To me, one of the most ironic developments of the great Steroids hunt has got to be the Rick Ankiel story. At one point in his career, Ankiel had it all. He was young, played for a winning team, and had a curve ball that – according to legend – broke 3.5 feet just before it crossed the plate, and then turned around and crossed the plate two more times before hitting the catcher’s mitt for a total of 3 strikes on 1 pitch. But as good as Ankiel was, something went wrong, and you know how the story goes from there. After several years of struggling in the minors and faced with rehab after Tommy John surgery, Ankiel apparently turned to HGH in hopes that it would change the course of his career. Many well known players before him had done the same thing and reaped the wild benefits of super human powers. Whether Ankiel was seeking such powers or simply was hoping for a quick recovery from surgery is hard to say, but he did manage to come back strong and eventually became a very promising hitting prospect in the Cardinals minor league system. Some scoffed at the idea of a player like Ankiel making the switch from pitcher to position player, but he showed promise and I think the Cardinals felt just bad enough about what had happened to him that they were willing to give him a shot. In 2007, the same season that had already seen Josh Hamilton burst back onto the scene after years away from baseball, Rick Ankiel found himself playing for the Cards during yet another playoff race. From August 9th to September 6th – exactly 23 games – Ankiel hit 9 homeruns, 6 2Bs, had 29 RBIs, and was hitting .358 with an OBP of .409 and a Slugging percentage of .765. It had to be one of the most amazing and sudden comebacks in the history of baseball, and it seemed that after all those years of heartache and disappointment, Ankiel was back.
But then something went wrong – again. This time it wasn’t the pressures of a Game 1 playoff start, but rather the sudden revelation that Ankiel had used performance enhancing drugs. On September 6th, the very same day that Ankiel went 3 for 4 with 2 homeruns and 7 RBIs against the Pirates, news broke that he had received a 12-month supply of HGH in 2004 from a Florida pharmacy. Ankiel’s rocketing new career came crashing down, and over the next 15 games he went 7 for 55. Ultimately, he managed to collect just 20 hits over his last 91 at-bats with 1 homerun and 10 RBIs. It would seem that suddenly, just as in Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, Ankiel found himself standing alone with his deepest, darkest secrets revealed for all the sports world to see, and thus, one of the greatest ironies of the Steroid Era was brought about. The one thing that was supposed to make Ankiel great was the one thing that destroyed him just at the moment that he was at his best.
With memories of his HGH use fading with time, Ankiel still has time to put the pieces back together and move on with his career. He has the natural God-given talent, and very few fans want to nothing more than to watch him rise again and succeed. In honor of the Rick Ankiel that once was, and that wasn’t, and then was, and then wasn’t again, I’d like to spend a few moments looking back at what Ankiel has accomplished in his short drawn out careers.
At the age of 19, Ankiel completed his time in AAA ball with an overall minor league career K/9 average of 12.8, placing him in a very elite group that consisted of guys like Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden. His pure numbers and raw ability were absolutely unbelievable and the Cardinals faithful were some of the most blessed fans on earth. Most pitchers struggle to get past A+ ball at the age of 19, and very few take less than a year to make the transition from AAA to the majors. But Ankiel was special, and it may be a decade or more before we see another player like him.
Though Ankiel the pitcher was unworldly, Ankiel the hitter was pretty good as well.
Even though he played as a position player in the minors at a very advanced age, Ankiel posted numbers that very few players will ever approach. If he hadn’t spent the majority of his youth as a pitcher, who knows how great he might have been as a hitter. We may never know, but like Ankiel, we can all dream. If he manages to regain his form in 2008, Ankiel could hit 30 or more homeruns and put together a very respectable late career as a middle of the line-up hitter for the Cardinals.
Rick Ankiel is neither gone nor forgotten, and for the sake of the game I hope he can put the past behind him and enjoy the game that has made him great – twice. Just for the sake of owning a piece of baseball history, and for the chance to tell my grandkids about the Great Rick Ankiel (he is Great, afterall), maybe I’ll go pick up an auto card or game used card of Rick Ankiel. Or maybe, just like Ankiel himself, I’ll do both.