Rick Ankiel is one step closer to resuming his already unusual career. On Tuesday, he played catch for the first time since having elbow surgery in October. The 39-year-old lefty, who retired in 2013, aims to return to competitive baseball by June as a reliever.
The Rick Ankiel Comeback Attempt
After retirement, Ankiel joined Fox Sports Midwest as an analyst for their coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent three seasons there from 2016-18. He mentioned in August that he would like to try pitching once again in the majors, only this time as a reliever. As a result, he did not extend his contract with the network for this season. Ankiel told MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch that they supported him, saying “give us a call when you’re done.”
He had surgery to repair a damaged elbow tendon back in October. This week, the Cardinals gave him permission to come workout in their Spring Training facility in Jupiter, Florida. Since Ankiel lives in Jupiter, he had no trouble getting there. They reportedly plan to give him a minor-league contract after his rehab progresses.
Ankiel’s Promising Rookie Season
Ankiel’s career began as a starting pitcher with St. Louis. After nine appearances – five as a starter – in 1999, he joined the starting rotation as a rookie in 2000. His record that season was an impressive 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, good enough to finish second to Atlanta Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal in the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year voting. He also frightened opponents with his bat, hitting .250 with two homers in only 68 at-bats.
He started Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS against Greg Maddux and the Braves. After St. Louis jumped out to a 6-0 lead, Ankiel lost control during the third inning, throwing five wild pitches to the backstop. Three of the pitches sailed over the catcher’s head. He was relieved by Mike James with two outs in the third after facing eight hitters in the inning. Despite his woes, the Cardinals hung on for the victory, but James was awarded the win.
Ankiel pitched again in Game 2 of the NLCS against the New York Mets and did not survive the second inning. Unbeknownst to the baseball world at the time, his confidence on the mound was all but gone. He had developed what is known as the yips.
After unsuccessful rehab attempts, he remade himself in 2005 as an outfielder. After missing all of 2006 with an injury, had a successful campaign with Memphis. By August, he had earned promotion to the majors once more. His return to Busch Stadium came at home on August 9 against the San Diego Padres, drawing a rousing ovation from the crowd during his first at-bat. In the seventh inning, he homered to right. He started almost all of the remaining games, hitting .285 with 11 homers over that 47-game span.
Rest of Career
Ankiel went on to play six more seasons. The first two were in St. Louis before signing a one-year contract with the Kansas City Royals in 2010 before being shipped mid-season to the Braves.
In the NLDS that year against the eventual-champion San Francisco Giants, he launched a homer into McCovey Cove. Barry Bonds is the only other player ever to do that in a postseason game. With that clout, Ankiel became only the second player in baseball history to start a postseason game as a pitcher and then later hit a postseason home run as a position player. The other player is Babe Ruth.
Ankiel’s comeback as an outfielder inspired many as an example of perseverance. His battle with anxiety has aided others in their struggles with the same. What he is setting out to do after being out of baseball for six years is an even more daunting task. However, if anyone can do it, it is Rick Ankiel. It will be exciting to see how he progresses over the next few months.
Information from Rick Ankiel’s personal website contributed to this report.
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