular people can play it, yet even the best of the best constantly fail. All players are different, yet are mostly the same. You can be Matt Holliday, a truly great baseball player, and still just be a workaday fella scrapping for every edge you can get. It makes you appreciate the truly transcendent. It makes those blessed by the gods feel that much more special.
Of all my years watching baseball, I never felt more acutely that some people were just touched, struck by Zeus' thunderbolt, than when I first watched Rick Ankiel pitch. It was Aug. 29, 1999. The Cardinals were playing the Atlanta Braves at the old Busch Stadium, during a lost season. He had just turned 20 years old a month earlier, and he was throwing 108 pitches in just the second start of his career. He didn't put up a great line -- 6 IP, 2 ER, 3 K, 5 BB in a 4-3 loss -- but it was obvious there was no one like him. Ankiel basically had three pitches -- he'd only pitched a year-and-a-half in the minors, barely enough time to develop more than that -- but they were devastating: They were pitches that no one else had. The first was a fastball that touched 98; the second was a deadball sinker that appeared to weigh 50 pounds; the third, and most jaw-dropping, was a wild Bugs Bunny curveball that appeared to be operated by remote control. You can see all three on display just a few months before that game, at the All-Star Futures Game at Fenway Park, in July 1999.
Within the first two minutes of that video, the broadcasters compare Ankiel to Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax. That was how Ankiel made you feel. It made you feel like you were watching history -- genius. This was a man who was about to tell a story.
It made you nervous to watch him, even back then, even before everything turned, just because so much brilliance was packed into such a fragile shell. Ankiel vibrated with talent, and you worried he was a live wire with too much current flowing through it. His first full season in 2000, in which he threw 175 innings and finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting, was thrilling to watch but constantly terrifying; it was too much talent for one kid to have, particularly one who was quiet, soft-spoken and was in the midst of off-field troubles with his drug-dealing father. Tony LaRussa, who took on Ankiel as his special project, was reassuring. "I worry less about him. He's a very special, young talent. I worry less about him than others," LaRussa said in 2000. "Mostly he reassured me that he'd be all right. He's got less problems than others. He's got what it takes."
Then it all exploded. It exploded in the worst place, too, in the 2000 postseason. The Cardinals had a 6-0 lead against the Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS. Then this happened. It's still gruesome to look at.
It would happen again less than a week later, against the Mets, in the NLCS. (Twice) He would end up with nine wild pitches in four innings that postseason. A friend was at Busch Stadium during that first Mets NLCS game and described the sound the stadium made with each wild pitch as being mildly analogous to watching a puppy being hit in the face with a mallet. Each one was misery: By the end, everyone wanted to hide under their seat. This was not something that had happened during the regular season, and it's not something anyone could have predicted. It also didn't help that Ankiel had come to rely on then-catcher Mike Matheny, who had injured himself before the postseason; pitching to Carlos Hernandez was clearly uncomfortable. But that didn't explain this. Cardinals fans still felt, as shocking as it was, that it all made sense. You had always felt like it all might crumble.
Ankiel said the right things, but it was obvious he was broken. He had the same problem at the beginning of the 2001 season and, most depressingly, it didn't go away when he tried to fix it in the minors.
The Cardinals, just trying to salvage something of his self-esteem, sent him down to Rookie ball, where he was outstanding (while still averaging a wild pitch a game), not just as a pitcher but as a hitter, hitting 10 homers in 105 at-bats. But that was all just to get his head right again. By the end of the year, he settled down, and you thought all would be well. Then he was attacked by a more conventional enemy: Injuries. Just when he was putting himself back together, a left elbow sprain knocked out his 2002 season and Tommy John surgery took care of 2003. Ankiel was now 24 years old, and his career felt over.
Then, in 2004, he slowly crawled back. He pitched for three different Cardinals minor league teams that year, 23 2/3 innings, 23 strikeouts, two walks, zero wild pitches. Late in September, with one of the best Cardinals teams of all-time destroying the National League, the Cardinals called him up. On Sept. 19, 2004, he pitched at Busch Stadium for the first time since 2001. He pitched two innings. He struck out four. And he received the biggest ovation of anyone on that 105-game-winning team all season. He had returned. And he was well.
