Rick Ankiel’s fall from elite pitching prospect to being unable to throw a strike was stunning.
As a 21-year-old rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals, Ankiel started Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves and lost his control. Ankiel walked six and threw five wild pitches in 2 2/3 innings, and his pitching career was never the same. He appeared in two more playoff games that fall and it was a disaster: 1 1/3 innings, five walks, four wild pitches.
Although Ankiel was second in the rookie-of-the-year voting in 2000, he pitched in just 11 more regular-season games after that.
But the story had a happy ending. Ankiel worked his way back to the majors as an outfielder, first with the Cardinals, and then with the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros and Mets.
Now that his major-league career is over, Ankiel has written a book about his story, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life.” It was written with Yahoo baseball writer Tim Brown.
During an interview with 590 AM in St. Louis, Ankiel said he had retired from baseball because of the pitching woes. However, his agent Scott Boras convinced Ankiel that he should give it a try as an outfielder.
Ankiel also detailed how he drank vodka before his first start in 2001 after that postseason meltdown. Ankiel did well that day, allowing two runs on three hits in five innings with eight strikeouts and three walks.
“Before the game I’m scared to death,” Ankiel said on 590 AM. “I know I have no chance. I mean, just the day before, it was like one day I’m OK and one day I’m not, right? So feeling the pressure of all that, right before the game I got a bottle of vodka. I just started drinking vodka, and lo and behold, it kind of tamed the monster, and I was able to do what I wanted. I’m sitting on the bench feeling … like, this is crazy, I’ve got to drink vodka to just try and pitch through this. It worked for that game.”
Ankiel was asked if he had ever drank before a game in the past and he said no.
“It was one of those things where you feel like the yips, the monster, this disease…it didn’t fight fair so I felt like well you know what, I’m not going to fight fair either,” Ankiel said.
Ankiel made just five more starts that season and appeared in five games in 2004 before shelving his pitching career. To this day, Ankiel can’t answer what happened to him.
“There was no warning signs,” Ankiel told 590. “Basically, it was like here I am, just a few years removed from being the No. 1 high school player of the year. … In my mind, I wanted to be the best pitcher that ever played and everything is unfolding as it should and all of a sudden it’s just taken away from you. I had no idea what happened. …
“The hardest part of this is that even today in 2017, we can go talk to as many psychologists as we want and everybody still really doesn’t know what it is. That’s the hardest part.”