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For Baseball's Rick Ankiel, Losing His Pitching Ability Led To An Unusual Comeback


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Rick Ankiel is a former major league ballplayer with an unusual story. He entered the big leagues in 1999 as an extraordinarily gifted pitcher. Then one day, suddenly, mysteriously lost that gift. He felt fine but couldn't control his pitches, sending them over batters' heads or in the dirt nowhere close to the plate. He battled the problem for years, pitching in minor league parks where fans showed up in hard hats to mock him because his throws could go anywhere.

Ankiel eventually left pitching and returned to the game as a power-hitting outfielder, a transition rare at the major league level. Ankiel writes about his struggle with the pitching demon and about his troubled childhood with an abusive father in a new memoir. He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about the book, "The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, And The Pitch That Changed My Life."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Rick Ankiel, welcome to FRESH AIR. The title of this book is "The Phenomenon," which obviously has a double meaning. It's about a phenomenal athletic gift and also this mysterious phenomenon which threatens that gift. When you came up as a pitcher in the minor leagues, in high school and then that first season as a rookie, how good were you?

RICK ANKIEL: Really good. You know, out of high school I was the No. 1 prospect in the country. And then, you know, again in the minor league, same thing - No. 1 pitcher in the country, No. 1 prospect - you know, everything was going as good as it possibly could go.

DAVIES: I'm going to read a little piece. This is from Will Leitch, the baseball writer. And you baseball players are sometimes a little modest, so I'm going to let Will Leitch describe what you were like in your early years. He wrote - and I'm editing this a bit - but he writes, of all my years watching baseball, I never felt more acutely that some people were just touched, struck by Zeus's thunderbolt, than when I first watched Rick Ankiel pitch. He'd just turned 20, but it was obvious there was no one like him.

Broadcasters compared him to Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax. He made you feel you were watching history. It made you nervous to watch him, even back then, even before everything turned because so much brilliance was packed into such a fragile shell. Ankiel vibrated with talent, and you worried he was a live wire with too much current flowing through it. I gather you didn't feel fragile back then, no self-doubt.

ANKIEL: No, I felt invincible. And, you know, as a young man, you know, realizing when you get put into the - you start judging yourself by the other people around you. And I remember going to a tournament in high school where it's the best talent in high school, and you start looking and saying, hey, I'm one of the best here. And then I played on the USA junior team and realizing that, you know, that I was better than some of the guys that were older than me that were going to be drafted that year, and I wasn't going to be drafted until the following year.

So with all that happening, you know, I started - obviously, you start dreaming. And my goal was - hey, I want to be one of the best pitchers that's ever lived. And certainly everything that was happening step by step, day after day, month after month, year after year, I was heading in that direction. So for me, the invincibility, everything that I felt was everything that was happening around me. I felt like I was supposed to be there. I felt like I was supposed to be good. My fastball was hard. My curveball - you know, I felt like I could throw it past grown men, and there's nothing they could do about it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, I mean, the pitcher is different from every other player on the field. I mean, he really drives the game. Do you remember what it felt like to be on the mound, look at a hitter and just feel so in command?

ANKIEL: (Laughter) You know, I've always said the difference between a pitcher and being outfielder - as a pitcher, I felt like the relationship between me and the hitter was more intimate, you know. I was - I could read their body language. I was always trying to see where they were, where their eyes were, what they were doing, how they fouled a pitch off. I mean, you can get so much out of body language from a hitter when you're facing them. It's that feeling that - of dominance, knowing that you're better than they are and there's nothing they can do about it. And, you know, the other thing, too - as a hitter, 3-for-10 and you're in the Hall of Fame. Well, in most jobs, if you're 3-for-10, you're getting fired.

DAVIES: Right.

ANKIEL: So the pitcher's always going to dominate the hitter or, you know, is always going to be better, just because that's what the numbers say. So with that being said, you know, as a pitcher, you feel like you're always in control and you can control everything. Also it's - you know, you create the action. As a hitter, it's a reaction. And as I mentioned, as a hitter, 3-for-10 and you're hall of fame. So, you know, the contrast are definitely different. And as a pitcher, you know, you're always the guy that can take the game and end it.

DAVIES: Yeah. And it's interesting to hear you say you're reading his body language, how he fouls pitches. So there's a real analytical element to that confrontation. Is there an emotional one, too? Do you need to torque yourself and say, this guy's my enemy?

