Rick Ankiel dropped by CBS Sports Radio on Tuesday to discuss his new book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life.” Ankiel, 37, was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball in the late-90s, but the 2000 postseason changed his career – and life – forever.
“I don’t know what happened,” Ankiel said on Tiki and Tierney. “We don’t why it happened. Before going into that Game 1, I was confident as I could ever be. Coming down that last month, I was 4-0 and won pitcher of the month. So everything was going as well as it could have went. I really developed a change-up that last month that took me to the next level.”
Ankiel, then a Cardinal, started two postseason games – one against Atlanta in the NLDS and one against the Mets in the NLCS. He threw a wild pitch against the Braves.
It wouldn’t be his last.
“All of a sudden, everything starts to unravel,” Ankiel said. “Nothing’s working. I remember saying to the media after Game 1, ‘Hey, this is a mechanical glitch. It’ll never happen again.’ And even between Game 1 and Game 2, I threw a bullpen session. Lights out. Pinpoint control. I figured whatever it was was gone.”
It wasn’t. Ankiel lasted just four innings combined in his two postseason starts. He threw nine wild pitches, walked 11 batters, and allowed seven runs.
“I would assume (the Cardinals) were probably alarmed, but I was too young to understand what this was turning into,” Ankiel said. “(When I threw that bullpen session), I thought, ‘I got this.’ I remember talking to Tony (La Russa) between the starts. I was like, ‘I got it. Give me the ball. I want the ball back.’ Going into Game 2, it happens again. After that game, that’s when I’m like, ‘Something’s not right here.’”
Ankiel tried various coping mechanisms, including alcohol. He drank vodka before his first start of the 2001 season and beat Randy Johnson. He used vodka again before his next start, but the Cardinals lost to the Astros, 7-4.
Ankiel eventually retired before returning to the majors – as an outfielder. He hit 25 home runs in 2008 and played until 2013.
“The biggest thing was trying to get physically ready, to be able to handle playing every day,” Ankiel said of the transition from pitcher to outfielder. “Once I got out past 100 feet, I could trust (my arm) again. That was even the case when I was still pitching. It was all about the short stuff: 60 feet-6inches or (throwing) to (one of the bases). But once I got stretched out, it didn’t matter. As far as hitting the cut-off man, my arm was strong enough I didn’t worry about the cut-off man. I told him, ‘When the ball is hit over my head, just turn around. Don’t come out to the grass.’”
Ankiel’s book, needless to say, is both fascinating and sad, but it’s also honest, candid, and inspiring.
Said Ankiel, “(By the end), you’re going to see me as the winner.”