Wet 'n' Wild Last October precocious Cardinals lefty Rick Ankiel couldn't throw the ball in the ocean. This spring he will learn if his inaccuracy was temporary--or career threatening

February 19, 2001

His toes tingled. That's what St. Louis Cardinals lefthander Rick
Ankiel remembers about the morning of Oct. 3, 2000. He woke up
much earlier than he wanted, tried to go back to sleep but could
not. That's when he felt his toes tingling. Weird, he thought.

It was his day to pitch--not just any day but the opening day of
a Division Series against the defending National League
champions, the Atlanta Braves--and he was starting opposite
four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux. Ankiel was 21 years
old. His mother, Denise, would be in the stands at Busch
Stadium. His father, Richard, could not make it because he was
in federal prison. Richard was a cocaine runner with a rap sheet
older than his son.

In the considered wisdom of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa,
Ankiel, though a rookie, was equipped for the cauldron of this
Game 1 start but not for the media interview room the day before.
La Russa had sent veteran righthander Darryl Kile there as a
ruse, giving the impression that Kile would be St. Louis's Game 1
starter.

Ankiel could not have known it, not even by the odd sensation in
his toes, but he woke up a different pitcher that morning. He had
gone to bed a prodigy, blessed with a gift for throwing 95-mph
fastballs as if they were thunderbolts from Zeus and sweeping
curveballs that broke like Lombard Street. Only three years
removed from Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High, he had whiffed 194
batters (eclipsing Dizzy Dean's 68-year-old franchise record for
strikeouts by a rookie), had fanned batters at a better rate
(9.98 per nine innings) than every other National League starter
except Randy Johnson and hadn't lost in two months.

That afternoon and in two subsequent postseason appearances,
Ankiel transmogrified before a national audience into a burlesque
act that was among the wildest displays of pitching ever. In just
four innings in those three playoff games, Ankiel walked 11
batters and threw nine wild pitches, including five in one
inning--nobody in 110 years had done that--but not including
assorted other scattershots to the backstop with no one on base.

The Cardinals beat the Braves but were eliminated from the
postseason by the New York Mets in the National League
Championship Series. Soon after, Ankiel and a teammate,
righthander Matt Morris, drove from St. Louis to their winter
homes in Florida, taking turns behind the wheel. Somewhere along
the long ribbon of asphalt Ankiel blurted out to Morris, "What a
way to start your career! My first year, and it winds up a big
mess! Maybe five or six years from now I'll look back on it and
laugh."

The first clues as to where Ankiel's career is going will come
this week when the Cardinals open their spring training camp in
Jupiter, Fla. Now more petri dish than phenom, Ankiel will be put
under the microscope by team personnel and members of the media
as they try to make sense of what happened in October. It was
either an untimely breakdown in confidence, mechanics and
nerves--that's what he and the Cardinals believe--or it was a
manifestation of a phenomenon so feared among ballplayers that
they speak of it, if they dare to at all, as a monster: the
Thing. It's the sudden and inexplicable loss of control that
killed the career of 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates ace Steve Blass and
sidetracked Braves star reliever Mark Wohlers, who made comeback
strides with the Cincinnati Reds last season.

"To me it was a mental block," Morris says. "He'll be fine. He's
handled it great. But you know people will be watching, even if
he looks fine. It's like a recovering alcoholic. You're never
recovered, you're always recovering."

Ankiel has always carried himself with a cocksure strut and
hasn't given even a hint of introspection. Second baseman Adam
Kennedy, the Cardinals' first-round pick in the 1997 draft
(Ankiel fell to the second round because of his demand for a
huge signing bonus, which wound up being $2.5 million),
remembers when he first met Ankiel later that year. "He had
confidence and arrogance written all over him," says Kennedy,
now with the Anaheim Angels. The two prospects became close
friends. Two years later Ankiel's agent, Scott Boras, watched
his then 20-year-old client pitch in his first big league
game--a five-inning, six-strikeout no-decision against the
Montreal Expos--after which Boras excitedly asked him, "The
major leagues! How was it?"

"Oh," droned Ankiel, "it was O.K."

The shock of October isn't about to shake Ankiel either, not
publicly anyway. "It was just one of those things where everybody
has a bad day," he said in late January, seated at a table in the
middle of the empty Cardinals' clubhouse in Jupiter. "I'm
disappointed I didn't pitch the way I know how. There were about
10 things [mechanically] I did wrong. But you should focus on
your good games. Focus on things that are positive rather than
negative. I'm not going to worry about it."

