Excerpt: How Rick Ankiel beat Randy Johnson with 'fastballs, curveballs and vodka'

“The Phenomenon” by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown.
“The Phenomenon” by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown.

Excerpted from “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life” by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown. Copyright © 2017. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

I made six major-league starts that 2001 season. One of them, the first, went pretty well, because I was drunk.

On a Sunday afternoon in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, I’d make my first real appearance since the previous fall. I’d had six months to prepare. Physically. Emotionally. I had sports psychologist Dr. Harvey Dorfman on my side. I had my self-help books. I had all my little brain exercises, my breathing exercises, down. All that had to follow was for me to walk to the mound in a big, full ballpark, stand in front of those people and the television cameras and my teammates, bury the past, throw strikes, and start winning my career back. My life back.

I knew it wasn’t going to work. For days leading to that start, I knew. The nightmares came every night. I stared at the television in a hotel room in Phoenix early Sunday morning, hours before a bus would take me to defeat. All that walking around with a smile on my face for the past seven weeks, throwing decently and hanging on that, throwing poorly and dismissing that, promising better, would be exposed that afternoon at Bank One Ballpark against a team that, in seven months, would beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. We’d fly to St. Louis after the game. I packed my suitcase, stuffed my books into a carry-on bag, and rolled it all to the curb in front of the hotel. The mood was light. After three losses to start the season, we’d won two in Arizona. Now we’d have to get past Randy Johnson, who’d won the second of what would be four consecutive Cy Young Awards the season before. He was the best pitcher in the game. Tall and left-handed, he’d overcome early career wildness to become this beast of a pitcher. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I was a beast of a pitcher trying to overcome early career wildness myself, except Randy probably drove to the ballpark that morning confident about his chances and singing along to the radio. All I felt was dread. I felt the Thing.

The ballpark is enormous. What started as just a roof in the distance in a few minutes filled the bus window.

“One hundred,” I said to myself. “Breathe.”

“Ninety-nine. … Ninety-eight. … Ninety-seven.”

“Breathe.”

Inside, I tried to lose myself in the routine of game day. The scouting reports. The conversations with pitching coach Dave Duncan and catcher Mike Matheny. The music inside the headphones. The nap that wouldn’t come. Early games from the East Coast on TV. The clock on the wall was relentless, bearing toward game time.

In the hour before I’d have to go out and prove to everyone that I was exactly the same pitcher who’d unraveled on those mounds in October, I grew desperate. Weeks before, over a beer with a buddy, he’d said, “Why not drink before you pitch?” I’d laughed, then admitted I was sometimes better against the wall with a beer in my hand. The alcohol, I don’t know, maybe it quieted my head. Maybe I didn’t care quite so much. I hadn’t thought about it since. I’d not started a big-league game yet either. I had to fight.

And if I couldn’t bury the monster, I would drown it.

“Hey,” I said to Darryl Kile, “think you could get me a bottle of vodka?”

It was humiliating.

He returned with a full bottle. Something cheap. No judgment. I shrugged.

“Do what you gotta do, kid,” he said. “I understand.”

With everyone on the field stretching, and so in a clubhouse empty but for me and a couple very curious clubbies, I took a few long pulls, felt the warmth and reassurance as the alcohol seeped into my bloodstream, and poured the rest into a water bottle, which I carried with my glove and cap to the dugout. It wasn’t about gaining an edge but softening the edge. I couldn’t trust me. Nobody could. But I could trust a water bottle filled with vodka beside me on the bench. I could trust a good, hard buzz.

The Diamondbacks scored two runs in the first, both on a MattWilliams home run, but I didn’t walk anyone. By the third inning, we were ahead, 4–2.

The ball was jumping out of my hand. I came off the mound exhilarated. I’d struck out Tony Womack and Reggie Sanders to end the second inning and Luis Gonzalez to start the third, then gotten mishit groundouts out of Matt Williams and Greg Colbrunn. Right through the heart of their order.

Holy s—, I thought. I’m back. I’m f—–‘ back!

Rick Ankiel says he drank vodka to calm his nerves before this April 8, 2001, start against the Diamondbacks. (Getty)
Rick Ankiel says he drank vodka to calm his nerves before this April 8, 2001, start against the Diamondbacks. (Getty)

Randy Johnson wasn’t as sharp as he could be. The problem was, I was starting to sober up. I’d walked two in the second inning and gotten out clean, then gone straight to the dugout and my water bottle. The monster was coming, and I fought it back with a few squirts of vodka, then a few more. I laughed at the absurdity of it and, while locked in a battle for my nerves, managed to have a good time playing baseball. I batted three times, all three against Johnson, fully aware that Johnson and his three-quarter delivery were not always safe for a sober, focused left-handed hitter, and here I was an unsober left-handed hitter. I did get a bunt down. And I did manage a walk. And I did score a run.

We won, 9–4. I threw 100 pitches over five innings. I struck out eight Diamondbacks and walked three, then went straight to the clubhouse and brushed my teeth and gargled whatever greenish liquid I could find. I was 1–0. I’d found a way, and it wasn’t the perfect way, but it would have to do for now. I slept hard on the flight back to St. Louis that night.

Six days later, the strategy hadn’t changed for a Saturday afternoon game against the Houston Astros – fastballs, curveballs and vodka. Survival, man. The monster wouldn’t fight fair, so neither would I. Protective of me, the Cardinals had me warm up inside, not in the bullpen, where everyone else warms up. Just like spring training, they’d hide the fragile me until there was no way around it. At some point I’d have to come out and pitch.

