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Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Oh, put me in, coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be center field.
– John Fogerty “Center Field.”

Atlanta Braves Rick Ankiel gets a high five from Omar Infante after hitting a home run off San Francisco Giants Ramon Ramirez in the 11th inning at AT&T Park in San Francisco on October 8, 2010. The Braves came from behind to beat the Giants 5-4 and tie the Natoinal League Divisional Series 1-1.  UPI/Terry Schmitt Photo via Newscom

In 1997, scouts from the storied franchise of the St. Louis Cardinals traveled to rural Florida and handed a check for $2.5 million to a stunningly handsome and talented left-handed pitcher. The kid’s name was Richard Alexander Ankiel. Little did those scouts know they had just unearthed baseball’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and the “Book of Eli” all rolled into one – for Rick Ankiel is the most inspirational baseball player to come along in generations.

Consider that in all of the long and glorious history of Major League Baseball, only two players have hit 50 home runs as a hitter and won 10 games as a pitcher. The first name you might remember – George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

The other is Rick Ankiel. While Babe Ruth’s story is well known, Ankiel’s story continues to develop. In fact, it is quickly eclipsing the mythical injured, vanished pitcher, returned hitter from the Hollywood film “The Natural” that starred Robert Redford.

Rick Ankiel’s first home run after returning to the Cardinals:

Just how did all of this transpire in an age of negativity and cynicism, like that “welcome” handed truly talented singer Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent?” How did a failed star like Ankiel transform himself enough to regain praise in the Washington Post and earn a place in a children’s TV video game?

It was not so long ago that Rick Ankiel was a singular can’t-miss pitching prospect. A kid whose golden left arm rocketed him to Rookie of the Year status in 2000. For a time (in 1999 he was only 19 years old) he was the youngest player in the Major Leagues. In 2000 he was the second youngest.

Then out of the blue he suffered a total meltdown in a nationally televised 2000 playoff game, unable to throw strikes to save his life. His wild pitches, which appeared out of the blue and sailed over the catcher’s head to the backstop, mystified his teammates like Will Clark, his manager Anthony La Russa, his pitching coach Dave Duncan as well as fans all over.

Meltdown

That meltdown led Ankiel to a multiyear disappearance from the game – his career seemingly over forever. In this cold, hard and unforgiving world, the Rick Ankiel who walked off the field in that 2000 playoff game would forever be remembered as a freak, an asterisk, an embarrassment to the game and a waste of talent better to be forgotten.

How could everything that was so great, turn so bad, so quickly? After all, no pitcher since the forgettable Bert Cunningham in 1890 had thrown five wild pitches in a single inning. To top it all off, Ankiel would soon see both his elbow and his knee break down. He would stay in the news as the player who took a few injections of human growth hormone (then still legal in MLB) upon the advice of his doctor/surgeon. Worst of all, he would be the player who would face the shame of his own father being sent away to prison for being a convicted drug dealer.

Facing multiple surgeries, alone and seemingly forgotten, Ankiel chose to inculcate the words penned by poet Robert Browning, whose epic “Prospice” propelled explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men through the greatest Antarctic survival adventure in human history; “For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.”

Ankiel’s home run against the Giants in the playoffs:

Like the Roy Hobbs from “The Natural,” Ankiel has reappeared out of nowhere. He’s been reborn, resurrected, remade, rediscovered and rebuilt like the “Six Million Dollar Man.” (Complete with a surgically repaired new left elbow and new knee.)

Only Rick Ankiel is no longer a left-handed pitcher. Rather, these days, Rick Ankiel can be found patrolling center field and making spectacular catches like an NFL wide receiver. He’s also hit amazing home runs, been busy crashing into outfield walls and intimidating base runners with one of the strongest arms fans have ever seen. From the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis to the fabled Yankee Stadium to the San Francisco Bay, Ankiel’s offensive and defensive exploits are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend.

Case in point, his game-winning, 11th-inning home run (which landed 450 feet from home plate while splashing into San Francisco Bay) in Game Two of the National League Playoffs for the Atlanta Braves (his third team after the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals) once again put Ankiel on center stage in the American consciousness. Can there be any doubt this is an All-American boy who represents all that was great about America, still is great and can be great once again?

