In the fall of 2004, Major League Baseball player Rick Ankiel had every reason to give up. The one-time pitching phenom for the St. Louis Cardinals possessed a legitimate list of “excuses” that would exempt him from criticism should he have decided to walk away from the game he loved.
An abusive father. A chaotic childhood. The death of a close friend. An unprecedented, inexplicable breakdown in his ability to throw a baseball where he wanted it to go.
Ankiel’s new book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, is a candid memoir about life behind the scenes of one of professional sports’ greatest collapses (and the epic, redeeming comeback that followed).
Ankiel grew up in Port St. Lucie, Florida, with a kid brother, co-dependent mother, and alcoholic father. Baseball was his refuge from the difficult situation at home, and matters were further compounded when, as a teenager, Ankiel had to deal with the death of his life-long best friend. But with no one helping this young man deal with, or talk through, such challenging circumstances, Rick buried his emotions (and self-worth) deeper into the fertile soil of a burgeoning career in the sport he cherished.
Out of high school, Ankiel was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and considered to be a once-in-a-generation talent. By the age of 21, he was pitching in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series against Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and the formidable Atlanta Braves. It was then and there, with the world watching, that Rick Ankiel’s collapse unfolded on live television.
There is no concrete, definitive explanation for why it is that some baseball players lose the ability to perform the most basic of tasks (i.e. throwing a pitch to home plate, throwing a ball from one infield position to another). In golf, the struggles that some players experience on the putting green are known as “the yips.” That term has come to encompass almost any (presumably) psychological breakdown of otherwise commonplace, routine activities in sports.
When “the yips” struck Rick Ankiel, he first attempted to do what he always did – push through an obstacle by sheer force of will. In a recent interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Ankiel spoke about the man who finally got through to him—famed sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman:
His thing was just trying to help me, you know, and I remember our first meeting in 2001 in the offseason, he came down. And, you know, same thing – he wanted to dive into my childhood and go into there, and he’s like, listen, you’ve never been taught how to handle adversity like this the correct way. And if you want, you know, we can pour the foundation today and get started and, of course, you know, the biggest thing I wanted was to become me again. And that’s where that conversation started.
And, you know, for a long time, I thought I had took that key and locked that stuff about my childhood away and thought I would never have to talk about it again. And, you know, we brought it up and we went through it, and, you know, because I carried a lot of guilt for my mom and that I never helped her. And, you know, he just tried to help me understand that it’s not your fault and that the thing with the yips isn’t my fault either…It just happened, and the biggest thing was now we just have to try to deal with it and move forward and try to cope with it.
Ankiel attempted to make multiple comebacks as a pitcher over the next year or two before walking into Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa’s office one day in 2005 to tell him that he was letting go of something that clearly wasn’t working. LaRussa told his young player to go home and think it over. A few hours later, Ankiel got a call from the organization that had drafted him asking if he’d be willing to switch positions and make a go as an everyday outfielder. This was a remarkable and nearly unheard-of request. Pitchers don’t switch to position players (and vice versa).
It took Rick Ankiel all of a few minutes to change twenty-four years of wiring and conditioning and sign up for more potential embarrassment and frustration. Throwing everything he had into this second chance at pursuing his dream of playing Major League ball, and humbling himself by returning to “Rookie Ball” at the lowest echelons of the sport, within a season-and-a-half, this happened:
In his first game back with the Cardinals, Ankiel hit a three-run homerun and received a standing ovation. Rick would go on to play another six seasons and retired in 2013.
Life, like baseball, can be a turbulent grind. But, as has been said countless times before, it’s not only about the hand we’re dealt—it’s how we play those cards.
In a society obsessed with blame games, short cuts and the avoidance of discomfort of any kind, Rick Ankiel’s story is one that transcends sports and speaks to the best of the human—and I might add, American—spirit.