Rick Ankiel has lived an extraordinary baseball life. Think about his path for a moment. Ankiel was a high school phenom — in his senior year at Port St. Lucie High, he struck out 162 in just 71 innings. He was probably the most sought after player in the amateur draft, but his agent Scott Boras set the price tag so high that no one would take him in the first round. The St. Louis Cardinals waited until they couldn’t wait any longer and drafted him in the second round, then paid him $2.5 million — the highest signing bonus for any player in that entire draft.
He almost immediately became the best pitching prospect in the game. As an 18-year-old, he struck out 222 in 161 innings in the low minors. The next year, he struck out 194 in 137 innings. And in his third year, this time in Class AAA, he struck out 161 in 92 innings and allowed one home run. He was left-handed with a high-90s fastball and a nasty curve — every now and again you would hear the Koufax comparison. He was, as they say, a can’t-miss.
He came up to St. Louis and finished second in the 2000 Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal. He was second in the league in strikeouts per nine. He was a phenom, plain and simple, and then he started Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atllanta Braves and it all fell apart for him. The human brain is a baffling organ. Ankiel plowed through an uneven but scoreless first inning that included a hit and two walks. He gave up a double, but faced only three batters in the second.
Then came the third. He walked the pitcher, Greg Maddux. Induced a foul pop-out. Threw a wild pitch. Threw another wild pitch. Walked Andruw Jones. Threw another wild pitch. Struck out Chipper Jones. Walked Andres Galarraga with another wild pitch. Gave up a single. Threw another wild pitch, his fifth of the inning. Gave up a single to Brian Jordan. Walked Reggie Sanders. Gave up a single to Walt Weiss.
Then, and only then, did Tony La Russa take mercy on Rick Ankiel and pull him from the game. La Russa would say that starting Ankiel in that playoff game when he was young and seemingly invincible — that decision will haunt him forever.
Of course, it did not have to be anything more than a one-game blip. But it turns out that something inside him had snapped. Ankiel was given a start in the NLCS against the New York Mets. He began by striking out Timo Perez. Then it was a walk, a wild pitch, another walk, an out, another walk and a double. La Russa tried to shake out whatever was cursing Ankiel by putting him into a game in relief two days later – the Cardinals were already losing 6-0 so the pressure was seemingly off. Ankiel walked two more, threw two more wild pitches, and La Russa mournfully pulled his broken pitcher for the last time that year.
Ankiel tried to pitch again the next season, but something had been irrevocably lost. Confidence? Stability? A sense of self? No one knew then and, I suspect, no one really knows now. Ankiel walked 25 in 24 Major League innings and was sent back to the same Memphis minor league team where he had dominated just two years earlier. There — and pay close attention to these numbers because they will seem like a misprint — he walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches in 4 1/3 innings. The Cardinals, in an act of hopelessness, sent him back to Rookie Ball. Soon after, Ankiel blew out his elbow.
He would try again as a pitcher, and try again, but it was hopeless. Then Rick Ankiel did what few players in American sports have tried to do. He reinvented himself. He announced that he was going to try to make it back to the major leagues as a hitter.
A desperate pitcher becoming a hitter has happened a few times in baseball ... perhaps most famously by Smoky Joe Wood, who was one of the best pitchers in the world when he busted his thumb trying to field a bunt. He tried to keep pitching but he was limited, so he became an every day player. He became a good big league hitter — his comeback highlighted by his 1921 season when he hit .366 in limited at-bats for the Cleveland Indians. Of course, there are other stories of pitchers becoming every day hitters — Babe Ruth, of course. Lefty O’Doul. You might know that Stan Musial began his minor league career as a promising pitcher, got hurt, and became a hitter. There are many more stories like that.*
*Like, you know, Roy Hobbs.
