AFTER BEING CALLED UP to the big leagues on Aug. 9, Rick Ankiel became the kind of player that receives standing ovations even on the road. He had pulled off an improbable transformation, from washout pitcher to big-time power hitter, and was making it look easy. As more than a few columnists pointed out after he swatted his eighth and ninth home runs and drove in seven runs last Thursday, Ankiel was The Natural's Roy Hobbs come to life, a rare feel-good Hollywood story in a depressing sports summer.
Last Friday, however, the pregame announcement of Ankiel's name over the speakers at Chase Field in Phoenix was met with boos. It was a stunning fall from grace: Hours earlier the stoic 28-year-old Cardinals outfielder faced reporters in the visitors' dugout and, citing doctor-patient privilege, danced around a report in the New York Daily News that he received eight shipments of human growth hormone in 2004 from a pharmacy under investigation for illegal distribution of prescription medication.
Ankiel wasn't the only ballplayer disgraced last week—SI.com reported that Blue Jays third baseman Troy Glaus allegedly received steroids and Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons allegedly received HGH and steroids from that same pharmacy. But the news about Ankiel was the most shocking. It doesn't matter that St. Louis G.M. Walt Jocketty said last Friday that in Ankiel's case "there were no violations of MLB rules" or "any laws." Nor does it matter that we may never know whether Ankiel took HGH or, if he did, when.
Even as his Cardinals battle for a playoff spot, Ankiel's 2007 season doesn't look as if it's headed toward the happy ending that Roy Hobbs enjoyed in the film version of The Natural. It's easier to imagine something closer to the final scene of the Bernard Malamud novel on which the movie is based: After being pulled into the dark side of the game (in Hobbs's case, taking bribes to throw a game), the hero is left alone, quietly weeping.