ANKIEL: Yeah, I think the way to look at it is like this guy - you know, you always - when I'm talking to young kids, I tell them the same thing. Like, when you're out there on the mound, you're a killer. This guy is taking food off your table. He's trying to sleep with your wife.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

ANKIEL: I mean, that's the way you've got to look at it. You want to put yourself in that position, though, and be out there and be angry and not give him an inch, not give him anything that, you know - you want to put yourself in a position where you want to destroy that hitter.

DAVIES: OK. So let's go back to that fateful moment. You'd had a great rookie year. And your team, the St. Louis Cardinals, is in the playoffs for the first time in a lot of years. Right? And you get the ball. You're the starting pitcher for the first game. You're out there. You're in command. You get to the third inning. Your team has given you a lead. Then what happens?

ANKIEL: You know, I thought everything - you know, all I had to do was go out there and throw strikes really, just keep my team in. We - you know, we scored all those runs off Greg Maddux, which never happens. You know - and all I got to do is go out there and pitch my game. I don't have to do anything special, just pitch a normal game, and we win. And here we go. We're 1-0 starting the playoffs. I threw a pitch that didn't quite sit right. I threw a fastball in the inner half. And when I threw to the inner half of the plate, as a left-hander, it would cut a little bit in.

And we had a catcher named Carlos Hernandez who came in to catch me. And he didn't quite know what the pitch - what the action on my pitches were. Mike Matheny, who was our normal catcher, had cut his hand with a hunting knife, so he was going to miss the entire rest of the season. And I threw that pitch, and something in the back of my mind - I just felt like, man, I just threw a wild pitch on national TV. And it really wasn't that bad of a pitch. I mean, if Mike was there, he would've caught it. Not saying that it would've been any different, but I brushed it off and kept going. And then, you know, all of a sudden, a few pitches later, I spiked the curveball. Then I started throwing balls off the screen and spiking stuff, and it just spiraled out of control.

DAVIES: And when you say throwing it off the screen, you mean what?

ANKIEL: I mean throwing it off the back of the net of the screen. The catcher wasn't catching it. I wasn't throwing it - I couldn't even - there were some pitches that the catcher couldn't even catch. So I was...

DAVIES: Over everybody's head, in other words.

ANKIEL: Correct. Yeah, past him, past the umpire, just in the middle of nowhere, really. And you could tell - you know, if you go back and watch the video, you can just see the ball's really - it's just coming out of my hand funky, not correct. You know, I was so young, I didn't even understand what was happening. And I remember saying to the media after the game - oh, it's a mechanical flaw. This will never happen again.

And even in between that start - and then I started another game, game two in the second series of the playoffs - my bullpen session in between those games was lights out. I was - I had pinpoint control. I felt like, all right, I got this licked. I'm over it. This whatever - whatever it was, it's gone. Then, during the second game - same thing. It just started happening again. I started launching balls. You know, and now I have this feeling that something's not right. I'm not understanding what's not right. I try to remember all my mechanical keys as far as, like, keep your weight back, lead with your shoulder - every pitcher has them. And every hitter has them, too.

If you get out of whack, you have something that gets you back to normal. And nothing was working, and I couldn't figure it out. And then, you know, going into the offseason, you know, I felt like - all right, maybe this will be good. I'll get away from the game. And then when I come back next year, it'll be - you know, I'll be fine. But what happened - what happened was when I came back the next year, it was in me deeper and darker than it was before.

DAVIES: When this would come - and this is something that, as we will hear, you experienced a lot of times over the next few years - as best you can describe, what did it feel like on the mound when this happened?

ANKIEL: After - fast-forwarding into 2001, now it became just anxiety ridden, I mean, to - it consumes you. You can't get away from it, you know. I'm driving down the street, and I see some kids playing catch. And, you know, I'll stop and watch them and think, man, it looks easy for them. Why can't I do that? Or I'm watching how they throw it. And I - you know, I had to change my entire routine because I used to go home and watch baseball every night. I loved the game. I wanted to watch other guys and see how they perform and see what they do. Now I'm watching them and thinking, man, I'll try to throw like he does.

I had this cinder block wall behind my house. And I would - you know, I'd go back there and throw a hundred pitches after - I'd turn on the game, and now, all of a sudden, you can't stop thinking about it. And I'd go back there and throw pitch after pitch after pitch, trying to figure it out, hoping that the next day that I show up to the field I'm going to be - I'm going to be me again.