But there is no story in baseball history quite like Ankiel’s — a spectacular young pitcher who one day lost his equilibrium trying to make it as a hitter. When he began his comeback as a hitter, a few scouts told me that Ankiel had no chance whatsoever of making it back. They said he was a good hitter ... for a pitcher. They said he was athletic enough, and he had some power, but he did not make nearly enough contact to be a big league hitter. In 2005, as a 25-year old, he hit .259 in Single and Double A, struck out one out of every six times or so, and hit 21 homers.
The next year in the minors, he hit just .267 with 90 strikeouts — almost one per game. But he hit 32 homers. The Cardinals figured, 'What the heck?' They called him up, he hit a homer in his first game, he hit two homers in his third game, after three weeks or so he was hitting .358 (and he had ANOTHER two homer game). And the Cardinals figured: 'What the heck?'
In the end, the scouts were probably right about Rick Ankiel. He doesn’t really make enough contact to be of much value as a hitter in the Major Leagues. But that doesn’t diminish the awesomeness of his achievement. After the Cardinals gave up on him, the Kansas City Royals acquired him. After the Royals, it was Atlanta for a while. Then Washington. Now, Ankiel is in Houston. And while his career on-base percentage may be .305, he has hit 74 big league homers, and he has had more than 2,000 big league plate appearances, and it’s an inspiring story of a man who had it all, had it all taken in mysterious ways, and somehow found his way back.
Then there’s this year. This epic year. Rick Ankiel has become perhaps my favorite hitter to watch in baseball. This year, Rick Ankiel has decided to do what a friend of mine calls “The Full Rob Deer.” You will remember Deer as a guy who swung for the fences, who hit 25-plus homers five times and who led the league in strikeouts four times. And while there have been many other players who have swung for the fences, I would say that none of them have done it with the relish, the persistence or the sheer chutzpah of Rick Ankiel.
We are talking every ... single ... at-bat.
Look at his amazing numbers.
Ankiel has come to plate 38 times this year.
He has struck out 24 of those times. Yeah. Twenty-four of 38.
He has walked zero of those times.
He has hit five home runs and two doubles and two singles.
Yes, of course, we’re talking a tiny sample size. But he’s slugging .684. And as MLB.com’s Matthew Leach, among others, have pointed out, Rick Ankiel has stopped at first base two times all year.
It’s utterly astonishing. You can get ridiculous playing the “on-pace” game, but how can you not do the math for Ankiel? If he could maintain this pace for 600 plate appearances, he would hit 79 home runs, and he would strike out 379 times. He would walk, if my math’s correct here, zero times.
What is he doing? In a weird way, I kind of think I understand — understand, that is, on a deep and personal level. Look at Ankiel. He’s 33 years old, and he’s playing on an Astros team that has a chance to be the worst team in baseball history. The Astros probably won’t become that team — they will probably settle into just an ordinary bad team — but so far, they have been shut out three times (one a near perfect game), they have had to pull their pitcher in the first inning twice and so on. They’re spectacularly bad.
And Ankiel, well, he’s facing the end. He has to know it. Since 2009, while playing for four teams, he has hit .234, he rarely walks and he has also slugged just .383 — just 31 homers in more than 1,200 plate appearances. He’s not offering anything. It’s almost over — the Astros are probably the last stop.
And he seems to have decided, like the boxer entering the final round losing on all scorecards, like the broke gambler down to a final bet, like the golfer facing the impossible shot but needing to pull it off to make the cut — that he might as well go for everything. Maybe, just maybe, if he can hit a noticeable number of homers — strikeouts, walks, singles, all of them be damned — he can keep this crazy career alive.
I’m rooting for him. Ankiel’s career has always been closer to the surface than most. While other players battle their insecurities and doubts and flaws in private, Ankiel’s have always been big and bold and impossible to miss.
And now, yes, it’s almost over, and he’s raging against the dying of the light, he’s swinging with all he has at the fastball three feet outside, he’s standing up there, hoping for a mistake, a hanging curveball, a slider that doesn’t slide, a fastball in his wheelhouse, a pitch he can drive. There probably aren’t enough of those pitches in the world. But, dammit, it’s like the great Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall used to say: If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous. Rick Ankiel is swinging as hard as he can.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.