July 28, 2010: Center fielder Rick Ankiel  of the Kansas City Royals catches a fly ball during a game against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Twins won 6-4.

Rick Ankiel is a little older now, just beyond 30, but he’s still perhaps the most handsome player in the Major Leagues. Only his good looks cannot articulate the toughness, self-belief, dedication and prove-them-wrong warrior hidden somewhere deep inside. It is not widely known that Rick Ankiel had to return to the lowest levels of the minor leagues in his quest to transform himself from pitcher to hitter.

The minor leagues

In the minors Ankiel rediscovered his pitching smarts, speed and control. He also demonstrated unimaginable home-run power as a designated hitter. He was kind to fans, and many people traveled from St. Louis to watch the Cardinals AAA team in Memphis in an effort to encourage Ankiel during his return. Men, women, teenagers, children and grand grandparents holding babies all made the trip to Memphis as if drawn to the Field of Dreams amid the cornfields of Dyersville, Iowa.

Would the kid, who was after all still pretty much a kid, make it back and do what no one since Babe Ruth had ever done? Would anyone really remember his talent?

Drafted as a teenager from rural Florida, Ankiel was such a good left-handed pitcher it was almost frightening. The USA Today voted him as Player of the Year. As a senior at Port St. Lucie High School he was 11-1 with a 0.47 ERA. In only 74 innings pitched he struck out 162 of a possible 222 hitters. He was so good hitters might have actually owed him runs. The St. Louis Cardinals took notice and offered him the fifth-highest signing bonus ever.

(Since then he’s passed the Six Million Dollar Man and if you want to get technical about it earned $7,597,500 in salary beyond his original bonus. Keep in mind that all-time great NHL player Gordie Howe’s signing bonus was a team jacket.)

Readers might wonder just how good a pitcher Ankiel was when he won Rookie of the Year in 2000? In 175 innings that season he only allowed 137 hits. That was second in all the majors. Who was No. 1 in allowing the least number of hits per nine innings? South Korean pitcher Park Chan Ho. As for strikeouts per nine innings, Ankiel (at 9.98) was also No. 2 behind certain future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Randy Johnson is perhaps the most dominant MLB pitcher since Tom Seaver or Sandy Koufax – maybe ever.

Ankiel won 11 games in 2000 and had an ERA of 3.50, which was 10th in the league. Remember this was at the height of the “Steroid Era” in MLB where hitters had a great advantage. However, Ankiel’s fastball reached as high as 97 mph and he had a curveball that would “fall off the table.” Thus the best hitters in MLB were no match for the kid with “The Right Stuff.”

He’s ba-a-ack!

On Aug. 9, 2007, Ankiel return to the Major Leagues as an outfielder. In a game against the San Diego Padres, Ankiel hit a home run, sending a jam-packed stadium into a frenzy. It was the first time since 1947 that a player had hit his first home run as a pitcher, and then returned to hit a home run as a position player. (The other being Clint Hartung.)

St. Louis Cardinals Rick Ankiel talks with teammates in the dugout during a game with the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on May 20, 2009. Ankiel , who has been on the disabled list , was carted off the field at Busch Stadium on May 5 with his head and neck immobilized after slamming into the wall. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

The electricity in the ballpark was unimaginable. People cried. Hugged. Total strangers were jumping up and down for no explicable reason – except that the human condition was being uplifted in a way not seen since Pele made his famous spinning-upside-down-in-the-air goal so long ago.

Journalist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Aug. 17, 2007, Washington Post, recorded Ankiel’s breathtaking return to the Big Leagues, sounding more like Grantland Rice than the erudite scribe that he is:

“In 2005, he gives up pitching forever. … Then, last week, on Aug. 9, he is called up from Triple-A. Same team. Same manager. Rick Ankiel is introduced to a roaring Busch Stadium crowd as the Cardinals’ starting right fielder.

