One of us is currently in St. Louis for the Cardinals' 3-game set against the Dodgers. Yes, barring a collapse by the Cubs and Brewers coupled with a huge surge by the Champs, this will end up being a forgettable season for St. Louis. However, the atmosphere today in Busch Stadium III was worth writing about because of the heroics of one Rick Ankiel.
Ankiel, as you may recall, had a great 2000 season as a rookie pitcher at the tender age of 20. At the end of that season, against the Braves in the NLDS, Ankiel had one of the weirdest outings in baseball history in Game One. The Cards got off to a good start, but in the Braves' half of the third Ankiel lost all control over his pitches and his career began to end with 5 wild pitches in the one inning. He followed it up with a similar performance against the Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS, was ineffective at the beginning of 2001 and his major league career was apparently over--or at least put on hold.
But Ricky had always been a good hitter, at least for a pitcher. So he stuck around in the Cards' minor league system as an outfielder, putting up consistently improving numbers which culminated in a strong season in right field for the Memphis Redbirds. On Thursday he got the call-up to the big show, and promptly hit a homerun to put the icing on the cake of a victory over the Pedros. He became the 12th player in baseball history, and the first since 1947, to hit his first homerun as a pitcher and then do so as a position player.
So this weekend suddenly and pleasantly became a really fun weekend to drive up and see the Cards play. And today, Ankiel cemented himself as easily the best story of this year's MLB season. On the first pitch he saw from Derek Lowe, Ricky Ballgame hammered a ball into the Cards' bullpen for a 2-run homer to give St. Louis a 1st inning lead that they would not relinquish. Then, in the bottom of the 7th, he went yard again with a solo shot to put the Cardinals up 6-1. This guy's seats happened to be in the right field bleachers, where it was unforgivingly hot but only about 50 feet from where both of the blasts landed. So that was cool. For good measure, Ankiel then made a twisting, turning, sliding-on-the-warning-track catch in the top of the 8th to a standing ovation. It is hard to remember if we have ever seen such incredible adulation for a single player in a team sport, but Rick has now hit 3 homeruns and taken 3 curtain calls.
So Rick Ankiel, now 27, may very well have a great MLB career in front of him as a position player. We heard a story today that he went to the manager of the Memphis Redbirds during spring training this year and said he'd like to try pitching again, to which the manager replied with a bewildered, "are you serious?!" Ankiel said with a smile, "April Fools!"
To come all the way back from mysteriously and embarrassingly having a promising future abruptly end, and to do so through 6 years of toil in the minor leagues, is an incredible story. It takes a whole heck of a lot of hard work, a refusal to give up on yourself just like in the movies, and a sense of self-deprecating humor as demonstrated above. Three Cheers for Rick Ankiel, and here's hoping for ten more years in the Busch Stadium outfield.