As many baseball fans remember, Rick Ankiel was a serviceable Major League centerfielder with a cannon for an arm. His story was all the rage of baseball when he threw his infamous five wild pitches in one inning. This happened in the playoffs none the less. After attempting to rekindle his pitcher status for a couple of seasons, Ankiel decided to attempt the unthinkable.
The legend says that Ankiel left the hill in 2005 for hopes of making it back to the show as an outfielder. He was only 25 years old and had a boatload of athletic talent running through his veins. It took over two and a half years, but Ankiel would return to the Saint Louis Cardinals. He was one of the most dangerous bats in the minors and an All-Star for his position while in AAA. The Saint Louis faithful welcomed him back as he would homer in his first appearance as a position player. A few days later Ankiel would pound two more home runs, sending the baseball world into a frenzy.
Charles Krauthammer said of the event: “Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis.” And, in reality, he was the real life version of “The Natural.” For the 2007 Cardinals, Ankiel was not just an August call-up. Ankiel represented what a true baseball player should be. He was the definition of natural and his play showed. As an added bonus, all those years of pitching made his outfield arm the most feared in the game for several seasons. He hit a career high 25 home runs and 71 runs batted in on his 2008 campaign.
So… what happened to Rick Ankiel? Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and Ankiel would be no exception. Already behind Father Time in some sense (almost 28 when he returned to Saint Louis), he was limited in his longevity. He was the starter for Saint Louis until a hustle injury would shake up his playing time. After his whiplash injury, Ankiel would split centerfield with the young emerging Colby Rasmus. This would be one of his last opportunities as a starter. He only had one more full season with the Washington Nationals in 2011. Ankiel bounced around teams including the Braves, Royals, and Astros. He announced his retirement prior to the 2014 season.
The legacy of Rick Ankiel won’t lie in the record books, nor will it live with accolades. But, it will live on in baseball folklore and the heart of the game forever. It should serve as a reminder to us all to appreciate the talent we see on a day to day basis in baseball.
So where is Rick Ankiel today? He’s currently in Florida and working for the Washington Nationals in a player development role. Ankiel is imparting the wisdom he learned in his time in baseball, in overcoming adversity and moving forward on the young prospects in the Nationals system. Ankiel was the can’t miss pitching prospect who fell apart after that one bad inning. He then became the player who was rebuilt and made the majors in a totally different position. It is those lessons of triumph, disappointment and perseverance that he can impart on today’s prospects from a unique perspective, that almost no one can match. Add in the ability to relate to both pitchers and position players, and the Nationals have someone who can be a valuable asset for in the development of their young players.
Ankiel’s playing spirit lives on, and goes past his brief, but memorable major league career.
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