DAVIES: Did you give this thing a name?

ANKIEL: I left it as the yips. I mean, people - it has so many names. That's the thing, scientifically, it doesn't even have a name. Some people call it the yips, the monster, whiskey fingers. It has multiple names.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah, it's funny because the yips I always think associate with a golfer who has a putt and gets nervous. So it's some psychological thing that just happens, right?

ANKIEL: Right. And it's the psychological that does cause the mechanical breakdown, but it does start in the mind. And, you know, I'm sure at first, you know, I was in denial. And I just thought, hey, I can beat this with mechanics because I know what I want to do.

I know what my mechanics look like, what they feel like, what I'm supposed to do. And that's the crazy part about it. You're standing out there on the mound. You know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it and your body and brain will not let you do it.

DAVIES: Rick Ankiel's new book is "The Phenomenon." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with former big league pitcher and outfielder Rick Ankiel. His new book about his experience in the majors is called "The Phenomenon."

This happened to you in a playoff game. And it wasn't some obscure last place team. I mean, everybody in the country saw this thing which didn't - I'm sure didn't help you. And then you go into the offseason. Now, it was clear this was a psychological thing. And when, you know, when people try to look at what's going on in their heads, they often go back to their childhood. You were not blessed with the easiest of childhoods. Tell us about your father.

ANKIEL: Yeah. You know, my father was an alcoholic and drug abuser, a convict, you know, been arrested more than a dozen times. You know, the thing about it was he could be a good guy when he was sober, but he would disappear for a few days. And when he came home, it was always in this drunken, violent rage. You know, he would abuse my mother. And, you know, we - me and my brother would wake up in the middle of the night and just hear my mom screaming for help. And, you know, it's tough.

I mean, I remember having to drive him home from the bars when I was 12 years old or, you know, me and my mom would go find him. And then we're following him in the car and he's weaving in and out of traffic. And you're wondering if he's going to run headfirst into a tree or a car and kill himself and somebody else. You know, and it's just a tough way to grow up.

DAVIES: Sure. And it must be so tough when your mom's going through that and you're a little kid. I mean, what can you do about it?

ANKIEL: You're exactly right. And, you know, for a long time, I carried a lot of guilt because I wish, you know, when I heard her screaming, you know, as a young 8 year old and, you know, all those young ages, you know, I wish I would've went out there with a bat and hit him over the head and been done with it. But, you know, I was young, and I was scared. And, you know, I never did.

And it's, you know - it's every - we'd wake up in the morning, and nobody would talk about it. And they would act like everything was fine. And, you know, I really feel bad for my mom. She had a tough life, and I wish it could have been better for, and, you know, but I am thankful now. You know, she lives down where I live in Jupiter, and, you know, she gets a chance to help me raise my kids. And we get a chance to do - to have a do-over on our lives.

DAVIES: Right. Did your dad abuse you and your brother, too?

ANKIEL: No. I mean, verbally, yes - physically, I mean, we were spanked, but usually, you know, if we're getting in trouble. But, you know, when he came home in those drunken rages, we knew to stay out of the way. That's for sure.

DAVIES: And what kind of kid were you? Did you like school? Did you obey the rules?

ANKIEL: No, I hated school. I wanted to be at the beach fishing or surfing and, you know, outdoors. I loved sports. I loved to fish - all those things. School was just something I had to go to.

DAVIES: Right. You also lost a buddy, a good friend to a traffic accident. How old were you then?

ANKIEL: I was 13. I was away at a baseball tournament. And, you know, I never forget. We - I think we were playing our second game of the tournament, the second day there, and all of a sudden my mom who never misses a game was like I'm sick. I can't go to the game. And I'd never seen or done this before. But, you know, hey, I didn't - I mean, it was what it was, and she didn't go to the game.

And then, you know, after the tournament was over when the weekend was over because we were, you know - I lived on the east coast of Florida and the tournament was on the west coast of Florida - when we got home, I put down my my bag and everything and said, hey, I'm going over to Dennis' house. And my mom says, hey, you can't go. And she would never say that. And I'm like what? Why? And she handed me a newspaper article and, you know, in the article it said that, you know, Dennis had been killed in a car crash. And, you know, up to that point, you know, I don't think I had ever been hurt that much.

