Vodka, pot and the cinderblock wall: How Rick Ankiel tried to deal with the yips, anxiety
The following is excerpted from The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown Copyright © 2017. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
My rookie season was over. It had ended with plenty of crisp, confident bullpen sessions scattered around eleven walks and nine wild pitches in four postseason innings. Put me on a mound, put a catcher behind the plate, and I would throw hard, precise fastballs. Add fifty thousand spectators and a working scoreboard and somewhere between starting my arm forward and releasing the ball I’d black out, just for a split second, just long enough to throw a ball to the backstop. I consoled myself with the long off-season coming, knowing there’d be no pitches to throw tomorrow or the next day or next week. I consoled others with a practiced “I’m good. I’ll be fine. See you in February. We’ll get ’em then.”
The Cardinals lost to the Mets in the National League Championship Series in five games. That two-man rotation we’d ended the regular season with—Darryl and me—had become one, though Andy Benes pitched well and beat the Mets in game three. Otherwise, we got beat pretty good, and that felt terrible. Not only did I carry the unknown of my arm into that winter but also my share of the responsibility for a good team packing up in mid October, before its time.
The world was scary again. Adam Kennedy, my friend and former teammate, invited me to Southern California for the off-season. He’d been traded to the Angels in the Jim Edmonds deal.
Adam was a funny guy who liked to have a good time. He also had a lot of confidence in his ability. So we got along great. Within hours of first meeting each other— he had been drafted twentieth overall, fifty-two players ahead of me, in 1997, and we’d been teammates in the Carolina League in 1998 and again in Memphis with the Pacific Coast League in 1999—we’d debated which of us would reach the major leagues first.
We were in big-league camp together in the spring of 1998, just pups barely getting started, and during a morning meeting I looked over at him. He was staring at me. I turned away and, a minute later, too curious for my own good, I looked back, and there’s this guy, still staring.
I thought, What the . . . , but went on with the day. Next morning, we were sitting in the same seats, and
halfway through the meeting I looked over. Sure enough, he was staring. Where I was from, you only did that to someone you were calling out. The meeting ended, and I went straight for him.
“Hey,” I said, “what the f--- are you staring at?” He said, “What?”
“I said, what the f--- are you staring at?”
“Dude,” said the guy I’d learn was Adam Kennedy, “I love you.” “What?”
“I love you, dude. You’re awesome. You can play.”
He smiled all loopy, the way he still does. I laughed. From that moment, we were friends. How could we not be?
We’d actually met a few months earlier, only not so formally. In Instructional League, I pitched an intrasquad game. He stepped into the left-side batter’s box, and I figured I’d amaze him with my blinding fastball on the outside corner. He whacked it down the left-field line, just foul. I threw another, this on the inside corner. He lined it down the right-field line, just foul. He was all over the fastball, like he knew where I was throwing it. So I’d just have to strike him out with my curveball. He grounded that through the middle, like he knew I was throwing that too
I acted unimpressed. What I was thinking was Who is this guy? And why can’t I strike him out?
From the weird “I love you” thing on, we got competitive. Adam reminded me whenever possible that he was the first-round draft pick, even though we both knew I’d slipped because teams knew Scott was going to make them pay me too much. But, technically, it was accurate. When the clubbies asked the team to sign a bat for a fan or a local politician or somebody, Adam would be sure to be there first. By the time I’d get to the bat, it would read, “Adam Kennedy, First Round Pick.” Somewhere in the clubhouse he’d be sitting, smiling. So I’d sign, “Rick Ankiel, First One to the Big Leagues.” To which Adam would respond, “No, that’s going to be me too.”
by Rick Ankiel
By then, in 1999, we were teammates on the Memphis Redbirds. In late summer, Adam was hitting .327. I had 119 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings. We were close to the big leagues, and we knew it. The St. Louis papers were speculating on when we’d be called up, and Adam and I weren’t unaware of it, and the truth was I was rooting for Adam as much as I was for myself. Still, what would be a few hours, right? He’d get over it.
On a day in late August, the Cardinals’ farm director, Mike Jorgensen, was in the clubhouse when we arrived.
“Rick, Adam, both of you guys in the office,” he said. “Now.”
It was happening. We were going up. And I’d be first, I just knew it. Adam and I glanced at each other, stifled our smiles, and tried not to run into the office and trample Jorgensen.
“Here’s the deal,” Jorgensen said. “Both of you guys are going to the big leagues.”
All right, I thought, a tie. I’d have to take a tie.
“Rick,” he continued, “you’ve got a bullpen tomorrow. So you’re going to stay back and throw that bullpen, then go up the day after. Adam you’re leaving tomorrow.”
Adam side-eyed me. I pretended not to notice.
He debuted on August 21 at Shea Stadium, starting at second base against the Mets. I showed up two days later, in Montreal. By then, I was too excited to mind.
Fourteen months later, we’d work out at Edison Field in Anaheim, where Adam’s Angels played. We’d hang out near the beach, have a few beers, meet some girls, worry about tomorrow when it got there. Seemed like a good idea, and it was, as long as I kept the games of catch at a distance. Anything that felt like sixty feet, six inches caused my psyche and arm to seize. Therefore, I avoided it. Nobody in Newport Beach knew me. It was about as far from Fort Pierce as I could’ve gone without getting wet. No one would ask what happened.
