Rick Ankiel Is Out

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Pitching prospects are notoriously fragile and unreliable, but that doesn’t stop us from dreaming about what they might become. In one sense, nothing is more uplifting for a fan than to read a scouting report extolling the precocity and potential world-altering brilliance of your team’s top pitching prospect. The text retains its myth-making power even when that one-time prospect is, years later, being knocked around in Triple-A rather than a perennial All-Star. The hope’s the thing.

This is why Rick Ankiel’s story is so unique. Ankiel, who retired on Wednesday, was once the sort of rare prospect who left scouts struggling through nights of uneven sleep—a southpaw with a big fastball and a curveball to match, and a makeup that belied his years. Back in 1999, one long-time scout told Sports Illustrated that he hadn’t seen a left-hander like Ankiel in “15, maybe 20 years.” His rookie season, in which Ankiel finished with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings at the age of 20, only confirmed the certainty of his future success.

Ankiel’s subsequent decline—his horrifyingly public bouts with control issues and the arm injuries that followed—was a surprise, but perhaps unsurprising given that young pitchers often flame out with little warning. He didn’t have any answers to his struggles, and neither did anyone else. Back in 2004, the year of his last major league appearance as a pitcher, Rick Ankiel appeared to have reached the sad end of his story. That was supposed to be his retirement, and it would be not a cause for celebration or wonder, but instead disappointment and regret, an occasion to parse the wreckage of what was once undeniably transcendent ability. But, again, Rick Ankiel actually retired on Wednesday.

That Ankiel can be remembered in a positive light, then, is victory enough. That he returned to the majors in 2007 transformed into a legitimate hitting talent is a remarkable story, the type of harebrained, impractical idea that could only happen on a baseball diamond, and that wouldn’t have happened had Ankiel been any less spectacular a talent. It’s hard to say what Ankiel expected when he decided to give hitting a try, but he couldn’t have done much better than a seven-year career as an outfielder in the major leagues.

Ankiel’s comeback was so improbable—his talent had long since disappeared into that remote realm of what-might-have-been—that even the stone-faced Tony La Russa cracked a smile upon Ankiel’s triumphant return to the majors. In storybook style, the former pitcher hit a home run for the Cardinals in his first game back after toiling in the minors for three seasons. At 27, Ankiel proved to be more than capable of being an every-day outfielder in the majors, hitting 36 home runs during his first season-and-a-half. He also, unsurprisingly, flashed a comically strong arm in the outfield whenever any base runner dared to scamper for an extra base.

After another season in St. Louis, Ankiel moved on to the Royals and the Braves before landing with the Nationals for two seasons. At this point, just how far Ankiel had come, and from where he’d begun, had become easy to forget; he drifted into workaday obscurity like any average ballplayer. But despite an injury-riddled 2012, Ankiel landed a job with the Astros in 2013 and moved onto the Mets in May, hitting two more home runs before his career finally concluded. This is more or less how average ballplayers’ careers end.

Such a prosaic ending couldn’t have been how Ankiel imagined his career would finish way back as a 20-year-old, although of course no one thinks of the end at that age. In retrospect, however, nothing was unremarkable about Ankiel’s time in baseball. His career stats won’t stand out in any way, or at least not in the way Ankiel should and did during his playing days.  For Ankiel, though, it must be comforting to know that he tapped out every opportunity to play—and succeed—in the major leagues.

In doing that, Ankiel gave fans a refreshing revision of the all-too-familiar tale of a hyped prospect and unfulfilled potential. It all could have ended back in 2004 when Ankiel, having just returned from Tommy John surgery, still struggled to throw strikes. Most unrealized prospect dreams end without any redemption, after all. But it didn’t end, because Ankiel wouldn’t let it. Whatever he accomplished in his extra time is secondary, in the end, to the fact that he won that second career in the first place. That Ankiel played on is admirable, even phenomenal, enough.

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