You know, he was really a brother from another mother, and, you know, he - his mother - his mom was a single mom. And he spent a lot of time at our house and staying the night. If he wasn't at my house, I was at his house. He was also left handed which, you know, it was important for us because if we were in the backyard playing baseball, we didn't need a left field because we always pulled the ball to the right side. And it was like destiny, you know, like that's what it was supposed to be. And the pain I felt from that was greater than any pain I had ever felt in my entire life. And, you know, I remember after she handed me the newspaper article, I walked down to his house anyway, and I just stopped in the street and stared out the front door. And, you know, I think a lot of me wanted to - was wishing that he would walk out of the door and everything would go back to the way it was.

And, you know, over the next couple of months, I would walk down there and just stare at the house for some reason, you know. But in that, you know - over that time and in that moment, I swore I would never let anything hurt me like that again, and I really put up an emotional wall. And, you know, it changed me as a person.

DAVIES: You know, we'll talk more about how you tried to cope with this thing that was making it impossible for you to pitch. But do you think that you were suffering from post-traumatic stress? I mean, this is not easy stuff for a kid.

ANKIEL: No. I mean, here - I mean, I'm sure I had some post-traumatic stress, as you can say, in there but then for me how do you explain all the good pitching in between that? I mean, this happened when I was 13, and the yips started when I was 21. And OK so if we say that well then what happened with everything in between that? And why was I so good for so long and able to push so many things away?

And just, you know - baseball is my safe place, and really baseball is what saved me. It got me away from all that stuff and out of that house and was my savior. And, you know, so how can we explain all that in between?

DAVIES: OK, yeah. Baseball was a real refuge for you.

ANKIEL: Yes. It's where I went. And, you know, it's where I went and found that that's where I - you know, I was really a goofy kid. And baseball was one of the things that I was really good at and probably the only place where I wasn't goofy.

DAVIES: So you got better and better, performed well in high school and eventually were drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and got a $2.5 million signing bonus. That's a sign of the more modern baseball times. And it struck me that - what an amazing reversal this must have been. For all those years, you were powerless in relation to your dad. Now you had more money than he'd ever seen. Did that change the dynamics between you?

ANKIEL: Yeah. You know, one thing, too, is that, you know, he even had all this - you know, he had all these stories he would always say of how good he was and, you know, how he was the best and all these things. And in reality, I became better than his stories, his made-up stories, because he wasn't that player that he says he was. But yeah, it definitely changed the dynamic.

And it - you know, it gave me power back to where, like, you know, I don't need to listen to you. And I'm not under your control. And, you know, for me, it was all my dreams coming true. I mean, since I was a young boy, all I wanted to do was be a big leaguer. And, you know, everything was happening as it should, and I was on the path to becoming what I wanted to become.

DAVIES: Did your dad have an expectation that you were going to take care of him financially?

ANKIEL: Yeah. He had an expectation that the entire signing bonus was his, you know. Even before I signed - when the talks of how much money I might actually sign for started, you know, he was talking about buying this million-dollar condo in the next town over and renovating it and everything else. And if not that, then how about the $500,000 house on the water, you know, for the family because now, all of a sudden, we're such this close family. You know, so - yeah, I think he thought the whole bonus was his, not just some of it.

DAVIES: (Laughter) And how did you respond to that?

ANKIEL: I didn't say anything out loud. But inside, I thought, yeah, right. You know, one of the things, too, is I graduated high school at 17. And I didn't - and I was drafted at 17. So I didn't turn 18 until the middle of July, so one of my strategies was I knew I had to wait till I turned 18 so they weren't - he wasn't a co-signer on that signing bonus.

DAVIES: So it was yours to deal with as you liked.

You went through the minor leagues, performed brilliantly, made it to the major leagues and had - you pitched some in 1999. But it was - 2000 was really your rookie year, right?

ANKIEL: Yeah, that was my first full season.

DAVIES: Right. And in the spring, I guess - maybe it was in spring training of that year, - your dad was arrested and sentenced on a federal drug trafficking charge and sentenced to prison.

ANKIEL: Correct.

DAVIES: You were in court there. Did his departure make it harder or easier for you to focus on your own life?

ANKIEL: Easier because even by his standards, which were abnormal and off the charts, he had become really, you know, paranoid and crazy, thinking that this - you know, he got arrested for him, you know, bringing cocaine and marijuana in from the Bahamas. And he had become obsessed that one of the Bahamian gangs were going to kill him. And it was like this redneck "Scarface" running around town just, you know, all high on drugs and carrying a gun. And it had just become so crazy. It needed to stop for everybody. My mom, my brother was involved in it, and he went to jail with him. It was just this nonstop drama. It was like real-life "Jerry Springer."