And then, at the beginning of 2005 … the unkindest cut of all. Preparing to join the rotation in spring training, all of a sudden, Ankiel's pitches started floating again. (He called it "feathering.") The reports were quiet at first, hushed … this was before Twitter would have told us everything the second it happened. Then, three days later, Ankiel announced: He was done as a pitcher. He wanted to be a hitter now. It made no sense: A few homers in Rookie ball does not a hitting prospect make. The Cardinals, justifiably, were accused of indulging a fantasy, perhaps out of their own guilt. (LaRussa, with co-author Buzz Bissinger, wrote in Three Days in August that Ankiel's plight was his largest regret as a manager.) Ankiel went from prodigy to tragedy to sad curio. It was over. Again.
In 2006, Ankiel was invited to spring training as an outfielder and twisted his left knee running a drill. He would have surgery and miss the whole season because of course that's what happened. It was over. Again.
Then in 2007 something strange started occurring in Triple A Memphis: Ankiel started hitting homers. Like, a ton of them: He hit 32 in 389 at bats. His plate discipline, as you might expect from essentially an amateur hitter, was horrible; he struck out 90 times with just 25 walks. But the power was undeniable, as was, surprisingly, the defense; he had developed into a rangy, fast center fielder. With the best arm you'd ever see. The Cardinals, after a stunning 2006 championship, were sleepwalking through a transitional year, so in August, on a whim, they called him up. Ankiel was now 28 years old. He popped out his first time to a massive standing ovation. He struck out his second and third times. And then this happened.
That bizarre, disorienting image you saw there was Tony LaRussa smiling, something I saw him do four times in the dugout over 15 years of managing St. Louis. (The others: David Freese's World Series Game Six triple, and the two outs to clinch titles.) It felt like the culmination of Ankiel's whole journey, all the pain, all the frustration, all the setbacks, coming to a head. This was the breakthrough moment, that made it all worthwhile. He would blitz through the league over the next month, hitting nine homers and leading the Cardinals to within two games of first place in a lost season. On September 6, he would hit two homers and drive in seven against Pittsburgh. He was hitting .338. People made MVP arguments.
But the story, yet again, was not over. On the morning of Sept. 7, the New York Daily News had the bombshell: Ankiel had received a 12-month supply of HGH three seasons earlier. The story would never stop twisting. Ankiel went into a slump -- at one point, the Cardinals were hiding him from media as if he were on suicide watch -- and the Cardinals fell off, and the feel-good-feel-bad-feel-good story was feeling bad again. It was always something. It was never over.
After that, Ankiel became something new and, oddly, refreshing: A regular baseball player. Turns out that the transition to hitter wasn't seamless at all: Ankiel had massive power but even more massive holes in his swing that were easily exploitable. In 2008 he hit 25 homers with a .264 average - his 1.9 WAR that year was his career high as a hitter; he notched a 3.3 pitching in 2000 - but it fell apart in 2009, with Ankiel notching only a .285 OBP with 11 homers. At that point, you couldn't pretend he was going to his hitting abilities would match his pitching ones, no matter how hard you tried. He was just a regular guy.
Except occasionally … he would remind you of the thunderbolt, remind you of the transcendent.
Ankiel bounced around the league for a few years after leaving the Cardinals, to Kansas City, to Atlanta, to Washington, to Houston, to the Mets, for whomever needed some outfield defense and flash power. But he wasn't sustainable as a big league player anymore. His last important homer -- he'd sneak in on at Wrigley a week later -- was against the Cardinals, for the Mets, as it probably had to be.
Rick Ankiel retired on Wednesday, and did it with little fuss: Cardinals broadcaster Dan McLaughlin announced it on a spring training broadcast, and Ankiel confirmed it on Twitter. He would like to get into coaching, perhaps with the Cardinals. It was the end of one of the most fascinating chapters in baseball history, an epic novel with dramatic turns out of nowhere, just when you were least suspecting it. It was maddening and sad and euphoric and triumphant and infuriating and everything in between. It was a great baseball life, well lived. We should all be honored we got to watch it. It's a reminder of just how unpredictable this game is, and how wonderful it is for it.
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