The Phenomenon: Rick Ankiel

It’s fitting that former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher and outfielder Rick Ankiel grew up just a few hours from Disney World. His life as been a roller coaster ride that even Walt Disney himself would have trouble scripting in a realistic way. Growing up in Fort Pierce, Florida, Ankiel grew up with an alcoholic father who dabbled in drug dealing and would come home late at night in a violent mood. There were times at age 12 when Ankiel would have to drive his father home . Through baseball, Ankiel found a new life. By age 20, he was the talk of the baseball world and being compared to Sandy Koufax. In the 2000 postseason, Ankiel began to have trouble getting pitches over the plate, throwing five wild pitches in an inning. No longer willing to endure the mental anguish that his throwing issues created, Ankiel decided to retire, only to have the Cardinals ask him later that day to try the outfield. Two years later, Ankiel was in the Major Leagues hitting home runs. In his book, The Phenomenon, Ankiel takes you on a very personal journey on his two trips from hell to heaven.

I know it’s strange to describe a memoir as “personal,” but this is as deep a dive into someone’s life as I’ve read in an athlete autobiography. How hard was it to write this book?
The hardest part was reliving the personal stuff. Talking about “The Yips” has never been a problem for me. Talking about the personal things with my family were the hardest things, because those were things that I had locked away and figured that I’d never have to speak about again. They’re really not pleasant memories. I also had to check with my mom to make sure she was going to be ok with it, because she was going to have to relive that part as well.

In every autobiography, a person makes a conscious choice as to what they want to reveal and what to keep hidden. What made you decide to reveal so much vulnerability?
If I would have been a Hall of Famer, and I would have written a book, I probably never would have written about the personal stuff.  But because of what I went through, a big part of it was being able to help other people that have gone through similar situations or had mental blocks in whatever they do. You don’t have to be an athlete to experience it. But I thought to understand the entire picture was important.

Your experience with being unable to get the ball over home plate happened in a very high profile way in Game One of the 2000 National League Divisional Series. How often do you think it happens to people on much smaller stages, and they suffer in silence because it’s not manly to talk about it?
I’m sure it happens a lot. That’s the main reason for writing a book like this, so that those people don’t feel alone.

For people who haven’t read the book, could you outline some of the issues you went through in your childhood?
I grew up in a severely dysfunctional family. Baseball became my escape. It was where I went to find peace. I needed baseball more than anything, because it took me out of that life. Once I started becoming good at it, I understood that this was my way out. I gave it everything I had to be the best that I could. So when you wrap all of that in there, and going through my personal journey with the yips, I couldn’t find literature on it anywhere, and nobody really wanted to talk about it. It’s a dark, lonely and ugly place, and after I got through it and made it to the other side as an outfielder, looking back at it, I wanted to try to help other guys going through similar things. I realized that my story and my voice can possibly help other people.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is when you meet Steve Blass, a successful pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who went through a similar issue getting the ball over the plate. He wants to help you, but he doesn’t know how. What does it feel like when you see someone going through what you did on the mound?
My heart drops. I get this bad feeling in my gut, because I understand what they are about to embark on. And when something like this happens, it’s not just something you can leave at the workplace. This consumes you 24/7. When I talked to Steve, that’s when I understood more of how it affects you. What you go through when you go home very day. Even when you are sleeping, in your dreams you can’t throw a strike and you wake up with your heart racing. Look at it this way. When I see a pitcher tear his elbow, well that sucks, and it’s going to be a grind. But most likely, you are going to be ok. You are going to get back to pitch and be as good as you want to be. But when you see somebody go through the yips, not only do you understand what they are about to go through, but there’s a strong chance that they don’t ever make it back. When you start to look at this kind of injury, more than not, that’s the case. You don’t get over it. You’re never the same pitcher again. There are guys that have gotten past it and came back and pitched successfully, but you understand that the dream of being a Major League Baseball player may be taken away from you.

How hard was it to go back down to the minors, all the way to rookie ball, to try to fix the problem?
It’s tough in some ways, because you’re coming from the big leagues. But I was so consumed about getting back to being the guy I was before this happened, to be honest, surroundings didn’t matter. In one sense, it’s harder in the big leagues—being around 50,000 people, its harder to control your emotions and get it right. In other ways, I was so consumed with trying to get it right and pinpoint the ball over the plate, it didn’t matter where I was.

Can you pinpoint when you wanted to quit baseball?
Yes, 2005 was when I made the switch from pitcher to outfielder. I came back to the Cardinals in 2004, and I pitched well enough to help the team win. Now was I the same invincible kid that was throwing in the high-90s, striking the world out? No, but I was still a left handed pitcher who could get people out. To do that, it took all-day mental training. It just didn’t stop. Then, between 2004 and 2005, I had a nerve flair up in my elbow. I was coming back from Tommy John so I had to get my innings up. When you combined all of those things together—the injuries, the mental training—this isn’t what it was supposed to be. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a game. Going into spring training in 2005, that’s when I started to think that maybe this wasn’t for me anymore. A few weeks later, I came to the decision to leave baseball.