DAVIES: You know, you write in the book that when your dad was being sentenced in court that you stared at his back and thanked him for making you a harder person and a meaner pitcher. You mean that?

ANKIEL: Yeah. You know, there's a lot of things - I was really a sensitive kid and whatever. But, you know, it's kind of like everybody looked at me like, wow, this kid comes from this life. And, you know, I think in some ways, you know, made them a little bit scared of me or wherever. Maybe I imagined that. I don't know.

But, you know, if I had to endure all that and go through that, you know, it definitely helped me internalize things, and I was able to push things away. And I think that started from when my best friend died when I was young, you know. I could keep things away from me and not let them bother me. And I thought I would use that when I was on the mound, so I'd be this tough competitor, which I was. But I would also use that I came from that background and try to make hitters afraid of me.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Rick Ankiel about his memoir, "The Phenomenon." After a break, they'll talk about how Ankiel was helped by psychotherapy, and they'll talk about his comeback. And Maureen Corrigan will review Dani Shapiro's new memoir about her marriage. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Rick Ankiel, who started his Major League Baseball career in 1999 as a gifted pitcher. But in 2001, he suddenly lost his ability to control the ball. He tried for years to regain control, pitching in minor league parks. He later made a comeback as a power-hitting outfielder. Ankiel's new memoir is called "The Phenomenon."

DAVIES: So getting back to the story of what happened here - it was in the playoffs of your rookie year that this bizarre thing happened where you were suddenly throwing wild pitches, hitting batters, throwing back to the screen. And you had an offseason, five months to try and figure this thing out. And you were determined to do that, to recapture your control. You spoke to Harvey Dorfman who is a legendary baseball - sports psychologist. He helped Jamie Moyer and a lot of other folks a lot. What was his take on this?

ANKIEL: His thing was just trying to help me, you know, and I remember our first meeting in 2001 in the offseason, he came down. And, you know, same thing - he wanted to dive into my childhood and go into there, and he's like, listen, you've never been taught how to handle adversity like this the correct way. And if you want, you know, we can pour the foundation today and get started and, of course, you know, the biggest thing I wanted was to become me again. And that's where that conversation started.

And, you know, for a long time, I thought I had took that key and locked that stuff about my childhood away and thought I would never have to talk about it again. And, you know, we brought it up and we went through it, and, you know, because I carried a lot of guilt for my mom and that I never helped her. And, you know, he just tried to help me understand that it's not your fault and that the thing with the yips isn't my fault either. You know, it's not like I drank some liquid or took some pill and - or ate the apple and now it happened. It just happened, and the biggest thing was now we just have to try to deal with it and move forward and try to cope with it.

DAVIES: Yeah. It sounds like he wasn't just somebody you made an appointment with. It sounds like he was almost a round-the-clock presence in your life.

ANKIEL: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I became an around-the-clock subject, but, you know, our relationship blossomed into - he became that father figure in my life that I needed. And he became that positive rail - male role model that I desperately needed. And, you know, and getting rid of my father when he went to prison. And I cut that relationship off and stopped talking to him, and, you know, Harvey stepped in and became that guy for me. And I can't thank him enough. And it was unfortunate he passed in 2011, but, you know, gravity and time is just a part of life, and it is what it is.

DAVIES: Yeah. He had a long, productive life. You got nightmares. When did that start?

ANKIEL: That started in between 2000 and 2001. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating a hundred miles an hour. You know, and it's like those dreams where you - that nightmare that people have where somebody's chasing you and you can't run fast, and you're stuck in mud. Well, I kept having this - I would wake up with this, you know - the reoccurring dream of me not being able to throw a strike or the ball wouldn't come out of my hand. And I couldn't get away from it.

And, you know, that's - here I am at 21 years old. I wake up at 3 in the morning, and now I can't go back to sleep because I might go back into that dream. Not only that, but now I have this, you know, a great deal of anxiety because, you know, your brain can't tell the difference between your conscious and your subconscious. And even though it is a dream, you know, I still have the effects of basically having an anxiety attack, so I had to learn to distract myself, even if it was the middle the night. I'd get up, I'd read a book or I'd watch a movie or I'd go for a bike ride. And I still have to show up at spring training that next morning at 7 o'clock, even though I'd been up since 3 or 4 in the morning.

