St. Louis Cardinals: Remembering the Comeback Story of Rick Ankiel

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The Major League journey of former St. Louis Cardinals member Rick Ankiel proved unconventional, yet offered positive surprises when least anticipated.

Once a minor league pitcher for the Arkansas Travelers in 1999, Ankiel reflected on his MLB career in Arkansas State’s Grand Slam banquet last Friday. The 36 year-old discussed the adversity he faced as a St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher before seeking motivation to become an everyday outfielder.

When Ankiel officially made the positional switch in 2005, he challenged baseball history in the sense that Babe Ruth was the only other player with at least a dozen wins and 50 career home runs. Although he never won a World Series or earned All-Star honors in his 11-year career, Rick Ankiel could be remembered for one of the more innovative and courageous returns in the modern era of baseball.

Drafted by the Cardinals in 1997 as a second-round draft pick, Ankiel debuted less than three years removed from USA Today’s high school player of the year honors. He compiled a 3.46 ERA and an 11-8 record in his first two years with St. Louis, placing second in the 2000 National Rookie of the Year race behind Rafael Furcal.

But unforeseen control problems began to surface during the Cardinals’ postseason run in 2000, as Ankiel threw five wild pitches in the third inning of his first October start against the Atlanta Braves. Similar issues continued into the rookie’s next postseason start, during which he was removed 20 pitches into NLCS Game 2, which the Cardinals eventually lost by a score of 6-5 . 

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After issuing 25 walks in his first six starts of 2001, Ankiel was initially assigned to the Memphis Redbirds before finishing the season with the St. Louis Cardinals’ rookie league affiliate in Johnson City. Missing parts of the next two seasons with a left elbow sprain and Tommy John surgery, Ankiel made five relief appearances in September 2004, which proved to be his final month as a full-time pitcher.

Switching to the outfield would prove difficult for a Cardinals team with depth ranging from veterans like Jim Edmonds to prospects such as Chris Duncan. However, Ankiel’s above-average offensive and defensive capabilities as a pitcher gradually improved his chances of a Major League return, helping him collect collect 53 home runs and 164 RBIs with three minor league affiliates from 2005-2007.

Called up for his first start as a position player with St. Louis on Aug. 9, 2007, Ankiel delivered a three-run home run that provided a jovial moment during the Cardinals’ first season losing season of the 21st century. Various team injuries allowed Ankiel to seize more starting opportunities, allowing him finish the campaign within St. Louis’s Top 10 for home runs and RBIs.

While Ankiel’s left-handed power became crucial for a Cardinals’ lineup featured around Albert Pujols for the 2008 season, his defensive range became a larger asset in his final two seasons with St. Louis. Ankiel showcased arm strength and long-distance throwing mechanics he acquired as a pitcher to contribute 12 outfield assists with the Cardinals.

A crowded outfield with the likes of Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick made it difficult for the Cardinals to retain Ankiel, who became an unrestricted free agent in 2009. The outfielder gained experience with five teams over the next four seasons, announcing retirement in March 2014.

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Perhaps Ankiel’s journey from pitcher to outfielder involved more intricacies en rout to one of the most sporadic careers in MLB history. But considering the odds he overcame in timing, health and competition, Rick Ankiel returned to baseball with a rare sense of courage and determination that the Cardinals, nor any other team in baseball, may encounter in the near future.

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