King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Rick Ankiel: Some stories are so amazing, it's hard to appreciate how amazing they really are.


Salon Staff
August 13, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Right from the beginning, I knew that failed pitcher Rick Ankiel would make it back to the major leagues as a hitter. That's what I meant when I said, "No freakin' way Rick Ankiel makes it back to the major leagues as a hitter."

Ankiel made it back to the St. Louis Cardinals as an outfielder Thursday, three years after he last pitched in the big leagues for the Cardinals, seven years after his promising career blew apart in a hideous playoff performance against the Atlanta Braves. One year after missing an entire season to a knee injury.

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But he didn't just make it back. He hit a home run in his first game. He hit two more in his third game Saturday. On Sunday he hit a double and made a great catch. Every once in a while the sports world throws something at you and you say, "No way. Just no way." This is one of those times.

It might not last. Guys you've never heard of have had four-game stretches better than Ankiel's 6-for-16 with a double, a walk and three homers. But it doesn't have to. What Ankiel's done already is amazing.

And as much as everybody keeps saying how amazing it is, I get the feeling most fans really don't appreciate just how amazing it is for a guy to get to the major leagues as a pitcher, succeed and then fail as a pitcher, start over as a hitter and make it back to the bigs. All by the age of 28.

I say that because of a question people ask all the time: Why can't pitchers hit?

That question belies a lack of appreciation for the level of play in the major leagues. Because the answer is the vast majority of pitchers can hit, in any context but against major league pitching. Watch big-league pitchers take batting practice sometime and you'll see what I mean. Most major league pitchers can rake.

Just not against major league pitching.

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Struggling to a batting average of .137 or .162 or even .089 against that handful of people at the very top of the pitching profession is a hell of a feat except for that handful of people at the very top of the hitting profession. What's amazing about Ankiel -- one of the things, but the main thing -- is that he's reached the top of both professions. It's like being a world-class architect -- and also a world-class cellist.

The rest is just gravy, the story of all that Ankiel has overcome. The implosion during the 2000 playoffs, when he suddenly, inexplicably lost the ability to throw strikes. The long downward spiral after that, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hiding Ankiel and his delicate psyche from the press, the demotion all the way to the rookie leagues in 2001.

Ankiel missed all of 2002 and big chunks of 2003 and 2004 to elbow injuries and Tommy John surgery. There was minor-league success and more major league failure in '04.

Ankiel's resurrection began in 2005, when he decided early in spring training to give up pitching and quit baseball, but at the suggestion of St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty began a quixotic quest to make it back to the bigs as an outfielder. He'd always been a good hitter -- for a pitcher -- but now he was going to start over, at 25, seven years older than everyone else who was starting out.

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Didn't he know how hard it is to make it to the major leagues?

I'm glad nobody took me up on the offers to wager I'm sure I made that spring. He put up solid numbers in Single-A ball at Quad City, hitting .270 with a .368 on-base percentage, .514 slugging percentage and 11 home runs in 51 games. He was promoted to Double-A Springfield, where he slugged .515 and hit 10 homers in 34 games, but his on-base percentage fell to .295. Then he missed all of 2006 with a knee injury.

It wasn't looking good.

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He spent this year at Triple-A Memphis, putting up big numbers again, 32 home runs to lead the Pacific Coast League, a .568 slugging percentage. That all sounds great, but his on-base percentage was a worryingly low .314, and anything a 28-year-old does in the minor leagues has to be taken with a grain of salt. The high minors are always sprinkled with journeymen in their late 20s and 30s who have impressive-looking stats against the mostly younger competition.

The Cardinals needed a bat as they continued to hang around in the weak N.L. Central, and maybe they needed something to feel good about in a season that started with La Russa getting arrested on a DUI charge and reached its nadir when pitcher Josh Hancock died in a drunken-driving accident. The roster spot that Ankiel took opened up when utility man Scott Spiezio went on the restricted list to enter drug treatment.

Rick Ankiel is an incredible athlete. You just don't do the things he's done, striking out more than a batter an inning in the bigs at age 20, then seven years later hitting 32 home runs in Triple-A ball and three more in your first four games with the big club, without dazzling physical tools.

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He's also a classic inspirational tale, a guy who's been knocked to the canvas time and again with blows hard enough that his riding out the 10-count in repose would have been perfectly understandable, but who keeps getting up and fighting on.

Those low on-base percentages in the high minors are cause for concern. They suggest there are holes in his swing, and if there are holes in his swing, big-league pitchers will find and exploit them as sure as the Cardinals wear red. Big-league pitchers are really good, don't forget.

It doesn't matter. Ankiel's already done something spectacular. He's put himself on the very short list of players who made the majors as pitchers, then came back or stayed as hitters. Babe Ruth is on that list.

Maybe that's all anybody needs to say for us to get a handle on just how mind-boggling Ankiel's achievement is.

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Why can't pitchers hit? They can. But if you can pitch like a big leaguer and hit like a big leaguer, you're rubbing elbows with Babe Ruth, and isn't that a hell of a thing to do.

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