DAVIES: Was it the same nightmare every night more or less?

ANKIEL: It was more or less the same. I mean, sometimes it would change a little bit, but, yeah, basically at the end of the day what it was is I couldn't throw a strike.

DAVIES: And so you go through that offseason, you come back to training camp with the St. Louis Cardinals. And you had kind of a rough spring training, but you got on the team as a starter. And you had to go out there and pitch knowing that this was still kind of in your head. How did you cope?

ANKIEL: You know leading - you know, I was drinking more than I wanted to. The biggest thing I always talk about is that it consumes you, and you can't get away from it. It's virtually impossible to stop thinking about it. You know, as you mentioned, it's your livelihood. It's everything I've ever worked for. Everything I've ever dreamed of and it's being taken away from me.

So going into that game in 2001, I'm just going to start against Randy Johnson in Arizona. I'm on the way to the ballpark that day. I'm as nervous as you could possibly be. I know it's not going to go well. I mean, I know I have no chance. It's like everything was building up to this moment. And you know your nervous system and everything that comes with that - all the emotions. You know, and a couple of weeks before that, somebody had said, hey, maybe you should just try pitching buzzed. You know, maybe it'll take the edge off. And I kind of I blew it away, blew it off. I didn't really give it much thought. Oh, yeah, haha. That might work.

And then I'm sitting there before the game and Darryl Kile who was my mentor and really took me under my wing. He was a pitcher on the team. I went to him privately and said, hey, can you go get me a bottle of vodka and pour in a water bottle? And he's like I understand. You've got to do what you've got to do. And I drink before the game, and, you know, I'm warming up. And all of a sudden the ball's coming out of my hand free again. And, you know, it worked. I ended up beating Randy Johnson, and I remember sitting in the dugout there in the third inning or so.

And I could feel the anxiety trying to come through, trying to overcome the alcohol and I just had to sit there and keep drinking. But it did work that first game. And because it worked, I tried it the second game. But, you know, in between - you know, after my first game, I told Harvey Dorfman, hey, you know, I had a drink before the game. And, you know, but it worked. And he's like, hey, listen, I understand. I know you had to do what you got to do. But, listen, it's not real. And you're going to need to face the music. And, you know, darn it, if he wasn't always right because that second game I tried it again, and, you know, sure enough the feeling, the anxiety just overcame the alcohol. And, you know, the game just didn't go well. I was throwing balls again, and, you know, and I realized all right. This isn't the answer, and I just had to face the music.

DAVIES: You know, this is a remarkable story. And when I read this and I picture you, like, coming in with a load of vodka and then having it at your - on your water bottle and drinking through the game. Did people other than Darryl Kile, your teammate, know? Did the managers know? Did other players know?

ANKIEL: No, no. Nobody knew as far as I knew. They didn't know. I wasn't going to say anything. I mean, I wanted them to think, you know, that I got this thing beat, and I'm back out there being me.

DAVIES: You had a few more starts, and, you know, things were going badly - 12 walks in 11 innings. So they sent you down to the minor leagues to get away from the pressure to work on it. Did that help?

ANKIEL: Not at first it didn't. I went to Triple-A, and it just seemed like it kept getting darker and worse. And then I went all the way down to rookie league, and, you know, finally in rookie league, it seemed like, you know, there's not very many people in the stands. There wasn't, you know, TV cameras weren't there hounding me at all times. I did get - I did start to pitch really good in 2000. I was actually the pitcher of the year down there in rookie ball. And - as I should have been being that I had already been in the big leagues and whatnot. And - but...

DAVIES: Yeah, and rookie ball was like below the minor leagues, right? Like. That's way down here.


ANKIEL: You're right. You know, I didn't even go to rookie ball the first time around. I skipped that one and just went right to A-Ball, so now I was catching up and make sure I hit every stop. But, you know, one of the things that they let me do, too, is they let me hit twice a week. So I DHed twice a week just them thinking, hey, we'll make it fun for him again, give him something to do. And that was fun, too.

My first game I actually went 2 for 4 with two homers, so I was having fun down there again. Yadier Molina - as a lot of people know that name - he was - that was actually his first year, and, you know, I was pitching to him. It's funny because you could already tell that he had the skill set better than everybody else. But I did pitch really well down there and started to get things back. So, you know, I had a good offseason, that offseason between 2001 and 2002.

