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Rick Ankiel Decides to Retire

March 13, 2014

Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

Rick Ankiel, who first burst onto the big league stage as a flame-throwing left-hander with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 20 in 1999, announced his retirement last week. Ankiel is retiring as an outfielder after control problems drove him from the mound to the depths of the minor leagues and back.

In the top of the first inning of Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series, Ankiel retired the Atlanta Braves in order; the Cardinals then jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the inning. Ankiel had a relatively easy top of the second: a strikeout, a double and then a double play. Everything seemed to be going well for Ankiel up to that point in his career. There was no reason for anyone to anticipate what was about to happen. The top of the third inning was the beginning of the end of Rick Ankiel’s career as a major league pitcher. The following summary of that inning from the website, Retrosheet.org, best describes the catastrophe that struck:

BRAVES 3RD: Maddux walked; Furcal popped to first in foul territory; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to third]; A. Jones walked; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [A. Jones to second]; C. Jones was called out on strikes; Galarraga walked [Maddux scored on a wild pitch, A. Jones to third]; Jordan singled to left [A. Jones scored, Galarraga to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch (Galarraga to third, Jordan to second); Sanders walked; Weiss singled to left [Galarraga scored, Jordan scored, Sanders to second]; JAMES REPLACED ANKIEL (PITCHING); Lopez popped to second; 4 R, 2 H, 0 E, 2 LOB. Braves 4, Cardinals 6.

When the dust had finally settled, Ankiel had walked four batters while throwing five wild pitches. I remember watching this inning while eating lunch at Logan’s Roadhouse. As a Braves fan, I was glad my team scored four runs to get back in the game, but anyone with a heart had to feel badly for the 21-year-old Ankiel.

2001 Topps Rick Ankiel

© T.C.G.

As I sat watching Ankiel struggle, I kept wondering why his manager, Tony LaRussa, did not put an end to his torture. I realize it’s difficult to know when to throw in the towel, but it seems to me that any manager should have known that there was no way in the world that Ankiel–or any other pitcher, for that matter–should have been allowed to throw another pitch after the wild pitch on ball four to Andres Galarraga that also allowed Maddux to score. Yet, it took two more wild pitches and two base hits before LaRussa removed Ankiel from the game.

Ankiel’s problems continued in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. In Game 2, he lasted but 2/3 of an inning, walked three batters, threw two wild pitches, and gave up two runs. Ankiel made a relief appearance in the seventh inning of Game 5 of that series. His final warm-up toss went all the way to the backstop and he walked the first batter he faced. After a sacrifice and a strikeout, he threw two wild pitches in the process of walking a batter, with a run scoring on the second one. He did not compete the inning.

Back to the minors

Again, Rick Ankiel was only 21 years old when he suddenly lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate. His pitching career may have taken the same path had LaRussa intervened earlier, but it seems to me that Ankiel’s confidence was irreversibly shaken after that disastrous third inning.

Things did not get better for Ankiel the following season and by May 10 he was back in the minor leagues. He struggled at Memphis (AAA)–17 walks in 4 1/3 innings–but dominated at Johnson City (A)–158 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 87 2/3 innings. Ankiel missed the entire 2002 season with an injury and then struggled through 2003 with the Tennessee Smokies (AA), going 2-6 with a 6.29 earned run average. He pitched just 23 2/3 innings in the minors in 2004, but returned to St. Louis at the end of the season where he had a 5.40 ERA in 10 innings of work.

Ankiel in the outfield

It was at this point in his career that Ankiel decided to try to make it back to the big leagues as a hitter. He returned to the minors for the 2005 season and hit 21 home runs while splitting time between Quad Cities (A) and Springfield (AA). He missed the 2006 season and then broke out with 32 homers in 102 games at Memphis in 2007. The Cardinals brought Ankiel back to the big club for 47 games that season and he hit 11 more home runs and had a .285 average. Rick Ankiel was back and the future looked bright.

In 2008 Ankiel hit 25 home runs, drove in 71 runs, and hit .264; he also struck out 100 times in 463 plate appearances, which was a harbinger of things to come. Ankiel swung hard and when he connected, he could hit the ball as far as anyone; but his swing made him vulnerable to inside fastballs. Ankiel dropped to 11 homers, a .231 average, and 99 strikeouts in only 404 plate appearances in 2009. It would be his final season with the Cardinals.

Life after St. Louis

Ankiel’s last three seasons were an odyssey in which he made stops in Kansas City, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Houston, and New York. The Mets released him last June and no other team came calling.

2010 Topps Rick Ankiel

© T.C.G.

The Braves picked up Ankiel at the trade deadline in 2010. Before he got to Atlanta, I had seen enough of his swing to realize he was going to have trouble making consistent enough contact to remain in the major leagues. However, before the Braves picked him up, I did not realize how good he was defensively in the outfield–especially when it came to his throwing ability.

The Atkins clan was at Wrigley Field on August 20 for a game between the Braves and the Cubs. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Koyie Hill hit what appeared to be a sure double. But Ankiel fired a rocket into second base and nailed Koyie as he slid into the bag. It remains the best throw from an outfielder that I have ever witnessed in person.

The grandest moment of Ankiel’s career occurred during his brief stay with the Braves. In the second game of the 2010 National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants with the scored tied at 4-4 in the top of the 11th inning, Ankiel launched a home run into McCovey Cove that provided the Braves with their only win of the series. Ankiel’s heroics came 10 years after his meltdown on the mound with the Cardinals–ironically against the Braves.

I hate to see Rick Ankiel leave baseball. He overcame adversity as a pitcher, reinvented himself, and returned to the big leagues as an outfielder; he is still only 34 years old. I believe, with some small adjustments to his swing, Ankiel still could be a productive major league hitter. Maybe some team will give him a shot.

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