Ankiel's feel-good story now doesn't feel right

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Sometime over the last month, as Rick Ankiel launched home runs and put a defibrillator to his career and thrust the St. Louis Cardinals back into the playoff race, the irony of his new nickname must have dawned on him.

The Natural.

It's funny and sad now, of course, in light of the New York Daily News' bombshell late Thursday that linked Ankiel to a 12-month prescription of human growth hormone in 2004. The author of baseball's greatest story this season – the one guy in whom everyone, Cardinals fans or otherwise, wanted to believe – was allegedly just like Barry Bonds: seeking glory through needles.

The continued marriage between Major League Baseball players and performance-enhancing drugs came as no surprise, with the fallout of the latest scandal, stemming from the federal raid of Signature Pharmacy in Orlando, bound to extend its tentacles to baseball. The name, though – that was a shock, and a disappointment, too, because it reinforced the notion that baseball players, even those who evoke such wonderment, must be viewed through a prism of skepticism.

Performance-enhancing drugs have weaved themselves into baseball's culture, and extracting them has proved messy every step. The New York Times on Wednesday reported that the players' association was resisting overtures from George Mitchell, the lead of baseball's investigation into steroid use, who wanted to speak with 45 players, most still active.

Make that 46. Ankiel had captivated baseball with an incredible month that crested Thursday, when he hit two home runs and drove in seven runs to bring the Cardinals within one game of National League Central-leading Chicago and Milwaukee. Already his comeback to the major leagues as an outfielder after he flamed out spectacularly as a pitcher, losing his control and never regaining it, was inspiring enough. His success was movie material.

Even though the Daily News report said Ankiel stopped receiving HGH before MLB banned it in 2005 – and that he got the eight shipments over a 12-month period when he was still a pitcher – it colors and tempers and dampens his accomplishments just as Bonds' link to performance-enhancers renders his all-time home run crown questionable.

When records are no longer records, does that make lesser accomplishments not accomplishments at all? It's the dichotomy fans must navigate, the fork in the road with equally tenuous paths: Appreciate athletes for their performances while accepting they could be on any kind of cocktail or shun professional athletics altogether for its duplicity in allowing performance-enhancers to infiltrate their games?

"If it's true," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told the Daily News, "obviously it would be very tragic, along with everything else we've had happen to us this year."

In spring training, manager Tony La Russa was charged with a misdemeanor DUI. On April 29, reliever Josh Hancock was killed in a single-car crash with a blood-alcohol content of .157, nearly twice the legal limit. Cardinals utilityman Scott Spiezio left the team in August to deal with substance-abuse issues. Potholes pocked their road to repeating as World Series champions, and Ankiel's emergence had begun to fill them.

Certainly he knew the possibility of his name surfacing from the rubble of the Signature raid, which makes you wonder if guilt consumed him or hubris emboldened him. Athletes – whether Ankiel or Bonds, Rodney Harrison or Shawne Merriman, Floyd Landis or Justin Gatlin, and on and on, ad nauseam – understand the consequences of performance-enhancing drug use. Not physical problems; those are debatable. Simply the black mark that tarnishes the person's reputation and, worse, heaves collateral damage on the sport.

Baseball, as an institution, wants steroids to go away. Sure, there will always be enablers, like doctor William Gogan, who, according to the Daily News, provided the HGH prescription to Ankiel – then 24 and coming off Tommy John surgery, though, by all accounts someone with no apparent need for artificial hormone-replacement therapy. In the 1980s and '90s, baseball personnel turned their heads as players injected themselves – La Russa among them, with admitted user Jose Canseco starring on his Oakland A's teams.

And some may say this is baseball's just desserts for such actions. Yet how many times can a punch-drunk boxer get pummeled until he crumbles? The problem for baseball is, no referee exists to stop the match.

So expect more names to emerge, more legacies to fall, more stories on pharmaceuticals instead of far home runs. Busch Stadium crackled with life as Ankiel smacked his eighth and ninth homers Thursday, and after the Cardinals' 16-4 victory, La Russa started to wax on how Ankiel was a "marvel."

"It is kind of amazing," he said, "isn't it?"

Actually, no. Not anymore.

Not in the least.

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