When I told Steve “The Ghost” last week that my copy of The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel had shipped and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive, he said he’d love a book review when I was done reading it. I told him that sounded great, although I couldn’t promise I could get him something anytime soon, as I’m the slowest reader imaginable, and I’m generally so exhausted after work that the idea of reading puts me to sleep. A few minutes later, he told me someone else might beat me to that review. Probably for the best, I thought. When I was halfway through the book, I sent him a message saying that, even if someone else beat me to it, I’d still love to write up my own review. He told me that would be fine.
Now, approximately 32 hours after I started the book (32 hours that included Caps and Nats games, a full day of work plus a lengthy DMV commute, and some semblance of sleep in between those things), I’m finished and I’m full of feelings and thoughts, so much so that I don’t even know where or how to start this, but I know I want to find a way to put words to paper.
Rick Ankiel blipped into my life when he joined the Washington Nationals in 2011. That was back when I was a Nats fan, not a baseball fan, so I didn’t know him from Adam. “He used to be a starting pitcher, ran into some issues, so now he’s an outfielder,” someone told me, probably my boyfriend at the time. Oh. Ok. When he gunned down a runner at the plate on a dead accurate throw from deep centerfield, one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen on a baseball field, I fell in love with him just a little bit and he’ll always hold a place on my list of favorite Nats. I mean, who doesn’t love a guy who could make a play like that?
Because of his cemented status on my list of favorite Nats players, I noticed that he had a book coming out. I read some early stories when he did some press interviews, and I knew I had to read it. Now that I’m finished, he’d be much higher on my list of favorite Nats players, if that list came with a ranking system. He also landed himself on my list of favorite ballplayers, Nats or otherwise.
Ankiel grew up in Florida with his mother, an older half-brother, and, according to the book, an incredibly horrible, abusive, drunk of a father. He spent many nights hiding behind his bed as a kid, listening to awful things happening in the other room, sometimes feeling like he should get up and try to do something about it, and fearing the retribution that would follow if he did. Baseball gave him a safe place to be, a place where everything was quiet and right, and so he played. And thrived. He had an easy, effortless pitching talent that brought scouts to his games. He was drafted out of high school in 1997, and after some Scott Boras magic, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals instead of taking his scholarship offer to Miami. In 2000, he made the big league roster out of spring training and was part of the Cardinals rotation.
Regarding the talent he had at such a young age, Ankiel said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:
“I felt invincible… 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. 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… 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.”
After a successful rookie season, he was tapped to start game 1 of the NLDS against his childhood favorite Atlanta Braves. This was when whatever happened to him happened. When he famously melted down in the 3rd inning after throwing 2 scoreless ones, and suddenly didn’t know how to do the thing that, moments before, had been as natural and thoughtless and effortless as breathing.
He described the moment that forever changed his career in his interview with Fresh Air:
“…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… 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… 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.”
A season where a 3.50 ERA over 175.0 innings turned into a 2.2 inning outing with a 13.50 ERA. The NLCS wasn’t kind to him, either, and he ended his 1.1 total innings over two games with an ERA of 20.25.
He went home for the off-season, tried to regroup, and tried to fix whatever in him had broken. There was nothing noticeably wrong with his mechanics. He wasn’t hurt. The pressure of a postseason start hadn’t overwhelmed him. No one knew what the problem was, so where does one begin to figure out how to fix it? He was miserable in spring training, and dreaded having to pitch. The Cards did what they could to remove pressure and distractions. The growing anxiety that faced him as the minutes ticked towards his first start of the 2001 season became too much, and he asked a teammate, fellow pitcher and friend Darryl Kile, if he could get him some vodka. Ankiel drank a bunch of it before leaving the clubhouse, and brought a water bottle filled with more of it with him to the dugout. The vodka got him through that start, but was less effective for the next, and even less effective after that, and he was eventually sent down to the minors to work on whatever the problem was. He ultimately found himself in rookie ball, a place he’d never been before, and found a slight groove that wasn’t great, but wasn’t too awful, either.
The anxiety was nonstop, though. A dark, unrelenting force that wouldn’t leave him alone. He did various things to try to cope. He drank, used drugs, and read all the self-help books he could get his hands on. He used breathing skills to try and get him from one moment to the next. He officially cut his toxic father out of his life. And he found Harvey Dorfman, a sports psychologist from before sports psychologists were a thing, who agent Scott Boras connected him with. In Dorfman, he found a sounding board, someone to pull some of the weight off of him, a friend, and the father figure he never had.