Is there any doubt, he was asked, that what happened in October
was a fluke? "No. I have no doubt," he said, "not even in the
back of my mind."

Dave Duncan, the St. Louis pitching coach, is equally emphatic.
When asked about Ankiel's being compared with Blass and Wohlers,
Duncan responded, "There's no comparison. Pretty much every time
they stood on a mound, they had a problem. With Rick, that's not
the case. There are times when he gets messed up mechanically,
and the end result is the ball doesn't go where he wants it to
go. The more experience he gets, the more he can get himself out
of that. I don't think of it as close to what happened to
Wohlers."

Duncan's theory is that Ankiel's rapid ascent to the big leagues
left him without the know-how to adjust to adversity on the fly.
(Ankiel made a 52-start express trip through the minor leagues,
putting together a 25-9 record while striking out 416 batters in
298 2/3 innings, before coming up to the majors and making five
starts and four relief appearances late in the 1999 season.)
After his October blowup, the Cardinals sent him home with their
standard conditioning program, nothing more. They left his winter
of recovery in the hands of Boras, who quickly fostered a
nurturing environment around Ankiel.

Throughout November and December, Ankiel stayed with Kennedy in
Newport Beach, Calif. They worked out at Edison Field,
vacationed in Las Vegas, enjoyed what Southern California has to
offer. Kennedy's house is only a few miles from Boras's office
in Irvine, and Ankiel, long a favorite of the staff there
because of his youthful exuberance, was a regular visitor.
"Everything we did was in a casual manner," Boras says. "It was
done in the normal course of conversation and interaction."

Even though Ankiel appeared unruffled, Boras says he saw a young
man infected by doubt about his performance, a young man who
didn't have the tool kit to repair his psyche. "He's going
through a growth cycle," Boras says, "mentally and physically."

Boras arranged several sessions with Harvey Dorfman, a sports
psychologist on Boras's staff. Dorfman's aim was to sharpen
Ankiel's focus on the mound. For instance, when Ankiel watched a
tape of his Game 1 start against the Braves, he discovered he
would momentarily look away from his catcher, Carlos Hernandez,
during his delivery. Dorfman helped him develop routines to help
maintain his focus on the catcher's target throughout his
delivery.

In January, Ankiel moved into a home he'd recently purchased in
Jupiter. He resumed throwing off a mound three weeks ago at the
Cardinals' training site, though only lobbing the ball and
without the distractions of a batter, umpire or crowd. Those
sessions, he says, have been normal.

Ankiel did have occasional bouts of wildness before October--he
walked five or more batters in five starts last season--"but never
to that extent," he says. He also pitched better at the end of
the season than he had earlier in the year, going 4-0 with a 2.36
ERA over his final 10 starts to finish 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA,
ninth best in the league. In an instant against Atlanta, however,
he was a different pitcher. After blanking the Braves in the
first two innings, Ankiel came unglued in the third, facing eight
batters, retiring two, surrendering two hits and four runs, and
walking four. He threw five wild pitches in a six-batter sequence
that had elements of dark comedy. Hernandez chased so many balls
to the backstop that he looked like a frantic puppy playing
fetch.

La Russa and Duncan had decided to begin the series with Ankiel
partly because they didn't like the possibility of giving him the
ball in Game 2 if St. Louis had lost the opener of the
best-of-five series. Game 1, they figured, would impose less
pressure. "I don't have any regrets," Duncan says. "We thought it
through and felt we came up with the best decision."

La Russa, speaking after the game, expressed confidence that
Ankiel would bounce back. He added that Hernandez, who was
acquired from the San Diego Padres on July 31 and had caught
Ankiel only five times previously, might have been able to guide
the young pitcher out of trouble if he'd been more familiar with
him.

La Russa sent Ankiel out again for Game 2 of the Championship
Series, at Busch Stadium. Ankiel threw his first pitch over the
head of Mets leadoff hitter Timo Perez, hitting the backstop on
the fly. He lasted 33 more pitches, only 14 of which were
strikes. He uncorked two more wild pitches and issued three walks
to the seven batters he faced, two of whom he retired. This time
La Russa took the bullet, saying, "Before anybody starts kicking
Rick around, the blame is on me for putting him there. That's
where it ought to end."

