The Day I Quit Baseball, Then Came Back
In an excerpt from his new book with Tim Brown, ‘The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life,’ Rick Ankiel recounts the three hours he quit the St. Louis Cardinals.
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
I could breathe again. I could smile and mean it. That thing on my shoulders and in my neck, that heavy and dark and relentless burden that in four and a half years had grown with my ERA, it was gone. My head was clear. So clear, I had to laugh. By giving up what I'd thought was my life, I knew I'd gotten my life back. I knew it in that moment. I'd traded baseball for me. I'd miss it, sure. But it wasn't for me. Not anymore.
I didn't turn on the TV. I didn't turn on the radio. I sat on my old brown couch, happy to be happy, happy for the silence in my head, happy to be free, at twenty-five, of the only thing I had ever really wanted.
In Asheville, North Carolina, a phone rang, and Harvey Dorfman picked up. Years later, Harvey, a sports psychologist I worked with for years, recounted the conversation to me.
"Scott," he said.
"Well, he did it," Scott Boras said. Scott was my agent. "He told the Cardinals. He's not going back."
"I know," Harvey said. "How's he seem to you?"
"He said he's fine."
"What do you think?"
"He said he's fine."
"I'll call Walt," Scott said, meaning Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals' general manager.
"You better be right," Harvey said.
"There's no more monster," Scott said. "We killed it. It's gone."
"All I'm saying is, this better work."
"If it doesn't . . . "
"Harvey," Scott said, "trust me."
"Trust you? You kidding? You're more messed up than any of 'em."
Their usual dance. They shared a laugh. Maybe Scott needed Harvey more than I did, which was saying something.
"Gotta go, Harvey. I'll stay in touch."
They'd been plotting this for months. They'd had a plan for when I couldn't do it anymore. They'd hidden it from me.
I let my mind drift to the backyard games in Fort Pierce, Florida, to the early ball games at Sportsman's Park and then Port St. Lucie High School, the draft, a couple years in the minor leagues, my big-league debut for the Cardinals in Montreal a month after my twentieth birthday, my first home run, an opposite-field shot on a cold, damp night in St. Louis. The road to the major leagues had seemed wide and empty, without a speed limit. Damn, was that me back there? Had I ever been that fearless? That sure of myself?
Occasionally, as word spread that I'd gone home for good, my teammates—former teammates—would wake my phone with a text message.
"All good," I'd send back. Yeah, all good.
"Good luck," they'd say. "You too."
"We'll get a beer."
We probably wouldn't. I wasn't part of that anymore.
I closed my eyes again and considered the path to here, to a couch in Jupiter and a Wednesday morning in March with nothing to do but reassure those kind enough to reassure me. And to say good-bye. They'd go off to their lives, my former life, and I'd get on with mine, which at the moment had nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with a fluffy cushion under my head and, I didn't know, maybe some lunch or something. I could do whatever I wanted, and I'd never have to chase the fastball I'd once had, or stand in the middle of a ballpark in disgrace as my catcher spun and sprinted to the backstop, or fear my next pitch, or live up to the player I had been. I wouldn't have to be the guy who used to be Rick Ankiel anymore. Maybe I'd sleep again. The nightmares could go haunt some other poor schmuck.
On my couch, I was content. The poster on the living room wall behind me was from Scarface, one of my favorite movies. Al Pacino lazed in a huge bathtub, bubbles everywhere. He pulled on a cigar. In a lower corner, the words "Who do I trust? Me." I believed that again. It had been a while.
I'd just spent better than four years trying to trust everyone, anyone but the man on the couch. But I knew where my guy Tony Montana—Pacino's character—was coming from. I'd known that feeling once, forever ago. I'd been untouchable. They'd said I was gifted, that my arm was special. At twenty, I was certain of it too. More than certain. At twenty-one I stood on a pitcher's mound in a full stadium in game one of a playoff series, and from that height I could see the future everyone talked about, that I'd wished for myself. That I'd worked my ass off for.
From a slightly lower vantage point—my feet up, head back, eyes closed, late-morning sun on my face—I understood something similar. I was in control of my future again. So I wasn't going to be a special baseball player. I'd live up to practically no one's expectation of me. I probably wasn't going to be rich. There'd be no yacht, no mansion on the water, no easy life through middle age or for the next generation of Ankiels. There'd be no World Series game seven, me against some big ol' hairy dude, the crowd loud, the moment taut, me knowing I was born for the next pitch. Turned out, it was the next pitch that had run me off. I'd have to get a job, maybe go to school, sort out a life that had melted away on that mound and hadn't stopped bleeding until now. It all sounded so . . . wonderful.
In the beginning, when the monster was in its infancy, Dave Duncan had hope for me. A decent catch-and-throw catcher in the 1960s and '70s, he had become the most respected pitching coach in the game. Duncan turned out Cy Young Award winners and World Series champion pitching staffs, and he had a particular touch with pitchers who'd been successful but had somehow lost their way. He didn't say a lot, but the few words he chose were enough. His reputation was as a coach who'd turn rookies into men, average pitchers into good pitchers, good pitchers into great pitchers. The ones who came along great, he'd keep them great.
