Rick Ankiel Speaks About His Interesting Career In “The Phenomenon”

An exchange from the Fox broadcast of Game 2 of the 2000 NLCS as Rick Ankiel was throwing pitches to the backstop against the Mets.

Joe Buck: He’s lost all his mechanics and he can’t get the ball to the point where the catcher can even catch it.

Tim McCarver: He’s throwing like a mechanic right now.

Joe Buck: A right handed mechanic who’s trying it left handed for the first time.

Ankiel had a tremendous rookie season with the 2000 Cardinals but infamously lost his ability to pitch in the playoffs. He retired but later returned as an outfielder. His story is the subject of “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that
Changed My Life” (PublicAffairs) written by Ankiel and Tim Brown.

The book covers his entire life, not just the pitching problem. “It would only work if I told the whole story,” Ankiel said.

He worked on the book for four years, discussing “the rollercoaster of life everybody is on,” as Ankiel said.

Ankiel himself had received inspiration while dealing with the yips when he read Lance Armstrong’s book about how he beat cancer and then won the Tour de France. Ankiel wanted to make sure his book didn’t hold back and he honestly discusses living with an abusive father and drinking vodka in the dugout before a start with the Cardinals to help him calm his nerves. “I want to be honest about what it was for me,” Ankiel said.

“The Phenomenon” does have the pitching problem as a major point. “It started with the yips,” Ankiel said. “There’s not much literature on it. Nobody likes talking about it.”

A top prospect with St. Louis, Ankiel made his debut in 1999. Then came his breakout season of 2000. He went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and finished second to Rafael Furcal in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Ankiel was getting better late in the season, going 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA in September. He set the Cardinals record with 194 strikeouts for a rookie pitcher, passing Dizzy Dean.

The Cardinals won the NL Central and Tony La Russa named Ankiel as his Game 1 starter for the NLDS against the Braves. The Cardinals jumped all over Greg Maddux but Ankiel nearly gave the big lead back, uncorking five wild pitches. “One of the bizarre things is I still don’t understand why,” Ankiel said.

It’s strange enough when second basemen like Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch had trouble throwing to first on routine ground balls. But seeing a terrific pitcher with a bright future suddenly forgetting how to throw a baseball is starting.

The Cardinals swept the Braves and faced the Mets in the NLCS. St. Louis had only used six starters all season and were dealing with injuries so there wasn’t much of a choice but to put Ankiel on the mound for Game 2. Ankiel pitched well in workouts but he nearly beaned Timo Perez with the first pitch of Game 2 and failed to make it out of the first inning. He later appeared out of the bullpen in Game 5 as La Russa tried to build his confidence back up although Ankiel threw a few more wild pitches.

In 2001, Ankiel had an ERA over seven in six appearances while throwing five wild pitches in 24 innings. He retired in 2004 after giving up six runs in 10 innings over five appearances.

“One of the bizarre things is I still don’t know why,” Ankiel said of his throwing problem. “The book title, The Phenomenon, fits perfectly. I still don’t understand why.”

Ankiel’s career could have ended there but he decided to try a comeback as an outfielder. He did hit .250 as a pitcher in 2000. And he was still in the Cardinals organization with friends rooting for him. “I definitely think it was easier,” Ankiel said of being with the Cardinals. “I had a ton of support from the organization.”

He made it back in 2007 and then hit 25 home runs in 2008. After going to the Royals, he was on the Braves playoff roster in 2010. He was playing for Bobby Cox, a childhood hero. A decade after first having the yips in the playoffs against the Braves, Ankiel won Game 2 of the NLDS with an 11th inning home run against the Giants. “It was the pinnacle of my career as far as home runs go,” Ankiel said. His career had come full circle.

After playing for the Nationals and Braves, Ankiel ended his career with 20 games in 2013 for the Mets. “I enjoyed the Mets team, I enjoyed being there,” Ankiel said. Unfortunately, that Mets team was two years away from winning the pennant, finishing 74-88. “I wish we’d been a winning team and a winning environment but it wasn’t,” Ankiel said.

He didn’t know what to expect when he wrote it, but “The Phenomenon” has received positive feedback. “It’s been great and I’m glad I did it,” Ankiel said.

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