Sunday, August 12, 2007


Some call it going haywire. Others call it Steve Blass disease. The fashion obsessed and malaprop-prone call it Bill Blass disease. It happens when a major league baseball player or other athlete suddenly loses the ability to do a simple thing that he has done all his life. In pitcher Steve Blass’ case, he couldn’t throw the ball over the plate anymore. When it struck catcher Mackey Sasser, he couldn’t accurately throw the ball back to the pitcher. Second baseman Steve Sax, who had been a great player, could no longer make the short throw to first base.

In all these cases, some sort of mental block triggered the breakdown. When you go haywire, it’s virtually impossible to make it back to normal. Steve Sax once memorably said that people would tell him just not to think about it. He said that’s like telling someone, “Don’t think of an elephant!” When someone tells you not to think of an elephant, what do you do? You think of an elephant.

Perhaps the saddest case of going haywire is the one that hit St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel. In 2000, Ankiel was a 20 year old prodigy. The St. Louis Cardinals had signed him to a contract that included a $2.5 million bonus a couple of years earlier. Just barely out his teens Ankiel racked up an 11-7 record in the big leagues. He was 9th in the league in E.R.A., and 7th in the league in strikeouts.

The Cardinals made the playoffs that year, and there things went tragically wrong for Ankiel. With the nation watching, Ankiel threw five wild-pitches while allowing four runs in the 3rd inning of the Cards’ first playoff game. The Cardinals nevertheless advanced to the National League Championship Series, and Ankiel’s wildness continued to plague him. He didn’t make it out of the first inning in Game 2; out of the 20 pitches he threw that night, 5 got past the catcher. Ankiel returned to face four batters in Game 5 of that series; he threw 2 more wild pitches and walked two men.

Rick Ankiel never got back to normal. He never even came close He tried for what had to be five painful years until finally surrendering before the 2005 season. But Rick Ankiel is a great athlete, and was determined to make it back to the Major Leagues. He decided to do so as an outfielder.

Having started over as a 26 year old, Ankiel improbably became a very successful minor league outfielder. Last year, Ankiel suffered another setback, missing the entire season due to a knee injury. This year, as a 28 year old, Ankiel led all Triple A players with 32 home runs.

The St. Louis Cardinals once again brought Rick Ankiel up to the big leagues this week, this time as a power-hitting outfielder with a cannon for an arm. Ankiel made his return to the Cardinals’ lineup last night. Penning yet another unlikely chapter in the Rick Ankiel Story, Ankiel returned with a bang, hitting a home run in the 7th inning. Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa said that except for winning the World Series, Ankiel’s home run was the happiest moment he had ever had in uniform. Ankiel called the experience “unbelievable.”

"You almost can't put it into words,” he continued. “I couldn't have written that any better. No way. It felt so good I can't describe it. It's almost ... euphoric."

Ankiel’s home run wasn’t his first in the big leagues. He hit others as a pitcher back in 2000. But he got the ball back from last night’s home run, and he’s keeping it. As well he should - that ball didn’t come easy.

*Originally posted at Hugh Hewitt.


At 6:37 PM, Blogger mary ann said...

I love this story, my baseball email group has discussed it in depth. The fact that this was against those scum-sucking Dodgers just adds to the pleasure. Husbando always says, "baseball is just like life ~ unpredictable". So true...


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