Culturally in America, It’s so many boys’ dream to be a baseball player. How hard was it to let go of your identity as a baseball player?
This goes back to the personal stuff again and why it’s a pivotal part of the book. Baseball saved my life.  I’m not naïve enough to think that it didn’t. Without baseball, I could have ended up in prison, just like my brother and my father. Baseball was what saved me. As a young kid, I made the mistake of thinking that baseball was my identity. Instead of thinking, I’m Rick Ankiel and baseball is what I do, it’s more like, well baseball makes me Rick Ankiel. It was an immature mistake, but it happened. Here was this game that had given me every opportunity in the world to be something special, and now I have to give it up. That was one of the hardest thing to wrap my head around. Even when I started throwing the wild pitches, my identity as a player was beginning to be taken away. You go from being baseball’s poster boy to this lab rat science experiment, where everybody is looking at you like you have seven heads. From when the throwing issues began to the time I initially retired in 2005, that was the hardest part by far.

When you decided to quit, were you afraid that you were going to fall back down the same road as your brother and father?
I didn’t get that far; my retirement lasted for about four hours (laughs). But at that time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a college degree. I signed a contract out of high school. I had some money in the bank, more than most 25 year olds, but I had no idea what I was going to do.

Were you skeptical when your agent, Scott Boras, called you four hours later and told you the Cardinals wanted you as an outfielder?
I don’t know if skeptical is the right word. It was so hard for me to walk away. But as soon as I walked out of Tony LaRussa’s office and got into my car, I felt like this giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I knew I immediately made the right decision. When I got the call, it was more that I had jut made the hardest decision of my life to walk away from the game, and now you are asking me to fall back in love with the game. It’s such a whirlwind of emotions swinging from one thing to another.

But did you feel like it might be a ploy to get you back on the mound someday?
No, and it really didn’t matter. I had come to my own decision about leaving the game. Once I started visualizing what this would be like, the amount of work, what it was going to take with my teammates, I believed I was going to make it back. So I really didn’t care if it was their intention or not to make me a pitcher again, I was going to give everything I had to become an outfielder.

How rewarding was it for you in August of 2007 when you made it back to the Cardinals as an outfielder?
It was amazing, everything that went into it. Then that first day, I get called up, and hit a home run in St, Louis. If I had sat down and written a script, there was no way that I could have written it any better. The two biggest moments of my professional career were making it to the big leagues as a pitcher, because that’s your dream as a boy and then that was the second one, because I’m doing the impossible. No one had given me a chance, and the redemption from that moment was just incredible.

Harvey Dorfman was one of the pioneers of sports psychology in baseball. How influential was he in your life?
I can’t give him enough credit. Not only did he save my career and help me get through the throwing stuff, but he matured me as a young man and taught me what it was to be a good young man. The upbringing that I had, I never had a good role model. Eventually he became a father figure to me. We did so much work on the pitching stuff, the language of it, the importance of the words we used, we would talk almost every day.

We are beginning to see more athletes talk about their mental health. Do you think there is less of a stigma today?
I think so. Beyond the teams, every major corporation is starting to have people there to help them out on the mental side of things. I think it’s starting to be accepted. If you have issues or even if you just want to better yourself, there are people to help you stay focused and give you the tools and mechanisms on coaching yourself better.

You had your throwing issues before social media. Do people now reach out to you to seek advice?
They do, not just through social media, but by word of mouth. I think it helps, because I had the years of experience with Harvey. The hardest thing is to tell someone that some people get through this and some people don’t. Even if you get to the point where you are successful, it’s never gone. It’s always there. You just learned how to deal with it.

When you see someone like Shohei Ohtani, who is only 23, getting that same kind of phenomenon treatment that you got, does it concern you that it might be too much?
No, I’m excited for him! Not only do I think its awesome that they are going to allow him to do what he’s doing, but you want to talk about growing the game? You’ve had Ichiro, and now you’ve got this bright new star from Japan, and you have young boys and girls looking up to him thinking “I want to be this guy because he does both.” It’s amazing for baseball.

Now that you have retired from baseball and written a book, what’s next?
I’m at Fox Midwest as an analyst. I’m also probably going to go back to school to get my sports psychology degree and go from there. You look at the way the world’s moving, and the positive psychology movement, there’s going to be such a need to mentor people.

Rick Ankiel’s memoir, The Phenomenon (Hachette), is now available in paperback.

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