It's a tough business, baseball. No mercy sometimes. Chews you up, spits you out. But a team's got to do what a team's got to do. That's why it's OK the Washington Nationals designated outfielder Rick Ankiel for assignment Thursday. Even though it is Ankiel's 33rd birthday.
OK, so maybe that stings a little. But it probably would sting just the same if the Nats had done it yesterday, while Ankiel was still 32, or tomorrow, when the new-car smell of 33 had started to wear off. But if he's getting happy birthday texts from his friends and family — from his kids — there's no way he doesn't get a little extra melancholy about having to pack his bags and leave the best team in the National League on the anniversary of his birth. But Washington activated reliever Drew Storen from the DL and someone had to go. The Nats have 10 days to trade, release or assign Ankiel to the minors, if no one claims him and he agrees.
It is likely that another team will claim him, and Washington Post reporter Adam Kilgore writes that the Nats expect to lose Ankiel, who was batting .228/.282/.411 with five home runs in 171 intermittent plate appearances. He's also got that throwing arm, the one that encouraged the Cardinals to draft Ankiel as a pitcher, the one that helped him reach the majors as a 19-year-old in 1999. Despite his poor offensive stats this season, Kilgore says, Ankiel was useful and could have stayed useful for the Nats. In addition to being the team's only left-handed hitter off the bench (aside from switch-hitting backup catcher Sandy Leon), Ankiel also was a strong defensive replacement in center for the late innings. Further:
Ankiel was also one of the most respected, well-liked players in the clubhouse. Harper considered him one of his foremost mentors. On occasions when many players would go to an over-21 club on the road, Ankiel would frequently tag along with Harper, 19, to a restaurant he could enter.
He also was 9 for 23 with a home run and four doubles against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the Mets, whom the Nats faced Thursday. So that might have been handy.
(This is apropos of nothing, but Ankiel is also the sort who will tap you on your left shoulder as he sneaks around to your right side. A classic subtle gag.)
Despite his obvious talents, Ankiel has had one of the more unlikely career arcs of any major leaguer. Hot pitching prospect, makes it to the show as a teen, loses all semblance of control and confidence as a pitcher, but goes back to work in the minors as a hitter and has several productive seasons as an outfielder reborn. Pretty cool story, though it's easy to imagine how traumatic some of the moments have been for him.
As Kilgore says, it's probably not the end of the road for Ankiel, but he seemed to be useful in Washington, and that team looks like it's a lot of fun. But, as they'll tell you, baseball isn't guaranteed to always be all fun and games. Not even on your birthday.
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