“In the seventh inning, with two outs, he hits a three-run home run to seal the game for the Cardinals. Two days later, he hits two home runs and makes one of the great catches of the year – over the shoulder, back to the plate, full speed.

“But the play is more than spectacular. It is poignant. It was an amateur’s catch. Ankiel ran a slightly incorrect route to the ball. A veteran outfielder would have seen the ball tailing to the right. But pitchers aren’t trained to track down screaming line drives over their heads. Ankiel was running away from home plate but slightly to his left.

“Realizing at the last second that he had run up the wrong prong of a Y, he veered sharply to the right, falling and sliding into the wall as he reached for the ball over the wrong shoulder.

“He made the catch. The crowd, already delirious over the two home runs, came to its feet. If this had been a fable, Ankiel would have picked himself up and walked out of the stadium into the waiting arms of the lady in white – Glenn Close [one of the stars of "The Natural"] in a halo of light – never to return.

The magic

“But this is real life. Ankiel is only 28 and will continue to play. The magic cannot continue.

“His return after seven years – if only three days long – is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home-run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.”

But the magic has indeed continued.

St. Louis Cardinals Rick Ankiel slides safely into home plate past Florida Marlins catcher Ronny Paulino in the fifth inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 15, 2009. Ankiel advanced on a sacrifice flyball off the bat of Albert Pujols. UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

When he was acquired by the Atlanta Braves at the 11th hour during baseball’s recent 2010 trade deadline, Braves manager Bobby Cox said, “Ned Yost (Ankiel’s manager in Kansas City) told me, ‘He (Ankiel) is the kind of player who can carry your club for a while.’” (Remember the Braves were the team Ankiel melted down against in the 2000 playoffs as a pitcher.)

Ankiel had been injured for much of 2010 with a thigh problem, only to return for an amazing series at Yankee Stadium in which he hit a home run, hit a double and then made a spectacular diving catch in center field – which prompted the Atlanta Braves to almost immediately trade for him as support for their stretch drive to the playoffs.

As a hitter, Ankiel is known for extra base power. Tim Brown, the sportswriter for Yahoo! Sports, recently called Ankiel “a wonderful athlete” and “OK hitter.” Yet in his brief career as a hitter, using just 2008 as an example, in 120 games, Ankiel had 109 hits, including 21 doubles, 2 triples, 25 home runs and 71 RBIs along with collecting 42 walks. Add to that some of the most astounding catches in the outfield ever seen, and the aforementioned rocket arm, which is now stronger than ever. Is that just “okay”?

Ankiel recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he might even consider pitching again, “When I can’t run anymore and I still want to stay in the game, maybe I’ll give it another shot.”

Would you bet against him returning in a few years’ time as an older, more mature and successful pitcher?

But it’s not merely what Ankiel has done on the field that is so inspiring – it’s that he’s inspired others to follow in his mindset if not his footsteps.

Ankiel has been an inspiration to communications students both in St. Louis and Korea. In St. Louis, a student, Erin, simply calls him “A hottie.” In South Korea, students have studied Ankiel’s career in Organizational Communication and Psychology of Communication courses. Many of them penned letters to Ankiel in English, even though that’s their second language.

Those students have names like Christopher, Inpyo, Lauren, Maria and Selah. Some of them cried when they first heard Ankiel’s story. Inpyo already has three black belts in tae kwan do and is an officer in the South Korean army. Christopher is a land-mine expert these days.

Rueben G., a St. Louis native, deeply religious Jewish film writer and former neighbor of Ankiel, said, “Rick Ankiel’s career is a beautiful story. On a side note, Ankiel lived for about a year in University City in a modest 1,500-square-foot home about 150 meters from my synagogue and directly across the alley from the Jewish School (Yeshiva) for boys. It was just a modest row house, albeit a new one, and he was very friendly with the boys at the school as well as neighbors and friends of mine. A real mensch. Nobody had anything but good things to say about him!”

The continuing story of Rick Ankiel is a postmodern folktale for anyone who has ever stood on the mound and imagined blowing away a hitter with fastballs or over home plate and sensed the thrill of the crack of the bat.


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