While the Cardinals built a wall around Ankiel, using excuses as
mortar, Ankiel didn't seem troubled. When the series moved to New
York, he and Morris got together with friends at an Upper East
Side watering hole. They began a game of darts. When Ankiel took
aim at the board, the crowd shrank back and gasped in mock
horror. Ankiel broke out laughing.

When Mets fans harassed him during batting practice before Game 3
at Shea Stadium, Ankiel, playing catch with Morris, deliberately
heaved the ball far over Morris's head. When he was cheered
derisively during pregame introductions, Ankiel gave a vigorous
tip of his cap. "He's never been short of confidence," Kennedy
says. "From the end of the season to now I have seen him mature
right before my eyes. He'll be fine. If I had to pick one pitcher
who will dominate baseball over the next 15 years, all my money
would be on him."

La Russa used Ankiel one more time in the series, as a reliever
with St. Louis losing 6-0 in the seventh inning of Game 5, the
clincher for New York. He walked two of the four batters he faced
and threw two more wild pitches. Afterward La Russa gushed about
the curveball Ankiel used to get a called third strike on Perez.

On Halloween weekend Ankiel took a trip to the minimum security
prison at Eglin Air Force Base, near Pensacola, Fla. "It's one of
those country-club prisons," he says. "It's a prison without
walls." This was the first time he had seen his father since
Richard, 43, was sent to jail on May 15. (Rick's next start after
that visit, four days after the incarceration, was his worst of
the regular season; he gave up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against
the Pirates in Pittsburgh.)

Richard had served 30 days in jail for marijuana possession in
1975, four years before Rick, the youngest of his three children,
was born. He was arrested 14 more times over the next 25 years on
charges ranging from burglary of a conveyance to aggravated
assault to carrying a concealed weapon. He was convicted at least
six times. (He served jail time for five of those arrests, the
longest stint being a year.) In arrest records he listed himself
variously as a baseball coach or fishing guide. When Boras met
him in '97, Richard said he hung Sheetrock for a living and then
offered a hand to shake. The hand, Boras immediately thought, was
oddly smooth and soft for a laborer.

In September 1999, shortly after Rick had reached the big
leagues, Richard was named in federal charges of conspiracy to
distribute marijuana and cocaine. He initially pleaded not guilty
but later admitted guilt and agreed to testify against several
accomplices, who were convicted. In March of last year he was
sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary. Seven weeks
later he was arrested once more, this time for throwing a loaded
9-mm handgun out the window of his pickup truck while pulling
away from a traffic light, whereupon he was sent immediately to
prison, two months earlier than scheduled.

Since his father's imprisonment, Rick has spoken with Richard
about once a week by telephone. Richard was a driving force
during Rick's youth baseball career, but when he tries to talk to
his son now about pitching, Rick stops him cold. "He doesn't know
enough to tell me about what I'm doing," he says.

When the two of them talked on Halloween weekend, Richard spoke
excitedly about circumstances in which he might be sprung after
three years. Rick was in no mood for such dreaming. "Why are you
worrying about something three years from now?" Rick told him.
"That's a long way off. This is reality right now. Deal with it,
man. This is your problem that you made. We all have our
problems."

"There are some deep issues with his dad," Boras says. "When you
grow up like that, it causes you to take an approach to things
that's not as open, like having a very hidden life. To be open
and free, that's what we all want for Rick."

This spring Ankiel will climb the mound again, the baseball back
in his hand. Let the world watch. He'll be fine. Of that he's
certain. He'll be free--free of the mystery of October and its own
kind of prison without walls.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA Warming up As his winter of refocusing came to an end, a pensive Ankiel loosened up on Juno Beach near Jupiter, Fla. COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A wild idea La Russa thought a Game 1 start might put less pressure on Ankiel than a Game 2 assignment. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE LEISTER/PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD C. MODRA Missiles of October In his nightmare third inning against the Braves, Ankiel sprayed 20 of his 35 pitches outside the strike zone. Five were scored as wild pitches (yellow), including one on ball four to Andres Galarraga, and the beleaguered Hernandez saved further embarrassment by making a leaping save on another of the wayward deliveries.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above]

"My first year, and it winds up a big mess!" Ankiel blurted out
to Morris. "Maybe six years from now I'll look back on it and
laugh."

"From the end of the season to now I have seen him mature right
before my eyes," Kennedy says of his friend Ankiel. "He'll be
fine."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)