Rick Ankiel, “The Phenomenon”

It might be one of the most troubling, unsettling sports videos you’ll ever see—Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals throwing five wild pitches in the third inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves in 2000.

In one inning, Ankiel went from one of the top arms in the major leagues to one of the oddest stories in the histories of the sport, certainly one of the strangest careers.  He was pulled in the third inning of that particular game but in his next start, game two of the National League Championship Series, he was pulled in the first inning after throwing 20 pitches, five of which flew wildly past the catcher.

“One moment, I was a pitcher,” Ankiel recalls in The Phenomenon (check the curious double meaning of that word). “The next, I was a patient. A project. A cautionary tale. A lab rat. A fairly miserable human being. I was, quite suddenly, my father’s son. A casualty of the game, of a broken family, of a heartless world, of all the stuff that may or may not have been swirling around in my head.”

Ankiel had “the yips.”  It’s an unexplained condition.

Writes Ankiel: “It’s an anxiety disorders. No, it’s ‘misplaced focus.’ Unless it’s plain old ‘performance anxiety,’ which, I suppose, is something very close to ‘choking,’ except nobody likes that word.… It’s a neurological disorder. Narrower? How about ‘focal dystonia,’ in which one’s muscles contract involuntarily? Broader? The old-time golfers called it ‘the yips.’ Older time than that? ‘Whiskey fingers.’ Yes, it is neurological. Unless it is psychological. Or physical. Or all of it, all balled up into one large sob.”

Can you imagine doing what you have been trained to do and performing that something on a national stage in front of a whole stadium full of people and a national television audience—and then (suddenly) not being able to do that thing?

Ankiel is not alone. There are baseball players (Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch) and golfers and others. Many others. But given the number of professional athletes out there, it’s a small percentage.

Dealing with this particular inner monster would be hard enough. Writing about in a book? Baring all? Telling all? Impressive.

The Phenomenon is extremely well written. I’m going to go ahead and give credit to Tim Brown, longtime baseball writer, for that (especially since Ankiel admits late in the book that he was never much of a reader, let alone writer).

If Ankiel was done after the 2000 season, there might not have been much of a story. (Impossible to know). But because Ankiel turned and faced the monster, and clawed his way back, it’s easy to root for Ankiel. In fact, Ankiel works his way back as a pitcher and then decides to pull the ripcord and retire on his own career, deciding to walk away on his own terms (but with the monster still alive).

But there was still one more chapter to go—and with his agent’s encouragement and the Cardinals’ organization behind him, Ankiel goes from pitcher to outfielder and transforms himself into a very good ballplayer known for a powerful arm and some good seasons as a hitter, too. He hit 25 home runs in 2008.

Besides the baseball side of the story, Ankiel and Brown weave in lots of off-the-field business about Ankiel’s family, childhood, and his relationship with the legendary sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman. It’s all compelling, primarily because it’s an utterly human story in so many ways.

A remarkable book. It’s about so much more than baseball. Final note—I “read” this on audio and got the added benefit of Ankiel reading his own story. Very well done.

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