WITH SO MUCH at stake, and everyone knowing how to play the percentages, sports can be a grim business—so there's really no amount of foolishness we won't endorse. We are basically in the foolishness-support business, meaning that when the Cardinals' Rick Ankiel announced he was swapping his rosin for pine tar—giving up on a once-promising major league pitching career to come back as an outfielder—we nearly injured ourselves climbing on board. This is exactly the kind of quarter-baked plan that we can get behind. Show us an irrational ambition, a hopelessly outlandish dream, and you've got a fan for life in these pages.
You might remember our Ankielometer, which since 2005 has charted his progress. It was, at least at the start, meant to reflect the absurdity of his quest. While it's true that Ankiel remained a baseball player these past seven years, it's also true that pitchers do not suddenly, or even gradually, become big league hitters. Nor does, for example, Paris Hilton become an astrophysicist. (But really, when you think about it, who does?) Yet here was Ankiel, his pitching career shot when he quite abruptly (in just one postseason game) lost the ability to throw a strike, campaigning in the low minors as a slugger. What's that, Paris? You've discovered another quasar? Would you say it's ... hot?
It was appealingly ridiculous. Ankiel's pursuit, that is. It was 2000 when he burst upon the scene, striking out 194 batters in 175 innings, and he flamed out just as quickly. Attempts to tame that wildness failed, one after another, just as they had in the past with Steve Blass and Mark Wohlers and others, until even Ankiel agreed it was simply idiotic to continue in that line of work. He was done as a pitcher, no looking back. That was in 2005. But St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty suggested, in a kind of exit interview, he could always come back as a hitter. Always? Really? Like somebody's done that before?
Well, there was a fellow by the name of Ruth. But to find a more recent example you have to go back to 1943, when a Yankees knuckleballer named Johnny Lindell became one of Joe DiMaggio's war replacements in centerfield. That Ankiel took Jocketty up on this impossible notion says something about the player's character. But let's not kid ourselves: Even though Ankiel was a solid hitting prospect in high school, this was a long shot.
Week after week, we started to realize the humility this reinvention was requiring of Ankiel. Sports fans see courage and heroism all the time, usually when a running back rehabs a knee to keep his NFL contract. But Ankiel wasn't just retooling his game. What he was going through, learning to recognize a curve with a stick in his hand in Springfield or Memphis, was vastly different and much more impressive.
We still got a kick out of trotting out the meter from time to time. And like just about everybody else, we began to root, just a little bit. Inasmuch as he was actually going through with this, putting himself on the line, actually doing the work, we began to think we wouldn't mind if he ended up (in the vernacular of the Ankielometer) more Mantle than Mendoza. What if he did make it?
Well, looks like he has. The Cardinals, we like to believe, kept a close eye on our meter and, when the needle swung past McMillan to Murcer, called him up. As if that wasn't enough, he hit a home run his first game and he's hit a couple more since and he just might stick with the club this time. "He's a big leaguer from now on to forever," said manager Tony La Russa. Ankiel's take: "You almost can't put it into words. I couldn't have written it any better."
Ankiel's three-season purgatory, while he transformed himself from pitcher to hitter without noticeably downscaling his dreams, cheered his teammates. "I'm happy for Rick," said Albert Pujols. Even the guy who gave up Ankiel's second homer, Dodger Derek Lowe, had to tip his hat: "You can't just call this kid up as a feel-good story. I am amazed at what he has been able to do."
As for us, we feel our job is done. This piece of business has come to its illogical and quite happy ending, and we are back on the lookout for the sublime, the ridiculous and the clearly impossible. Anything that might illustrate just how delusional we can be, or how resilient and surprising the human spirit really is.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND