March 2014

A tip of the cap to Rick Ankiel

According to Dan McLaughlin, who I’d have to think would know, Rick Ankiel is retiring. This isn’t an enormous surprise, since he’s not in camp anywhere and he hasn’t been in a big league game since June. But it’s still news. Ankiel was one of the most fascinating, exciting players I’ve ever seen, an absolute physical freak who had a unique career path.


So, first, I just want to wish him well. Ankiel wasn’t always easy to cover (he’d admit that himself), but in his later years he relaxed quite a bit and I found him warm and engaging. This story, from last May, was the product of a lengthy and wide-open interview and is one of my favorite things I’ve written in baseball. 


Rick had a hell of a career, making it to the Major Leagues three times (starter, reliever, outfielder), which is a stunning accomplishment in and of itself. He struck out 194 batters in one season and hit 25 home runs in another. We’re not likely to see a player like him again any time soon.


Anyway. I have three Ankiel stories. Actually, I have a lot more than three, but I have three that are suited to blogging.


The first is actually more of a Darryl Kile story. It goes back to my very first spring on the beat, possibly even my first couple of days on the beat. We were having our morning session with TLR at the corner of a practice field while the pitchers did their morning throwing. The nearest pair was Ankiel and Kile — Kile closest to us, Ankiel opposite him, maybe 100 feet away. 

This was the spring of 2002, so October of 2000 and the 2001 season were very, very fresh in people’s minds. Kile, a legendary teammate, was one of the people most aggressive about protecting Ankiel from anything he perceived as untoward or unfair attention from media (or anybody else).

So one of Ankiel’s throws sails a little off line — because when guys are playing catch in February, well, sometimes that happens. Kile had to jump a little bit to catch it. But from my angle, the ball looked like it was coming RIGHT at me. Again, I was new to the beat, and new to being around large numbers of baseballs being thrown around while I was doing my job.

So I had an instant, and ill-advised, reaction of self-preservation. Before I could process that the ball wasn’t REALLY going to get to me, I flinched and said “heads up!” It wasn’t mocking. It wasn’t even loud. It had NOTHING to do with who threw the ball and everything to do with the fact that for about a tenth of a second, I thought I was about to take a baseball in the teeth.

Kile reacted — instantly. He turned around, scowling. He took a couple of steps toward us. He growled, “WHO SAID THAT?” I kind of stammered a half-apology, didn’t really say much of anything, and made myself as small as I could. It was quite an introduction to DK.

So, yeah, that isn’t really an Ankiel story at all, but it always comes to mind when I think of him.


The second, though, is very much an Ankiel story.

It was also Spring Training, also in Jupiter.This would have been the spring of… 2003 probably. Matt Morris and Ankiel had pitched in the same game. Ankiel at that point was still not exactly a media darling, and we knew he wasn’t likely to say a lot when we talked to him. We knew likewise that TLR and Dave Duncan weren’t likely to fill up our notebooks regarding him either. So we asked Morris about him.

Ankiel that day had not been especially sharp, but he hadn’t been especially bad either. His fastball command was iffy, but his curveball had been sensational. (As an aside, I honestly believe Ankiel could be a lefty specialist TODAY with just those two pitches.)

Anyway, we were talking to Morris, who on a good day was a really entertaining interview subject, about his teammate and about those two pitches. And somehow the timing worked out perfectly.

Morris, who had a truly great curveball himself, had just finished talking about Ankiel’s fastball and started talking about the curve. Like, the instant Morris said the word curveball, and started talking with a little reverence about it, Ankiel happened to walk by the crowd of reporters clustered around Morris locker.

With a Cheshire-Cat grin, he strolled by, said “Curveball is the [stuff],” and kept walking.

Pretty sure it was the only quote we got from him that day. It was the only one we needed.


And the third is from several years later, after Ankiel was an ex-Cardinal. It was the 2010 NLDS between the Giants and Braves, and my first experience as a columnist in the playoffs (as opposed to as the beat reporter or being on sidebar/feature duty). It was a somewhat daunting responsibility, and I had kind of dropped the ball in Game 1 — not writing a bad column, but just failing to do justice to the most essential angle that needed to be written.

Game 2 of that series was a terrific game, weird and full of twists and turns. And I wanted to make absolutely certain I got the right angle, and just crushed the column. Thankfully, Ankiel delivered. A guy who’d been allowed to leave StL a few months either, who’d been kicked to the curb by the Royals at midseason, came up with an enormous, extra-inning, game-winning playoff homer into the Bay at AT&T Park.

I had my angle. Boy, did I. (You can read the column here, if you so desire.) 


Anyway. Good luck, Rick, in whatever you decide to do next.