Rick Ankiel had control problems. His famed rookie year he walked 90 batters, hit 6 of them, and uncorked 12 wild pitches while getting to throw to a Gold Glove winning catcher who piled up 2.5 WAR on DEFENSE, Mike Matheny.
Before it happened, before the yips, Ankiel had enough trouble controlling where he threw the ball.
He was fantastic, of course, but he was hardly Greg Maddux.
After the yips, the narrative seems to be that Ankiel couldn’t throw strikes anymore.
That isn’t true.
After a terrible stint in Memphis, Rick went to rookie ball – I mean the kid was only 21 years old – and proceeded to strike out 158 batters in 87.2 innings. Um, that’s quite a few strikes.
In fact, his last stint as a MLB pitcher was in 2004. He threw 10 innings and struck out 9 batters, with a single wild pitch.
The problem really wasn’t that Rick couldn’t throw a strike. It’s that you never knew when, seemingly out of nowhere, he was going to uncork one to the backstop. After that was anyone’s guess what would happen. The yips were there, haunting him in the background, a story even if for a few innings they seemed to be gone forever.
The wildness, the injuries, the torment, they pushed Rick into his first retirement. He didn’t want to pitch anymore.
You can understand it. From his first Major League start, drunk from the pressure, to becoming a game one starter in the playoffs, to having each and every pitch scrutinized, it must have been a great relief to let go of pitching.
It also must have been terrible.
Letting go of pitching didn’t make the questions stop. Letting go of pitching didn’t get rid of the “what if” speculation. It didn’t erase the past. It didn’t cure his weakness. It didn’t fix his failure.
Neither did his remarkable comeback as a MLB player. Ankiel was a fan favorite because we are all Rick Ankiel. We have all succumbed to our brains, we’ve fallen to fear, we live our life with regrets, we look back and wish we’d done things differently. Sometimes, we get in our own way, and that’s the scariest part of all. Obstacles are one thing to overcome, but what if the obstacle is your own brain?
Rick’s long home run in his first at bat back was one of the most magical moments you’ll ever see on a baseball field. From broken, to retired, to reinventing himself, to becoming a real life deserving MLB player, it was a redemption story for the ages. It wasn’t a cure.
I know a man who says he is a smoker that doesn’t smoke. He explains that again and again in his life he quit smoking and declared himself a non-smoker, only to eventually give into temptation. Now he is smoke free for 7 years, but knows he’s still a smoker. He knows he can’t just have one without having another. He’s succeeded in spite of his illness, but he hasn’t cured the illness.
How much does this describe all of us? Can I drink that beer without it lead to losing control? Can I have that piece of cake? Can I control my anger? My heartache? Can I control my demons?
It’s always about losing control.
Rick Ankiel is 39 years old. Most players are long done with the major leagues at that point, but a player like Rick Ankiel, that kind of talent can play into the 40s. It’s not crazy. It’s what Cardinals fans were dreaming of back in 2000.
But he’s still 39, a declining physical age, and he’s trying to do something he hasn’t attempted since he was 24 at a level he hasn’t had success at since he was 20, all while trying to overcome his own brain.
Worse yet, success will breed failure. If Rick Ankiel gets to pitch in the majors, and gets used with any regularity, he’s going to miss his target. He’s going to throw balls. He’s going to walk batters, hit batters, and yes, he’s going to throw wild pitches. He can throw 50 great innings, and with the next wild pitch it might all unravel. To avoid that he must climb back on the mound each and every time and not fall to decades old anxieties while the baseball world watches every pitch – all at an age where the best have declined and everyone else has already lost it.
This seems a nearly impossible task.
But Rick Ankiel is going for it. He’s trying to beat the disease. He’s trying to go out on his own terms.
Meanwhile I’ll be terrified for him with every pitch he throws. I’ll cringe at every ball. I’ll read his face for any sign he’s going to lose it. Because they truth is while I can all relate to his failures, I can’t at all relate to his bravery. The things in my life I wish I could do all over lie in a pile of nightmares and regrets in my head for me to overcome in other ways. They aren’t to be faced head on. They aren’t to be challenged. I can’t stand the thought of losing to them again. But Rick Ankiel can.
Rick Ankiel is going to face them head on with a hundred thousand people staring at him, while opposing fans root against him, and Internet trolls hurl insults, and the media awaits anxiously with loaded questions, and oh yeah all of the other pressures of pitching in the major leagues that caused him to get to loaded 20 years ago just so he could throw a pitch.
Yet, with all of that, he’s still doing it.
That’s why Rick Ankiel is my fucking hero.