Regarding Dorfman, Ankiel said in his interview:
“…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.”
Through the crippling anxiety and a Tommy John surgery, Ankiel choose to fight whatever had happened to him, and was determined to be a big league pitcher again. In 2004, he accomplished just that. Over 10 innings in 5 games, he struck out 9 batters and only walked 1. He wasn’t the pitcher he had been, and he was nowhere near the potential everyone had talked about when he was younger, but he was able to get outs in major league games. The following spring, he walked into Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa’s office at their spring training facility and quit baseball. He had done what he set out to accomplish, and he just couldn’t take the weight of whatever was wrong with him anymore. He returned home and for the first time since the 3rd inning of game 1 of the NLDS in 2000, he felt relief. Several hours later, Boras called him and said he needed to report back to the Cardinals’ camp the next day, because he was going to be an outfielder for them. Through learning how to be a professional hitter and outfielder, Ankiel finally had fun playing baseball again. He looked forward to games rather than dreading them. And he found throwing the ball 200 feet was much easier than throwing it 60 ft 6 inches, and he knew he could be dead accurate, too. He loved it when guys would run and he got his shot to throw them out.
In his first big league game as an outfielder, Ankiel hit a home run in Busch Stadium:
“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.”
Ankiel went on to play baseball as an outfielder with 6 different teams – the Cardinals, the Kansas City Royals, his childhood favorite Atlanta Braves, the Nats, the Houston Astros, and the New York Mets. He spent a total of 14 years playing baseball professionally, half as a pitcher, and half as a remade outfielder and hitter. After he retired as a player, for good this time, he signed on with the Nats as a “life skills coordinator,” which he referred to in the book as a sports psychologist without all the degrees. He talks with Nats players, both big league and guys down on the farm, about the pressure to play and offers advice based on his own, lived experience.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 2015, he said of this position with the Nats:
“With years of playing baseball from both positions, I see a lot of angles. I have a lot of advice I can give these guys, talking about how to handle different situations on the field, off the field, personal or professional. It’s been really fun… A lot of it is dealing with adversity, a lot of it is dealing with performance anxiety, everything baseball players go through. Dealing with being out there on the field nervous in a certain situation. Who knows. Self talk, self coaching, the language that they’re using with themselves in the heat of the moment.”
Baseball saved Ankiel during his childhood, broke him as a young man with all the potential in the world, fought against him as he fought against the mysterious demons that invaded his head, only to save him once again after giving him a shot to remake his career.
Reading this book over the last day was an extremely emotional experience for me. Ankiel and I couldn’t be more different. He’s an athlete that found professional success both on the mound and at the plate, and I trip over my own feet while walking down the hall (no, really, I do). Despite our massive and obvious differences, I unexpectedly identified with so much of his story. While I have fewer, and much less dramatic, stories from my childhood, I do have unpleasant stories. And the anxiety. I fully understand the anxiety. We experience it because of different circumstances, but I fully connect with the anxiety he describes in the book. The struggle to get from one moment to the next, to complete a task that at one point was second nature and required little thought. My anxiety is an offshoot of depression that at times can be debilitating, and can make the simplest things seem impossible. Baseball is my coping skill for my depression and anxiety. It’s the one thing that shuts everything up, even if it’s just for a few hours. Like it was for Ankiel, baseball is my safe place.
Reading how he fought against the darkness, and ultimately won, was inspiring. I cried a lot over the course of this book. At times out of sadness for what he was experiencing. At times because I fully understood what he was experiencing, like the need to talk yourself through something simple and the exhaustion that comes with constantly doing that, or the horrible feeling of dread when you’re going to do something you once enjoyed. And at times because I was so happy for him and the success he eventually found.
My favorite part of the book can be found in the introduction, where he talks about the yips, the monster, the Thing, as he often called it:
“On the very first day, standing on a pitcher’s mound in St. Louis, I could hear the blood draining from my head. On many in between, I cursed it, medicated it, drank with it, and pleaded with it. On the very last day, I surrendered to it, stepped around it, and chose to live with it. For that, I would win, dammit, I would win, and so years later, maybe my sons would too. We get what we get sometimes, and it’s still worth a fight. Every bit of it.”
This book is about more than just a baseball career. It’s about overcoming something that no one can really explain or understand. It’s about moving from asking “why me?” to just asking “why?” and using that to find ways to step around the dark and live with it. It’s about finding ways to be at peace with the life you have rather than the being upset over the idea of the life you feel like you were supposed to have. And it’s about finding ways to win, no matter what odds or darkness you find yourself up against.