I went another five innings, not as strong as the last five. I walked five, gave up four runs. We lost. And as I sobered up in the clubhouse, I wondered if I could continue like this. I’d thrown off the monster for a hundred or so pitches, but I could feel it adapting to the new 80-proof game, hardening itself against the vodka. What would I do, drink more vodka? Two bottles next time? And after that? Was this sustainable?

“Do what you have to do, Ank,” Harvey said, just like Darryl had said, maybe amused at the tactic and definitely concerned for the consequences. “Just know it’s not real.”

That word again – real. Whose real? Mine? The box score’s? The Cardinals’? My career’s? Real was in the newspaper the next morning. Did you win or lose? Those nightmares seemed real. They were real enough for me. The sight of Mike Matheny pulling off his mask and racing to the backstop, that was real. Zero wild pitches in Houston. One back in St. Louis. Was that fantasy?

“Real,” I told Harvey, “and the rest of it is getting a little blurry right now. I have to pitch. This is how I can.”

“Ank,” he said, “it’s still there. You’re not winning. You’re stalling.”

Damn if Harvey wasn’t always right. My next start was in Houston. I had six days to prepare. I reminded myself it was me who had beaten the Diamondbacks. Me who’d survived October, and a winter of doubt, and a torturous spring training to outpitch the great Randy Johnson. My stuff had gotten those hitters out. Even in the next start, between the five walks, I’d struck out six Astros. The pitcher was in me still.

“OK, Harvey. I’ll try. I’ll try again.”

This time in Houston, I went in alone. No bottle. No secrets. No pending hangover. Just me and the monster and the Astros.

I got clobbered. Over three innings, there were five walks. I hit two batters. And I all but gave up on my fastball, which had become too unpredictable, even by my new standards. If I threw 75 pitches, I’d guess 55 of them were curveballs. I was lost again. Totally, miserably lost. Defenseless.

When the game was over, I was waiting for Tony La Russa in his office behind the dugout at Enron Field. I’d had a couple beers. Tony had tried to push me back into the fourth inning. The first guy singled. The next guy, Craig Biggio, I hit. That was enough. For two hours I sat near my locker and listened to the Astros keep scoring. The cheering hardly stopped. By the time La Russa had come to get me in the fourth, I was down to one pitch I had any faith in. He’d said something encouraging as we waited for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen. So had Mike. The roar in my head drowned them out. I could see their mouths moving and feel the pats on my back as I turned to leave.

A beer in my hand, defeated, I sat on the floor in Tony’s office. Reporters would soon be allowed into the clubhouse, and I needed to talk to Tony first. I wiped away tears, but they wouldn’t stop.

“You all right?” he said.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told him for the first time.

“You’ve got to send me down. My arm is going to blow out. I don’t know where my fastball’s going, and I can’t throw all those curveballs. It’s embarrassing. I need to go down and work on it.”

“Listen,” he said, “are you going to be OK?”

“I’m going to be fine. I just need to get out of here.”

“Go home,” he said, “and think about it and tell me how you feel in the morning.”

“All right,” I said.

Rick Ankiel sits dejected in the dugout after leaving the April 14, 2001, game against the Astros. (AP)
Rick Ankiel sits dejected in the dugout after leaving the April 14, 2001, game against the Astros. (AP)

Home was a hotel room in Houston. Just me, a king-sized bed, a TV and the new real. And a phone next to the bed.

“Why do you think this happened?” Harvey asked.

“I don’t care why, Harvey,” I said. “I just want to fix it. Just give me the steps. One, two, three, four, five, six. I can fix it.”

“It’s not your fault, remember,” he said.

Harvey said that a lot. When he sensed I was beaten, or mostly beaten, he got off the baseball and into life. Real life. I was alone in a hotel room, which was fine with me, being away from friends who by their presence would remind me of the disaster I’d created of a baseball game. Harvey didn’t like it, I could tell. I had a baseball career to salvage. He had a life – mine – to mend.

“I know, I know,” I said.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Harvey would have his two fingers of bourbon in the late afternoon, so I’d call then, usually just before batting practice, when I knew his day was about over and he was relaxed.

“You having your drink?”

“You know I am.”

“A tough one last night, Harvey.”

“Aw, I seen it. Be good to yourself.”

“OK, Harv. You go easy on that bourbon.”

“Heh-heh. I’m good, Ank. And, hey … ”

“I know, I know. It’s not my fault.”

I was always going to beat it. Always. Somehow, some way, I wasn’t going to quit, not ever. The drinking hadn’t worked, so I’d done something else. Then that hadn’t worked. I was running low on ideas. My confidence, what little remained, was shot. I stayed up all night, which solved the nightmare problem. So, I asked myself, what now? Are you going to walk away? If you do, will you ever be back? You’re really going to surrender?

No. I wasn’t. You’re going to drag your butt back in there tomorrow. You’re going to run stadium steps. You’re going to make yourself watch that horror film video. You’re going to do what pitchers do to be better. You’re going to outlast it.

“Hey,” I said, half in and half out of Tony’s office, “you’re right, I don’t want to go down. I’ll try.”

Tony nodded.

“Good,” he said.

I made three more starts – 11 innings, 14 hits, 12 walks, an 8.18 ERA. I wasn’t back. I was worse. The club sent me down to fix it, and I was relieved. More than three years passed before I returned.

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