Meanwhile, Scott Boras and Harvey Dorfman had regular dialogue about how to fix the scatter-armed kid who kept saying he’d be fine.
Scott suggested to Harvey that he call me. Harvey resisted.
“He has to come to me,” he told Scott. “It doesn’t work otherwise. I don’t have the relationship with him.”
So Harvey waited. And I played catch from 150 feet in Anaheim. And I walked around the problem, even as the nightmares came, and as two vodkas became three, then four. I’d smoke some pot, hoping it might slow my mind when it was racing, only to find myself overanalyzing everything I did.
Did I always open the door with my left hand? Did I always turn the knob clockwise? Is this new? Which hand did I hold the TV remote with? Have my car keys always been in my right pocket? Is this how I laced my shoes? One knot or two? Which hand did I brush my hair with yesterday? And I’d weigh the brush in my right hand, then my left, then the right again.
That was enough of the pot.
The strategy to calm my heart and mind was working. Not that I was ready to pitch. Not yet. But the distance was reassuring. The yips would require time to clear my system. This was my strategy. Ignore them. Run the stairs. Push the weights. Get a beer. Have a laugh with Adam. Watch the sun set. Think good thoughts. Try to sleep. Beat this thing. Start over.
Southern California was as good a place as any, better than most, and what I needed most in my life was quiet. I’d be fine. I’d be good. I’d see ’em all in February, good as new. I’d get ’em then. I settled in for a healing winter.
On the last day of November, a twenty-two-year-old man named Rob Harris argued with another man in Orlando, Florida. The details were unclear, beyond the belief they were headed somewhere together to buy drugs. They were in a car, driving through the city. Rob’s girlfriend was at the wheel. Rob was in the passenger seat. The guy in the backseat shot and killed Rob, ending the argument. Rob’s girlfriend got away. Hours later, the guy who shot Rob killed himself. Just a few paragraphs in the Orlando Sentinel. Drug deal goes bad. Two dead. Life on the margins of a tough world.
Except Rob was a friend of mine. We’d played baseball together in high school. I liked Rob, and then he was gone because of drugs and guns and whatever comes with that. The phone rang, and when I put it down I began to pack for Florida. After a few terrible days that concluded with Rob’s funeral, I went to my house in Jupiter, called Adam in Newport Beach, and asked him to send the rest of my stuff. I wouldn’t be returning. I was home, and I could no longer hide in Southern California. I picked up a baseball and my glove, went into the backyard, and faced the cinder-block wall that separated my property from the neighbor’s. On that wall, I picked out a nick in the concrete, a tiny flaw, one I could see from maybe thirty feet away. I threw the baseball at that chip.
I threw another.
Thunk. Another. Thunk.
“That you, Rick?”
The gentleman who lived next door. “Yep.”
“OK. Just checking.”
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
The soundtrack of my winter. His too.
Right foot back . . .
Thunk. Don’t think. Thunk.
Where was that release point?
I said, don’t think. Thunk.
Who cares? Thunk.
Just let it go.
“Whoa! This your ball, Rick?” “Yeah, thanks. Sorry.”
“You’ll get it.”
“I know. Thanks.”
Just me. A ball. The wall. And the monster.
My mind fluttered away. To Rob, slumped in the front seat of that car. To Dennis, gone too, all those years ago. To Mom. And Dad, locked in some cell. I could hit the nick on that cinder-block wall. The concrete surrendered a dusty mist. The nick became a pock, and the pock rounded into the size of a baseball and grew. The baseball returned scarred on three or four hops across the lawn. The sweat soaked my shirt. I was hungry. But it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t ever quite right. I’d take that f---ing wall down.
“Harvey,” I said. “It’s Rick . . . Ankiel.”
“Hi, Rick,” he said. “You wanna talk?” “Do you?”
“Yeah, why not?”
Not completely committed. “All right, then,” he said.
Spring training was close. The cinder-block wall looked like I’d taken a pickax to it. I’d been through dozens of baseballs. My brain had begun to feel like one of those discarded balls. That is, together, still technically a ball, still anatomically a ball, but torn and out of round and not nearly as aerodynamic as it had once been.
In the four months since October 3, since the third inning, since that pitch went to the backstop and pulled the thread that sent me to the cinder-block wall, I’d tried to convince myself that I would will it away. Keep throwing. Keep sweating. Think it through. Bury it. Bury it under the memories of Mom and Dad and the shouting and screaming and humiliation and fear and regret. Bully it. You will not touch me. You can’t. You are not good enough, or tough enough, whoever you are. Whatever you are. I will outwork you. I will not stop. I will win.
But, damn, my heart was running. My head was clogged. I closed my eyes and put myself on that mound in St. Louis, testing myself, and the crowd rose, and the moment arrived, and I was terrified. In my backyard, facing a wall, alone, the anxiety was bigger than I was. The ball was heavy. The air stuck in my throat. Spring training report day was out there, bearing down on me, and I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t. Not like this.