If Rick Ankiel writes a book about his playing career _ and there is speculation he might _ it is guaranteed to have as many plot twists as a top-flight fiction thriller.
When Ankiel, 34, confirmed on March 5, 2014, that he has retired as a player, it was his second retirement announcement. Almost exactly nine years earlier, on March 9, 2005, Ankiel, 25, stunned the Cardinals when he said at the team’s spring training site in Jupiter, Fla., that he was retiring as a pitcher and would seek to transform himself into an outfielder.
At the time, the idea seemed to be preposterous. (Almost as preposterous as if someone would have suggested in 2000 that the rookie phenom of the Cardinals suddenly would lose his ability to throw strikes during the postseason, igniting his downfall as a pitcher.)
After all, the last players to make their big-league debuts as pitchers and then earn significant play in the majors as position players were Bobby Darwin (1962-77) and Willie Smith (1963-71), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Ankiel persevered, hit 32 home runs in the minor leagues in 2007, got promoted to the Cardinals in August that year and belted a three-run homer in his first game back in the big leagues as a position player. Boxscore He became the first major-league player whose first home run came as a pitcher and then later homered as a position player since Clint Hartung of the Giants (1947-52).
In his first 23 games after being promoted to the 2007 Cardinals, Ankiel hit .358 with nine home runs and 29 RBI.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Ankiel “the sport’s feel-good story of 2007.”
Then, following an all-too-familiar-pattern, Ankiel, within 24 hours, went from being marvel to mystery.
On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 6, 2007, Ankiel capped his comeback with a remarkable performance against the Pirates at St. Louis. Batting second in the order, Ankiel was 3-for-4 with two home runs, a career-high seven RBI, four runs scored and a walk in a 16-4 Cardinals victory.
“Even his foul balls down the left-field line are deep,” Pirates pitcher Matt Morris, Ankiel’s friend and former Cardinals teammate, said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “There’s nothing lazy about his swing.”
Ankiel grounded into a double play in the first inning, though the Post-Gazette reported Ankiel hit the ball so hard he “would have had another hit but for a spectacular stop by second baseman Freddy Sanchez.”
In the second, Ankiel launched a three-run home run off Bryan Bullington, making his first big-league start. After drawing a walk and scoring in the fourth, Ankiel smoked a two-run homer off John Grabow in the fifth. He received curtain calls from the appreciative fans after both home runs.
Ankiel added a two-run double in the sixth against Dave Davidson, making his big-league debut. With St. Louis ahead 16-3, manager Tony La Russa removed Ankiel. Boxscore
In the seven-game homestand, Ankiel batted .440 with five home runs and 19 RBI.
“He’s been relentless every at-bat,” La Russa said.
Said Cardinals shortstop Brendan Ryan: “He’s been putting up Nintendo numbers.”
Right or wrong
Imagine then the emotional swing the following morning, Friday, Sept. 7, 2007, when the New York Daily News reported that Ankiel in 2004 had received eight shipments of human growth hormone from an Orlando-based pharmacy through a Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., clinic.
Ankiel was attempting to recover from an arm injury in 2004. Major League Baseball didn’t ban the use of human growth hormone by players until 2005. Said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty: “There was no violation of Major League Baseball rules. There was no violation of any laws.”
But the report led some to question whether performance-enhancing drugs were aiding Ankiel in his storybook success with the 2007 Cardinals. “I’m a little surprised at the unfairness of some people who are rushing to conclusions before getting all the information,” La Russa said. “I don’t think he did anything wrong.”
In his first at-bat after news of the human growth hormone shipments, Ankiel singled. He then went hitless in his next 19 at-bats. He hit just two home runs in his final 24 games of 2007, then returned in 2008 to hit 25.
Like a classic page-turner, the twists in the playing career of Rick Ankiel never got predictable.