Friday, August 9, 2013

Ankiel Returns To The MLB

On August 9, 2007, Rick Ankiel returns to the MLB.

Ankiel had once been one of the brightest pitching prospects in baseball. But in the 2000 postseason, Ankiel, who was only 20 at the time, completely self-destructed. He couldn't get the ball over the plate, and when he did, the ball sailed ten feet over the catcher's glove. Because of that, he was later banished to the Cardinals' farm system and only resurfaced once as a major leaguer before again getting sent down. After several years in the minor leagues, it appeared that whatever career he could have had in baseball was over.

Yet on August 9, 2007 -- six years after his last full-time stint as a pitcher -- Ankiel returned to the St. Louis Cardinals as a center fielder. He had abandoned pitching altogether and had found new life as a regular batter; prior to his call-up, Akiel had been leading the Pacific Coast League in home runs.

After several standing ovations from the overjoyed crowd at Busch Stadium, Ankiel proved he was for real. In the 7th inning, he belted a pitch from Doug Brocail into the right field deck for a tear-jerking home run. The crowd went nuts, the Cardinals players were ecstatic, and the visiting San Diego Padres even had to applauding; even the typically sullen Tony La Russa was on the verge of tears. 

After six years of misery, Ankiel had made it all the way back.

Had Ankiel never played again, his comeback story still would have been great. But Ankiel proved he wasn't a fluke. From August 9 to September 6, the Cardinals went 17-9 and found themselves in the thick of the NL Central pennant race. Ankiel was a huge part of the Cards' resurgence, batting .358 with nine home runs and 29 RBI during that time. 

On September 6, St. Louis was just a game behind the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers for the division lead and had all the poise to return the playoffs.

Then, on September 7, the news dropped. It was reported that Ankiel (along with fellow big-leaguers Troy Glaus and Jay Gibbons) had taken steroids. In 2004, Ankiel had had a 12-month shipment of HGH delivered to his house from a Florida pharmacy. Whether he took the drugs to recover from Tommy John surgery -- as he claimed it was for -- or to cheat, it mattered little. 

He was no longer the feel-good story of the year.

The revelation of Ankiel's usage utterly eviscerated the Cardinals' playoff hopes. They lost nine straight and 14 of their next 16 games. 

They went from one game back to 10 games behind in a matter of days. Ankiel fittingly fell off the planet, finishing with just a .220 batting average and two home runs the rest of the way.