Notebook > Sports

The natural

Sports | Rick Ankiel finds his way back into baseball as an outfielder

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

In a summer of infamous sports moments-a gambling basketball referee, a doping homerun champ, a dog-killing quarterback-one uplifting story does not equal many wrongs. But the tale of Rick Ankiel comes close.

As of Sept. 2, that irrepressible Cardinals outfielder was batting .353 with six homeruns and 19 RBIs since his call up from the minor leagues three weeks earlier. This from a man whose sudden mental collapse on the pitching mound seven years before drew gut-wrenching cringes from the teammates, coaches, and fans who watched it happen.

The year was 2000. The scene: Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Only 20 years old, Ankiel had just completed an impressive regular season in which he struck out 194 batters and finished second in Rookie-of-the-Year voting.

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But the pressure of playoff baseball invaded the hard-throwing lefty's thoughts in the third inning. Suddenly, this strikeout master could not throw a strike. Ankiel walked four batters and set a Major League record with five wild pitches before being pulled with two outs. He never recovered.

The next year, back in the minor leagues, Ankiel walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches in four innings. The following two years he battled injuries and control problems before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in July 2003. After showing signs of improvement in 2004, his wildness returned during 2005 spring training, prompting the mentally exhausted pitcher to leave the mound for good.

Ankiel traded his rosin bag for pine tar and switched to the outfield, a position change rarely attempted and even less often successfully completed at the professional level. Just when it appeared that Ankiel might beat the odds, he suffered a season-ending knee injury at the dawn of the 2006 season.

Undaunted, this resolute ballplayer rehabbed the knee and tore through the minor leagues with 32 homeruns in the first half of this year. When the Cardinals called him up to the big leagues on Aug. 9, he promptly planted a three-run bomb in the right-field seats. Two days later, Ankiel hit a pair of homeruns in one game, cementing his spot in the lineup and his place in the comeback annals.

Switch pitchers

Brooks Kieschnick struggled as a left-hand-hitting utility player throughout the 1990s, but in 2003 recaptured his right-handed pitching skills from college and struck out 67 batters in 74 relief appearances over two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Bobby Darwin pitched for the L.A. Angels and L.A. Dodgers in the 1960s before repeated arm injuries forced a move to the outfield, where he batted .251 with 83 homeruns over seven Major League seasons and prompted one newspaper headline, "Darwin goes ape."

Clint Hartung fell well short of expectations with the New York Giants from 1947 to 1952, walking 271 batters and striking out just 167 in four seasons on the mound before batting .213 in two miserably ineffective years as a right-fielder.

Babe Ruth spent his first five full seasons, 1915-1919, as a hard-throwing southpaw for the Boston Red Sox and compiled a career pitching mark of 94-46. A move to the outfield helped the legendary slugger blast 714 homeruns and bat .342 for his career.

Smokey Joe Wood posted a 1.99 ERA as a right-handed hurler for the Red Sox from 1908 to 1915. But a broken thumb forced him off the mound and into the everyday lineup as an outfielder, where he hit .297 over five seasons with the Cleveland Indians.

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