This Rick Ankiel, at 39, father of two, is what grew from the fight that saved his baseball career, the man and the ballplayer who came to expect – encourage, even – the less conventional route.
Five years into retirement, 14 since he threw his last competitive pitch, Ankiel is considering a return to that life, he said Thursday morning. He is considering – “toying with,” he said – pitching professionally again.
“I have nothing to lose,” he said. “I’m not afraid. I might as well try.”
He stood Wednesday night on a pitcher’s mound in Louisville, Kentucky, the ball in his left hand, surrounded by a tournament team of retired major leaguers, among them Chipper Jones, Johnny Damon, Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt, managed by Johnny Bench.
Ankiel’s wife, Lory, and their boys, Ryker and Declan, watched from the stands at Louisville Slugger Field, summer home of the Bluegrass World Series. Already, Ankiel had smashed two hits, driven in four runners. The night before, from right field, he’d thrown out a runner at home, “an absolute missile,” he’d say with a still-got-it chuckle.
What remained in a weeklong flirtation with his past, those seven years as a big-league outfielder remarkable for their competence and how they came to be, was one step further. To his youth. To the pitcher he’d left behind in a hail of wayward throws and sleepless nights. To the career that became something completely different.
Ankiel had thrown regularly this summer with a young man in Florida suffering from the yips, the very anxiety pangs that in the spring of 2005 brought Ankiel to give up pitching after a years-long battle. Part of Ankiel’s retirement has been spent coaching those similarly afflicted, seeing to their mechanics and doubts, offering expertise and compassion. In those throwing sessions, the ball had come out of Ankiel’s hand clean and sure and hard. As tournament week approached, the notion of pitching – in a game, in a stadium, in front of people – became more real. And when he arrived in Louisville he asked the pitching coach, Tom Browning, if he couldn’t get a hitter or two.
“My kids have never seen me play, never seen me pitch,” Ankiel said. “And I feel like I’m in a better place.”
He awoke Wednesday morning, his day to pitch, with the thought, “This is going to be awesome. What do I have to feel anxious about? I know how to coach and talk myself through these feelings. They were still there, and it didn’t matter.”
He warmed for the seventh inning. He strode to the mound. He threw a fastball, 87 mph.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “My heart rate didn’t even move. The meter didn’t move.”
Another fastball. A curveball. A fastball, this one 89 mph. Strike three.
Former @Cardinals Rick Ankiel strikes out the only batter he faced tonight. Cool to see him back on the mound. 🔥
Also went 2-for-4 at the plate with 4 RBI’s. pic.twitter.com/b09gUK4Glb
— Jevin Redman (@Jevin_13) August 2, 2018
Perhaps, he said, if his body allows and a team is willing to take a chance, he will give it one more run, next spring as a relief pitcher. He’d left a lot of bullets back there, half-a-lifetime ago, when his fastball was in the upper 90s, his curveball was unhittable, and there was nothing ahead but innings and casualties. He’d won 11 games in 2000 with a 3.50 ERA, the summer he turned 21. The postseason that followed – the wild pitches, the unraveling, the mysterious ailment that was the yips – had put him on a different path. It would be years before the clarity came, before he’d pack nearly 600 games into seven seasons as an outfielder. He hit 74 home runs and batted .242 in those years, and made sport of runners foolish enough to test his arm, still a weapon.
It can be, perhaps, again, he said. Back to the mound. Back to where it began. Not for what it was supposed to be, but for what it could still be. There’s still a lot to unravel. Still a lot to go right. But, there, on the mound, all these years later, there remained a single promise. A single conclusion. A single ideal.
“It’s the courage to try,” he said.
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