MILWAUKEE – This is supposed to be a new beginning. But it feels so familiar, and that terrifies Rick Ankiel. He knows what it means to be baseball's great new sensation, its odds-defying wonder, and he also knows where it landed him the first time.
Ankiel wants to believe that place no longer exists, that the wild pitches and walks and self-doubt – the remnants of his old career as a pitcher – are decaying in some faraway place. Someday they might. For now, they remain close, reminders of what was, harbingers of what can be.
Without all his failures, Ankiel would be nothing. With them, Ankiel has been everything – a wunderkind left-hander who came from a broken family with a recidivist dad, sparkled in the big leagues at 20, started Game 1 of the 2000 playoffs for the St. Louis Cardinals at 21, crashed and burned with fits of bad command immediately thereafter, smoldered for years, quit, returned as an outfielder, trucked it in the low minor leagues, shook off a season-stealing injury, morphed into a power-hitting monster and then, in his major-league debut as an outfielder Thursday, crushed a home run, and followed two days later with two more homers.
And still, the most he could muster Tuesday, after trying to absorb the enormity of his week, was a smirk. Success once was his analgesic, and Ankiel won't let it numb him again.
"This feels similar, and maybe that's helping me deal with it better," he said. "I'm more mature. I'm older. I look at things differently. I see things through older eyes."
He squinted those eyes. The beginnings of crow's feet formed around them. Though Ankiel still looks Gerber young, his skin has worn a bit since the baseball world last saw him.
It's a sad image to revisit. Ankiel fell apart like one of those cars in a cartoon that disassembles piece by piece. First a wheel. Then a door. The tailpipe. A chunk of engine. And finally, the whole thing collapses in on itself. Ankiel threw five wild pitches in the third inning of that Division Series game against Atlanta. The Championship Series against New York was as bad.
Even if he was the most talented lefty in a generation, and even if he did rake in a $2.5 million bonus to sign out of high school, he was a kid, and he was vulnerable, and no one knew why.
For five years, he tried to figure it out. When Ankiel couldn't, he quit. The Cardinals asked him to return as an outfielder. He agreed. If he wanted to bury the past, he would need to reinvent himself.
When the Cardinals sent Ankiel to rookie-league Johnson City in 2001 to regain his control, he played designated hitter part time and hit 10 home runs in 105 at-bats. They wanted to believe this wasn't a fluke, and Ankiel started his return at Class-A Quad Cities.
"I don't even remember which of the cities I lived in," Ankiel said. "That was so long ago."
Just two years, actually. Ankiel hit 21 home runs that season and had a shot at making the Cardinals' roster in 2006 before the fraying of a tendon in his knee sidelined him for the season. St. Louis still promoted Ankiel to Triple-A to start this season, and he grew into the minor leagues' most dangerous power hitter.
Every day, it seemed, Ankiel hit another home run. He hammered 32, including three in one game. His swing, once an inconsistent uppercut, looked like that of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, his front leg lazy and open, his bat waggling slightly, plumes of energy whipping it through the strike zone.
Still, the Cardinals hesitated to recall Ankiel. He is out of options. If they brought him up, then sent him back to the minor leagues, another team could claim him. The absence of Scott Spiezio to deal with substance-abuse problems opened up a roster spot last week, and the Cardinals, suddenly just 4½ games behind first-place Milwaukee and three behind Chicago, no longer could keep an impact bat buried at Triple-A.
So Ankiel, traveling last week in buses and living off a scant per diem, batted in front of Albert Pujols on Tuesday against the Brewers.
"It's exciting. It's draining. It's so many different things," Ankiel said.
Gratifying and exhilarating and, yes, terrifying. Because he is so wary, so loath to celebrate, Ankiel instead appreciates the last week the way a connoisseur does a bottle of wine that waited for years in the cellar.
"You should never be surprised when you have that kind of a magical moment," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "You look around baseball: When guys have talent, special things happen."
It was special. It was innocence recaptured and demons conquered. And it was, in all likelihood, fleeting. Ankiel, remember, still is learning. In four of his five games, he has struck out at least twice. On Tuesday, Chris Capuano caught him looking on an 89-mph fastball and made him flail on a 76-mph punch-out curve before Manny Parra blew a 93-mph strike-three fastball by him. In two more at-bats, Ankiel hit weak groundouts to an infield already shifting far right, seeing as he hasn't hit a ball to the left side in 22 at-bats.
In his other at-bat, Ankiel hit a slow grounder toward first baseman Prince Fielder. Fast out of the batter's box, he churned down the line. Parra was a step late toward the base. Ankiel was safe. A hustle single, the kind that keeps a guy in the good graces of his manager.
Earlier in the day, the Cardinals held their usual meetings before the first game of a series. The pitchers gathered first, and it was odd to see Ankiel trolling around the clubhouse, sitting on the couch and watching "Napoleon Dynamite" with the rest of the every-day players.
He lounged, comfortable in his place for the moment, and only that.
"I had my minute in the sunshine," Ankiel said.
He smirked again.
"Now, I have a career to make."