DAVIES: You know, when I read about this, you know, I just imagined this because you're down there with young guys who are on their way up, aspiring to get where they know you've been. I mean, everybody knows who Rick Ankiel is at this point. They're on their way up. You're kind of a star struggling. How did they react to you?

ANKIEL: I think they still looked up to me, you know, and especially because I started playing well, and pitching well and then when I started hitting well as a DH, you know, they were looking up to me. And as you mentioned, because I had been in the big leagues. And, you know, I had a lot of stories to tell about how awesome it was and how, you know, how everything is. And, you know, I just tried to mentor them as best as I could in what I had been taught. And, you know, it was a lot of fun to be honest with you, just trying to give back to them what was given to me and help them out with their game and their skill set and try to help them live their dream as well.

DAVIES: Rick Ankiel's new book is called "The Phenomenon." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Rick Ankiel. He had a career in the Major Leagues as a pitcher and an outfielder. His new book is called "The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, And The Pitch That Changed My Life."

So you spent a lot of years trying to get back that groove that you had when you first came up. And there were elbow problems. You had surgery and recovery and eventually got back to the point where you went and you pitched respectably in the Cardinals bullpen for a while, but came a point where you decided it was time to retire. Why?

ANKIEL: You know, when I came back and pitched respectively and successfully in that '04 season back out of the bullpen, what it took for me to do that was all day mental training from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed. I mean, it was whether I was counting backwards from 100 or I had all these little techniques that I would do, I really became a shell of a person of who I was.

You know, normally I like to joke around, have fun with the guys, pull pranks, you know, just be in the mix of things, and I couldn't do that. And, you know, I just felt like it was becoming unhealthy. And when I tried to sit there and look at what my future was going to be when you sit there and say all right, is this what this is going to be like for the next three years or five years or eight years or whatever was going to become of it? I understood that it wasn't healthy. And I didn't think it was a life that I wanted to live. And I understood that, you know what? Pitching just isn't for me anymore.

DAVIES: Yeah. So you walked in, you told Tony La Russa, the manager. He said take a day to think about it. You said don't need a day.

ANKIEL: I don't need a day. I walked in there, and, you know, usually I'd walk by his office and say something sarcastic. And he'd chap something back at me, and I'd just keep it moving. I walked in that day and shut the door and said, listen, I can't do it anymore. And you're right, exactly what he said was why don't you take a day and think about it? And I looked at him and said I don't need a day. And, you know, quite frankly, it was hard on them, too.

And by them, I mean Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan and the organization. Not just on me because they were dealing with it, and I know that they cared about me. And, you know, it's tough when you care about somebody, and you're watching them go through something so hard and there's nothing you can do to help them. And I go home that day, I mean, I'm not home an hour. My agent Scott Boras calls and says, hey, are you ready to go play? I'm thinking go play what? I just - is nobody hearing me? I just told you I retired from baseball. I'm done. I'm not a pitcher anymore. And he's like no, not a pitcher, are you ready to go be an outfielder? I'm like what are you talking about?

And he's like seriously, do you want to be an outfielder? I'm like, you know what? You got to give me some time to think about this, you know, I just stopped pitching an hour ago. So I hang up the phone. For four or five hours, I'm laying there on the couch. I'm trying to visualize and think and understand and feel what this would be like. And then I get to the point where I visualize myself hitting a home run in the big leagues after coming back as a position player. And once I did that, I picked up the phone, I called him, and I said yeah, I'm 100 percent in. He's like, let me call the Cardinals and ask.

DAVIES: Yeah, now, this is a remarkable thing. I mean, it just does not happen much at the Major League level, that somebody goes from a pitcher to a position player or vice versa. But the Cardinals were game for it?

ANKIEL: They were. You know, Walt called me back and said, hey, Ank, you know, we're in. We're in 100 percent. Come tomorrow and you're an outfielder. And you're right. And back then, that kind of thing didn't happen. Now, there was a lot of people who went from a position player to a pitcher, but a pitcher going to an outfielder was just an unheard of thing.

So, you know, it's funny because even, you know, people that had been in the game 10, 15 years, coaches, whoever, I just felt like nobody in the world was giving me a chance, and that helped fuel me, too. And not only that, but the minute that I walked in and told Tony that I can't do this anymore and I was driving home, I immediately felt this giant relief, like this big weight had been taken off my chest and my shoulders and I could take a deep breath.