Then there was me. He tried. He knew pitching mechanics. He understood the mind of the ballplayer. And he could sort through an opposing lineup, pick it apart, and present the strategy that would work in a few simple, encouraging sentences.
None of which prepared him for the can't-miss prodigy who missed a lot. None of which prepared him for the monster.
"Dunc," La Russa said to him that day, "Rick went home. He's not coming back."
Duncan shook his head and blinked his sad eyes. He'd seen it coming and thought it was for the best. He'd been bothered by the previous four seasons, by his inability to fix me, to set it right. He'd lost sleep himself. He had a pitching staff to deliver by opening day, and there was plenty to do that morning, but he'd allow a few moments for regret. There'd been days along the way, moments, really, a pitch here or there, when Duncan had allowed himself a drop of optimism. But the next day would come and bring another bucket of reality, which inevitably got kicked over, drenching everybody's shoes again.
La Russa knew precisely what Duncan was thinking. They'd spent plenty of nights together considering ways to reconstruct me, and La Russa would wonder when the game might become fun again for me. He'd stand to the side and see me on a mound, watch me start my windup, and remember when he'd allowed himself to believe he was witnessing the next Bob Gibson, the left-handed version. Wasn't that long ago, he'd muse. He would not have said it aloud, not in public, where such reflections would stalk a ballplayer to his grave. But, hell, I'd had as live an arm as La Russa had ever seen. The way I threw a baseball, it was as if the ball itself was alive and couldn't wait to be excused from its temporary place in my hand. From the Rawlings factory, to the box with eleven other balls in it, to the ball bag, to the baseball glove, and then to my hand. These were merely transitional areas for a baseball on the nights I went out there and, a pitch at a time, tried to become something great.
They'd talked themselves out on the subject of me, and so in the brief silence between the manager and his pitching coach in the immediate aftermath of my departure, La Russa chose to accept it. He understood that this thing had ridden me long enough, that my really bad day had become countless worse ones. It was time for me to go, and for the organization to let go.
All things considered, I thought I was pretty well adjusted. I mean, I was screwed up and everything, I couldn't throw a ball sixty feet without practically breaking out in hives, and I'd become expert in medicating my ghosts so at least I could survive the harrowing hours around the ball games. But, hey, fake it till you make it. To the end, I'd shown up every day, and worked to get it right and held on to the hope I'd make it, and now I was in my midtwenties and could think of no reason at the moment to get off the couch.
Harvey believed I was, his words here, that psychological tire. I'd been riding hard miles on that tire for four and a half years, and the tire was worn and road-weary and quite possibly dangerous. He also believed I would know when the journey, that being my career, was done. He'd never said, "Ank, it ain't gonna happen," even if he'd known it. And he did know it. He got me through the day, however, and then went to work on the next day, and he prepared me for what he knew was the inevitable.
Harvey would tell Scott the time was coming when the tire would blow. They had to be ready with an alternative to the lives I'd once had—the one I'd been chasing for four and a half years and the one I'd escaped before that. I thought Harvey was being my shrink, being my friend, being my father figure. He thought he was saving my life.
The phone rang. It was Scott. Geez, I thought, I'm fine. I picked up.
"How's it going?" he asked. This again.
"I'm good, Scott," I said. "You sure?"
"Ank," he said, "you ready to go play?"
"Go play what? I'm done." Wasn't he listening? Wasn't anybody?
"Outfield. For the Cardinals. I talked to Walt." Wait. What?
"Jocketty," I said. "You talked to Walt Jocketty, and he wants me to play the outfield. For the Cardinals."
"You're not bullshitting me, are you?"
"You're a big leaguer," Scott said. "You can do this. They'll start you on the minor-league side. You'll work your way up. It'll work. You're good enough."
Scott and Harvey had worked this out. Harvey had advised against it, against inviting more failure, unless Scott was absolutely sure I could return to the major leagues. A five-year minor-league slog, topping out in Double A, sending me back to the couch again at thirty years old, would only put more miles on that same psychological tire.
"When have I ever been anything but up-front with you?" Scott chided.
"I know. I know I know I know."
"You can do this. Go have a good time. Go beat the game. You'd be great."
Damn, I'd just quit baseball. Three hours before, I'd said good-bye. No regrets. I sat up, looked around, found the poster. Who do I trust?
I hit in high school. I hit a little in the big leagues, when pitchers figured there'd be nothing to lose by throwing me fastballs. I did hit some in the minors. That was rookie ball. Against kids. I wasn't an everyday player. I hadn't played the outfield since Port St. Lucie. This was crazy. Beyond crazy. But I was twenty-five. Wasn't that when regular people started their careers? It would never work. But it might.
I tried to clear my head. Was I ready to fall back in love with baseball? Was I going to do this to myself again? Didn't I want to sleep?
"They wanted me?"
"This isn't charity," Scott said. "You can play. You can do this."
"OK, lemme think."
"Ank, I believe in this. I think you should too."
"Tomorrow." Well, damn. "Tomorrow, huh?"
Excerpted from "The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life" by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown Copyright © 2017. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.