And it was - I had inner peace - is what I felt. And, you know, the next morning, now that I'm an outfielder, on the drive back - on the drive to the field, I was excited. I was excited to go back to the park and excited to be there, where the four years before that, it was a grind. And I wasn't excited to go to the field. And baseball became fun again. And that challenge of making it back became, you know, just this excited to be there, and it was awesome. I made it back. And, you know, now here I am.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, they're not going to put you in a Major League lineup on day one. You had to go to the Minor Leagues and, you know, hone your craft. What did you have to learn in the new role?

ANKIEL: Yeah, everything. You know, as an outfielder, I learned the angles and what bases I need to throw to and what I need to be paying attention to and looking for. And, you know, at first, it's a lot of premeditation, where you're out there and you're looking at first, say all right, there's a guy on first. So if the ball's hit over here to my left, most likely I'm going to do this. And if it's hit over my head, I'm going to do this. And if it's hit over my right, the cutoff man's going to be in this position. So I had to learn all that stuff.

And then as a hitter, same thing. I had to learn everything. I mean, I had natural - that raw talent, but, you know, I didn't understand how to hit. And now I had to understand how to hit different pitches. As a pitcher, you know, they're just feeding me fastballs. And as a hitter, I had to jump in there and now I'm going to face their full arsenal. And that's what becomes tough. You know, now they're throwing you their cutters and their change-ups and everything that comes with it.

So just a learning curve all the way around, you know, tons of early work with our outfield coach Dave McKay. I'd get there early, I'd stay late. You know, I was 25 at the time, and now I'm going all the way back to A-Ball. So I felt like I'm playing catch-up. I felt like I had miles to catch up. So I put in as much extra work as my body would allow.

DAVIES: So you work on the fielding. You work on the hitting. I want you to tell us about your first game back in it - in St. Louis.

ANKIEL: Oh, just, you know, that - the whole - everything surrounding that - me getting that call to say, hey, you're coming back to the big leagues, and just that moment of feeling like, you know, everything - how hard I've worked, and everything that I've done to get myself back to this position, is all going to be worth it. In that first game, I'm facing Doug Brocail. I'm in a 2-1 count, and he throws me a slider. And I got an - I didn't kill it, but I got enough of it to know that it was going to be a home run. And I'm jogging down to first.

Now, all of a sudden, I have these flood of emotions - I mean, adrenaline and endorphins just filling me up. I wish I could put it into words better, but it's almost something you can't describe. My legs were numb. I felt like I floated around the bases on a magic carpet. I wish I would have ran a little bit slower and enjoyed the standing ovation and the crowd going crazy, but my adrenaline was pumping so much. All I wanted to do was get back to that dugout and celebrate with all the guys.

DAVIES: Yeah, this was a close game. There were two runners on. So this was a big home run, and it was your homecoming. People say Tony La Russa, who doesn't smile a lot, actually smiled and clapped when he saw you jack that ball out to right field. And the crowd continued to cheer until you came up to the top step of the dugout and gave him a wave.

ANKIEL: Oh, it was nuts. Yeah. That standing ovation was the coolest thing, you know, up to that point, I felt like that had ever happened. Because when you just - when you talk about the full circle of things and where I'd been and where I'd gotten to and where I was in that moment, you know, I was screaming and cheering with them just as loud inside. And to have that support and, you know, my appreciation of it. It's just one of those magical moments that I'll never forget.

DAVIES: So you played several years, ended up with - is it 72 homers? Is that right?

ANKIEL: I think it's 76.

DAVIES: OK. All right. Ended up playing with several teams, retired in 2013, this time for good. You're now married. You have two sons. What are you doing today? What's life like?

ANKIEL: I'm a sports analyst for Fox Midwest. We're - you know, the book we're talking about, I spent a lot of time putting this together. And now, you know, I'm glad it's finally here. It's been over a four-year project, but I have a 4 year old and I have a 6 year old which take up most of my time. I'd love to get more time as a broadcaster and fill more time with Fox, so we'll see where that goes. And like I said, with my kids, that's what keeps me busy now.

DAVIES: Well, Rick Ankiel, we wish you the best. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ANKIEL: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on.

GROSS: Rick Ankiel spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Ankiel's new memoir is called "The Phenomenon." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Dani Shapiro's new memoir about her marriage. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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